A brief history of impeachment in America

The White House. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Three American presidents have been impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives through our history; all have been acquitted by the U.S. Senate. They are Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and (likely to be acquitted) Donald Trump.

A fourth, Richard M. Nixon, faced articles of impeachment, but resigned from office after they were approved by committee but before they reached the floor of the House for a full vote.

The framers of the Constitution intentionally made removal from office via impeachment fairly difficult, requiring a two-thirds majority of the Senate to find a president guilty and remove.

Eight federal judges have been removed from office via impeachment, but those are the only federal officials ever removed through the process.

In Federalist Nos. 65 and 66, under the pseudonym Publius, Alexander Hamilton wrote about the power of the Senate to set as a court for impeachments.

Later, in 1792, Hamilton described the type of character for whom impeachment was designed:

“When a man unprincipled in private life[,] desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper… despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.'”

Unscrupulous. Greedy. Temperamental. Power-hungry and controlling. Dismissive of liberties. Stoking suspicion of government. Playing to zealots instead of to reason. These are the characteristics Hamilton feared. They are the same we should fear today.

Here’s a look at impeachment in practice:

Andrew Johnson, 1868

After taking over office following the killing of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson clashed with the third party system progressive Republicans in Congress who were working to extend full civil rights to freed slaves as well as punish Southern politicians. Johnson vetoed rights for freedmen and issued pardons to Confederate politicians.

In retaliation, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act over Johnson’s veto. The Act required Senate approval for any replacement to the president’s cabinet. Johnson bristled. He viewed the law as unconstitutional. Johnson’s Secretary of War, Steubenville native Edwin Stanton, a holdover from Lincoln’s cabinet, disagreed with Johnson’s Reconstruction policy. After the Tenure of Office Act was passed, his disagreements became more public.

Johnson wanted to replace Stanton with Lancaster native Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, and later, Point Pleasant native Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, though Grant opposed this and believed the Tenure Act protected Stanton. Nevertheless, Johnson proceeded to suspend Stanton and ordered him to turn all files over to Grant. Stanton complied. The U.S. Senate reinstated Stanton, and Grant complied.

Still gunning for Stanton, Johnson eventually dismissed him and replaced him with Lorenzo Thomas, the army’s adjutant general. Stanton refused to give up his post, supported by Senate Republicans. The Senate resolved to condemn Johnson’s actions as illegal. The House impeached with a party-line vote of 126 yeas and 47 nays.

Johnson’s trial in the Senate lasted months (with former Ohio Gov. Salmon P. Chase presiding as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), but eventually 35 Senators voted to convict, 19 to acquit, falling one vote short of the 36-vote needed for conviction.

Bill Clinton, 1998

The investigation into Bill Clinton started over two things: a Justice Department investigation by independent counsel Kenneth Starr into a botched business deal in Arkansas known as Whitewater, and a sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton by Paula Jones, who claimed Clinton exposed himself to her in a hotel room before he was president, in 1991.

Starr was unable to uncover an impeachable offense in the Whitewater case, but Jones’ lawyers received a tip that Clinton had had an affair with 21-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky. After receiving 20 hours of tape recordings of Lewinsky describing the affair to Linda Tripp, Starr switched the focus of his investigation.

Clinton and Lewinsky both denied the affair under oath, but the FBI had wired Tripp during a conversation with Lewinsky where she admitted to a sexual relationship with Clinton. Starr produced a report detailing their sexual relationship and providing evidence Clinton had committed perjury by lying under oath about it.

The House of Representatives voted along party lines to impeach Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice. After a five-week trial in the Senate, Clinton was found not guilty with a vote of 55-45 on perjury and 50-50 on obstruction of justice. No Democrats voted to convict on either count. Ten Republicans voted not guilty on the perjury count, while five voted not guilty on obstruction.

Donald Trump, 2019

Donald Trump was impeached on Dec. 18, 2019 after a formal House inquiry found that he had solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election in order to help his reelection bid.

The inquiry reported that Trump withheld Congressionally approved military aid to the nation of Ukraine while Trump solicited Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into political rival and former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump was impeached by the House in a near party-line vote.

The Senate trial is ongoing.

I think of another Hamilton quote, from Federalist No. 68: “The desire [of] foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our counsels… (is) one of the most deadly adversaries of republican government.”

As far as I know, Hamilton never spoke on the possibility of an American president actually soliciting such foreign interference.

David C. DeWitt
David C. DeWitt is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience covering Ohio politics and policy. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS and Plunderbund.com covering topics such as education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, government, business, labor, energy, environment and social issues. His work has also appeared in Government Executive, the Columbus Dispatch, Girlfriends magazine, Bleacher Report and the Ashtabula Star Beacon, among others.