Seventy-nine years into the government under the Constitution, the House impeached a president for the first time. Andrew Johnson, from Tennessee, was the only southern senator to remain loyal to the Union after eleven southern States seceded from the Union from 1860-61. His loyalty was repaid with a spot on the bottom of the presidential ticket in the election of 1864. The Union Party of Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Andrew Johnson won the election. Just a little over a month into Lincoln’s second term, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth while watching “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln died the next morning elevating the loyal southern Democratic vice president to the highest office in the land.
President Johnson would continue, to the best of his ability, the plan for Reconstruction of the Union as Lincoln had intended. By 1868, the Radical Republicans in the Congress were not happy with the President and his handling of Reconstruction. The legislative branch sought to curb Johnson’s executive power. The first attempt to curb Johnson’s power came in the form of the Tenure of Office Act. The act required the approval of the Senate for the President to fire anyone in a position the Senate gave their consent to. Johnson disagreed with the law and knew its true meaning, an attempt to weaken the executive. Johnson decided to test the new law by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, without the consent of the Congress.
The House wrote up eleven articles of impeachment, eight having to do with Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson knew it was more political than rational. In the Senate, Johnson survived the impeachment by a single vote on three of the articles of impeachment. Since Johnson survived three of the articles, the Senate adjourned without further consideration of the remaining eight articles. In the end, Johnson quietly finished out the remainder of the term as the Congress took control of rebuilding the Union. His impeachment was a blow to presidential power and an increase in legislative authority that would dominate the government for the next twenty years.
The Radical Republicans in the Congress wanted to be in charge of Reconstruction and were not happy with Johnson and his handling of Reconstruction and his leniency toward ex-Confederates. They created a political situation or confrontation via the Tenure of Office Act, seizing on Johnson’s violation of the law as means for removal from office.
It would be 106 years until the House of Representatives would write articles of impeachment for another president, Richard Nixon. What would seem like a “third-rate burglary” would turn into a Constitutional crisis. In 1972, operatives connected to the White House broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate hotel. Nixon knew of the break-in and began a cover up which would bring down his presidency.
By the summer of 1974 impeachment of the president was being considered by the House. That summer the “smoking gun,” an audio tape implicating Nixon’s involvement, was discovered. The House Judiciary committee wrote up three articles of impeachment and voted on the articles. The three articles consisted of obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. While the Congress of the United States was a Democratic majority, Nixon was advised by leading Republicans in the Senate, headed by Barry Goldwater of Arizona, that he would not survive a trial in the Senate. Republican National Committee Chairman George Herbert Walker Bush suggested the same. Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, at noon before the articles of impeachment could be voted on by the entire House.
In this instance, the House Judiciary committee used the political solution of impeachment to uphold the Constitution, whereas the House of the late 1860s used impeachment as a weapon in a political fight between an embattled president and Congress. Investigation into another president would begin twenty years after Nixon’s resignation.
Kenneth Starr headed the independent council’s office and began the investigation of potential illegal dealings done by the Clintons, such as the Whitewater land development. In 1998, Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, gave a false affidavit about her relationship with President William Jefferson Clinton in the case involving Paula Jones. Clinton also lied under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. This led Starr to begin an investigation into the Lewinsky allegations, stemming from the Jones case. Lewinsky’s stained blue dress became the “smoking gun” in this instance.
The House Judiciary voted on four articles of impeachment, three for lying under oath and one for obstruction of justice. The full House passed two articles of impeachment; both had to do with lying under oath. The president survived the trial in the Senate and completed the remaining years of his second term as popular as ever.
Johnson and Clinton were both impeached because of those that ran the House of Representatives did not like the Chief Executive. The House sought to remove from office someone they did not agree with or get along with. The attempt to impeach Nixon was justifiable, an effort to uphold the Constitution, however he resigned before a full House vote of impeachment could take place. Nixon would not have survived a trial in the Senate. The three terms of Congress which made up George W. Bush’s first six years of the presidency did not contemplate impeachment. The Republicans who led the Congress did not see the need to investigate the president. When the Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives in 2007, an assurance of no impeachment was given in the run up to the 2006 mid-term elections. Comparing the possible impeachable offenses made by Bush and his administration to his impeached or would be impeached predecessors leads to the realization that the sitting members of the House of Representatives do determine what is a “high crime and misdemeanor.”