What is the history of impeachment in the United States
Impeachment is the process where a government official, at the state or federal level in the United States, is removed from office. It represents a critical part of the checks and balances envisioned by the Constitution and also by local and state laws. While impeachment of presidents has been rare, judges, congressional members, governors, and others have been impeached while holding office.
Early Impeachments in the 18th and 19th Century
Impeachments are seen as a way to remove a public official by a lower legislative house when a given crime has been committed by an official, often during their tenure, although it is possible to also remove an official after the disclosure of a crime after an official enters office. William Blount was the first elected official who was impeached. He was a senator from Tennesse and in 1797 was impeached for conspiring with Great Britian to wage war and capturing Spanish territory in the United States. The senator was a known land speculator who had purchased territory in western Tennessee and other surroundings. He had over purchased and was in debt, thus to raise the land's value he tried to have Great Britain launch a war against Spain to seize territory in Louisiana. This backfired on him and the House of Representatives tried to impeach him for conspiring to launch a war between Spain and Great Britain, but ultimately the Senate refused to accept the House's oversight and decision but removed him anyway from the Senate.
During the Civil War, there was an impeachment of a district judge (West Humphreys) for supporting the South in 1862. However, it was the trial of Andrew Johnson in 1868 that proved to be the first impeachment trial against a sitting president. Andrew Johnson, never a strong believer in giving rights to former slaves, came to office as vice-president to Lincoln in 1864 as part of a national unity ticket that had him, a Democrat, serv with Lincoln, a Republican. During the early reconstruction years, Congress repeatedly refused the return of former Southern leaders back to power that Southern states tried to reinstate. Johnson was sympathetic to the Southern states, setting the stage for conflict with Congress, where they eventually limited his power to shape his cabinet by passing the Tenure of Office Act that prohibited Johnson from firing members of his cabinet. After Johnson tried to fire his Secretary of War (Edwin Stanton), Congress acted and impeached him. Ultimately, Johnson survived and was acquitted, although he was not re-elected later in 1868. Interestingly, one reason Johnson survived was because Congress was fearful that Benjamin Wade, a so-called radical Republican, would push through legislation such as women's suffrage (something not acceptable to most politicians in the 1860s). In the 1870s, two more impeachments occurred, with one district judge (Mark W. Delahay, for drunkenness; acquitted but resigned), and the first cabinet member (William W. Belknap; Secretary of War; acquitted but resigned).