March 26, 2008

A Tale of Two Impeachments

Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1868 (Library of Congress)
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Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1868 (Library of Congress)

Harper's Weekly, April 11, 1868 (Newseum collection)
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Harper's Weekly, April 11, 1868 (Newseum collection)

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 14, 1868 (Library of Congress)
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Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 14, 1868 (Library of Congress)

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dec. 20, 1998 (Newseum collection)
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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dec. 20, 1998 (Newseum collection)

The Washington Times, Dec. 20, 1998 (Newseum collection)
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The Washington Times, Dec. 20, 1998 (Newseum collection)

The New York Times, Dec. 20, 1998 (Newseum collection)
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The New York Times, Dec. 20, 1998 (Newseum collection)

The Washington Post, Feb. 13, 1999 (Newseum collection)
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The Washington Post, Feb. 13, 1999 (Newseum collection)

On March 30, 1868, President Andrew Johnson, the vice president who rose to the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, went on trial in the Senate for "high crimes and misdemeanors." Translation: "King Andy," as Johnson's critics called him, violated the controversial Tenure of Office Act by firing his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Johnson was being impeached.

The first presidential impeachment in the country's history occurred more than a decade before photographs appeared in newspapers. At that time, newspapers relied on artists' engravings or sketches to help illustrate stories.

Johnson's impeachment trial, which lasted nearly two months, was covered heavily by the nation's news publications, notably Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and Harper's Weekly. In its March 28 edition, Harper's carried a front-page sketch by artist Theodore R. Davis showing Johnson being served the impeachment summons. In its April 11 edition, which included a sketch of spectators entering the Senate chamber for the ticketed event, Harper's boasted:

 

Our engravings ... which bear upon this highly important event are of the most interesting character. On pages 232 and 233 will be found one of the most valuable engravings which has ever appeared in this journal. It is an elaborate and correct view of the interior of the United States Senate Chamber, showing the details of the architecture and fresco-work, the various departments of the gallery, the arrangement of the desks on the floor of the Senate ... and the temporary arrangement made for the accommodation of the members of the House of Representatives, and the managers, and the counsel of the President.

 

On March 14, Leslie's carried an illustration depicting the formal notice of the impeachment by the House committee that had occurred on Feb. 25. "Thaddeus Stevens and John A. Bingham at the bar of the Senate," Leslie's noted.

After the trial, Johnson — the country's 17th president — avoided conviction by one Senate vote. He finished the remainder of Lincoln's term but did not win his party's nomination in 1869. In 1875, he became a U.S. senator from Tennessee.

In 1998, 130 years after Johnson's acquittal, Bill Clinton, the country's 42nd president, became the second in history to be impeached and the first to testify before a grand jury about his actions. His high crimes and misdemeanors: perjury before the independent counsel's grand jury, perjury in a sexual harassment case, obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

On Dec. 20, Sunday papers around the country carried the news. "Impeached," screamed Clinton's hometown newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Clinton 'Indelibly Stained' in a Decisive Vote," declared The Washington Times.

Several newspapers called for his resignation, but Clinton vowed to remain in office until the "last hour." The Senate trial was televised live, giving Americans a firsthand view of impeachment proceedings that a century earlier had been sketched.

Clinton, like Johnson, avoided conviction and was able to stay in office. "Clinton Acquitted," The Washington Post said on Feb. 13, 1999. "2 Impeachment Articles Fail to Win Senate Majority," the subhead declared.

Since Clinton was serving the last of two terms, his presidency ended Jan. 20, 2001. Voters will decide if he makes another trip to the White House, this time as the country's first male presidential spouse.

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