What Good Is Impeachment, Anyway?Roundup
tags: presidential history, impeachment, Donald Trump
Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a presidential historian and scholar in residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College. She is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution. Twitter: @lmchervinsky.
Our nation has a history of failing to hold its leaders responsible for their actions, but we must keep trying to live up to the expectations set forth in the Constitution.
In the summer of 1787, the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia to craft a new government knew that if the states ratified the Constitution, George Washington would become the first president. They trusted him to lead with honor and virtue. But they worried about his successors—a subject awkward to discuss, with Washington attending every session as the president of the convention.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to acknowledge the elephant in the room. He stated that he was confident the early officeholders would be upstanding, but it was essential “to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the Executive when his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal when he should be unjustly accused.” As the convention’s elder statesman—Franklin was a decade and a half older than the next-oldest delegate, and perhaps more famous than any American other than Washington—his words carried great weight. After considerable debate, the Framers spelled out a process for presidential impeachment in the first and second articles of the Constitution.
As a result, the Constitution emphasized the importance of presidential accountability from day one. But for many reasons—political calculations, behind-the-scenes dealings, and death—Congress has rarely held presidents accountable through impeachment. To be sure, the threat of impeachment has often weighed on past presidents, but impeachment has never been effectively used to oust a president, let alone bar one from holding office in the future.
In 1868, the House of Representatives voted to approve articles of impeachment against a president for the first time. Republicans in Congress used President Andrew Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act as the pretext for impeachment, but they were actually furious with him for undermining Reconstruction and the civil rights of newly enfranchised African Americans. Johnson had welcomed former Confederate officers back into the government a bit too warmly; vetoed funding for the Freedman’s Bureau to provide training, education, and housing assistance to recently emancipated black Southerners; and opposed the Fifteenth Amendment.
A majority of senators voted in favor of impeachment, but they failed to meet the two-thirds majority by one vote. Historians now believe that a series of bribes and shady dealings may have secured Johnson’s acquittal.
Ultimately, Johnson left office after both the Democratic and Republican parties rejected him as their candidate in the 1868 election. Ulysses S. Grant, Johnson’s successor, was left to clean up the mess the former president had made of Reconstruction. Six years later, Johnson was elected to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate. While history remembers him poorly, he faced few consequences for his actions during his lifetime.
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