WASHINGTON — A president was on trial. Unpopular with leaders in Congress since the day he was elected, he made a firing decision that became the final straw. And a congressman from Ohio was left to argue the case for his impeachment.
It was 1868.
The first president to face impeachment in the United States was President Andrew Johnson. And one of the key players in the effort to oust him was a small-town lawyer from eastern Ohio, Republican Rep. John Bingham.
Johnson, a southern Democrat, had clashed with Republicans almost since the day he took office after President Abraham Lincoln’s death. They disagreed over reconstruction of the defeated South and civil rights for freed slaves.
Bingham was an early advocate for emancipation and later authored key language in the Fourteenth Amendment, requiring states to give all citizens equal protection. But as a moderate “log cabin” Republican, he had opposed some of the early attempts from “radical Republicans” to oust Johnson.
The turning point came when Johnson tried to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a Lincoln appointee (and native of Steubenville), while Congress was not in session. Bingham and other congressional opponents said that move violated the Tenure of Office Act, a law that required presidents to seek congressional approval for new appointments or removals.
The House approved 11 impeachment articles, and the Senate took up the first presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history. Bingham was one of the House managers for the impeachment, tasked with arguing their case to the Senate for conviction.
The two-month Senate trial was a public spectacle, held in open session before a packed gallery.
Spectators crammed into the gallery to hear the closing arguments from Bingham, a renowned orator, according to historian Chester Hearn.
Bingham gave them a full-throated attack that stretched over three days, saying Johnson had played “the king of the people” by deciding which laws were to be obeyed and which were not.
“Position, however high, patronage, however powerful, cannot be permitted to shelter crime to the peril of the Republic,” Bingham told the crowded room when he finally concluded his argument three days later, according to historical accounts of the event. He went on to demand “judgment against the accused for the high crimes and misdemeanors in office whereof he stands impeached, and of which before God and man he is guilty.”
With those words the chamber “exploded with thunderous applause, roaring cheers, and wild, uncontrollable tumult,” Hearn wrote in the book, “The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson.” Chief Justice Salmon Chase, himself a Republican and former senator from Ohio, banged his gavel for order and tried to clear the galleries. The crowd replied with hisses and continued cheering.
A New York Times dispatch at the time stated: “IMPEACHMENT. Conclusion of Mr. Bingham’s argument for the prosecution. The Spectators Applaud and the Galleries are Cleared. The Case Submitted for Final Judgement.”
But when the Senate voted 10 days later, they were one vote short of the total needed to oust the president. Conviction required a two-thirds majority, but only 35 of the 54 senators voted to convict Johnson. Ohio Senators Benjamin Wade (R) and John Sherman (R) both voted “guilty.”
Johnson’s allies ran to the White House to tell him of his aquittal, and the president poured whiskey shots for his lawyers, according to historical accounts. He served as president one more year before losing the next election to Ulysses Grant.
Ohio lawmakers could be key in Trump impeachment
Fast forward 150 years, and impeachment arguments are again heating up in the Capitol. Ohio lawmakers could again play a role, especially now that the House inquiry has moved this week to the Judiciary Committee.
Hearings until now have been in the Intelligence Committee and were meant to focus on fact-finding. It will be up to the Judiciary Committee to decide how to vote on impeachment and make a case to other lawmakers and the American public.
Ohio has two representatives on the committee, Reps. Steve Chabot (R-1st) and Jim Jordan (R-4th).
Jordan has already been one of House Republicans’ most vocal critics of the impeachment process. Wearing his characteristic shirt and tie, no jacket, he has blasted the effort from his seat at the Intelligence Committee hearings and on television interviews.
“They have never accepted the will of the American people and gone to this crazy impeachment strategy we’ve seen unfold for several months,” Jordan said of Democrats in an interview this week with Fox News.
Jordan has posted a steady stream of impeachment criticism on his Twitter account over the past month, criticizing Democrats and defending the president.
Chabot has not been as outspoken about impeachment, but he has criticized the process as a distraction from other work.
“Why didn’t we have time to do what we are supposed to do? Because we spent too much time chasing our tails on impeachment,” Chabot told the Judiciary Committee at a vote last month. “We spent an inordinate number of hours on that. There are so many things which really are important, those are the types of things that we ought to be focused on.”
Chabot has been through an impeachment process before. He was one of the 13 floor managers for the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, who was accused of lying under oath about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“My children, who were taught at home and in church and at school that honesty and integrity do matter, have witnessed the president of the United States shamelessly lie to the American people,” Chabot told the House Judiciary Committee at the 1998 hearing to consider articles of impeachment.
Chabot said he had done his research and “soul-searching,” according to transcripts, and decided to vote in favor of Clinton’s impeachment. At the time he made a plea for other lawmakers to look past party affiliation and hold the president accountable.
“What message are we sending the youth of America if we abdicate our constitutional duty and allow perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power to go unpunished?” Chabot told the committee in 1998.
“When we cast our votes, we are not voting as Republicans or Democrats, we are voting as Americans. Our allegiance does not lie with any one president but with our country. Our charge is not handed down from any one political party but from the Constitution. Every member of this body is duty-bound to put politics aside, follow our conscience, and uphold our oath of office.”
House lawmakers voted, largely on party lines, to impeach Clinton. The Senate ultimately acquitted him.