WIUM Tristates Public Radio

A Brief History of U.S. Presidential Impeachments

Feb 18, 2018

150 years ago – on February 24, 1868 – the U.S. House voted along party lines to impeach Democratic President Andrew Johnson.  To mark Presidents' Day this year, TSPR talked to a couple historians about Johnson and other presidents who faced impeachment.

Ginny Boynton and Richard Filipink, both professors in the Department of History at Western Illinois University, said Johnson and Democrat Bill Clinton are the only two presidents impeached by the House.  Neither was convicted by the Senate though it was a close call for Johnson, who escaped removal from office by just a single vote.

Andrew Johnson

Johnson served briefly as vice president before becoming president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  He frequently feuded with Congress and his decision to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sparked the move to impeach Johnson.

“Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act to try to prevent him from removing anyone who had been appointed with the consent of the Senate without also getting the consent of the Senate for removal.  He felt that was unconstitutional and so he removed Stanton anyway,” Boynton said.

Filipink added, “Johnson deliberately violated this law because he felt it was unconstitutional.  Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress at this point and had taken over the process of reconstruction from Johnson, who they felt had been too lenient with the South.”

Johnson was acquitted by the Senate in May, 1868. He did not seek another term as president.

Bill Clinton

The House began impeachment proceedings against Clinton in December, 1998. The Senate voted in February, 1999 against removing him from office.

“The issue at hand seemed to be his unwillingness to tell the truth about extramarital affairs, which was going to be kind of a tough one to remove a president from office for, especially when some of the people indicting him were guilty of the same thing,” said Filipink. 

He said “it’s fair to argue” that, like the Johnson impeachment, the case against Clinton was motivated by politics. 

Clinton faced impeachment during his second term.

Richard Nixon

The House Judiciary Committee approved three Articles of Impeachment against Nixon in 1974: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and refusing to obey subpoenas from the House.

All were related to the June, 1972 bungled break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex, a scandal that became known as Watergate.

Nixon resigned in August, 1974 before the full House could vote on the Articles of Impeachment. Filipink said Nixon almost certainly would have been removed from office had he not resigned.

“A group of Republican senators met with Nixon after the House Judiciary Committee voted and essentially said, ‘You have fewer than five votes and we are not among them,’” Filipink said.

Boynton said there have been no other attempted presidential impeachments but there have been judicial impeachments, mostly involving district court judges.

The process for impeachment and removal from office

Boynton: “(An impeachment) is equivalent to an indictment in a criminal court.  The House brings charges and then it goes to the U.S. Senate for the actual trial.”

Filipink: “The process that’s evolved from the Congressional system is that usually the House Judiciary Committee draws up the Articles of Impeachment – the indictment of the president – and the full House has to vote and you need a majority of the House to undertake the first stage, (which is) impeaching the president.”

Boynton: “And two-thirds in the Senate for conviction.”

Filipink: “Members of the House Judiciary Committee tend to serve as the prosecuting attorneys in the Senate trial. The president is on the hook for his own attorneys but the House does continue the prosecution.”

Filipink said the constitution clearly states that a president or other federal official can be impeached and removed from office for treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors. “What has happened over the last 225 years is Congress has defined high crimes and misdemeanors as crimes, as violation of actual laws.  That’s not really the meaning under English common law but that’s the way Americans have interpreted it.”