Swindle: The two impeachments in American history

Published 3:52 pm Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Jason Swindle
Senior Partner, Swindle Law Group

suppose the first time I heard the term “articles of impeachment”, I was a 1st year law student at Mercer University.

Little did I know; the nation was about to be educated on the matter and witness the impeachment of a president.

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Article I of the United States Constitution gives the United States House of Representatives (House) the sole power of impeachment and the Senate the sole power to try impeachments of officers of the U.S. federal government. But, impeachment is only the first of two stages, and conviction during the second stage requires “the concurrence of two thirds of the members present”. Impeachment does not necessarily result in removal from office; it is only a legal statement of charges, similar to an indictment in criminal law. An official who is impeached faces a second legislative vote, or trial, in the Senate which determines whether the office holder is guilty or not guilty.

After the 1998 mid-term elections, the House impeached President Clinton; charging him with perjury and obstruction of justice.

Impeachment proceedings against Clinton were primarily based on allegations that Clinton had illegally lied about and covered up his relationship with 22-year-old White House employee Monica Lewinsky.

The Senate later acquitted Clinton on both charges. The Senate finished a twenty-one-day trial on February 12, 1999, with the vote of 55 Not Guilty/45 Guilty on the perjury charge and 50 Not Guilty/50 Guilty on the obstruction of justice charge. Both votes fell short of the Constitutional two-thirds majority requirement to convict and remove an officeholder.

On January 19, 2001, Clinton’s law license was suspended for five years after he acknowledged he had engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice in the Jones case.

But, Clinton was not the first president to be impeached.

Contrary to popular belief, the other president was not Richard Nixon. It was Andrew Johnson.

President Abraham Lincoln was dead. His vice-president, Andrew Johnson took the oath of office and tried to govern a country ripped apart by war, anger, and retribution. He was in trouble from the start.

Johnson had a powerful enemy in the cabinet; Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. He battled with the President over many issues. Finally, while Congress was in recess, President Johnson demanded Stanton’s resignation.

January 1868, the Senate disapproved of his action, and reinstated Stanton, contending the President had violated the Tenure of Office Act. In February, the House impeached the President for intentionally violating the Tenure of Office Act, by a vote of 128 to 47.

On March 5, 1868, the impeachment trial began.

35 senators voted “guilty” and 19 “not guilty”, thus falling short by a single vote of the two-thirds majority required for conviction under the Constitution. 

We are fortunate that our Founding Fathers had the foresight to provide two thirds vote in the Senate in order to convict. Without the two thirds majority rule, we would also have seen other presidents impeached when they and an emboldened Congress did not get along. That environment would weaken and destabilize America.

Removing presidents from office should only happen when the allegations surround very serious non-partisan charges that can be proven with evidence; not ideology.