Clinton Trial: Day One: `A despicable besotted, traitorous President'

"THEY DID not know what impeachment was, exactly, but they had a general idea that it would come in the form of an avalanche, or a thunder clap, or that maybe the roof would fall in." Thus wrote Mark Twain on the eve of the only other impeachment trial to be held for a United States president - the unloved Andrew Johnson back in 1868.

Then, as now, Congress was swept away by rhetorical awe at the historical weight of its deliberations. Then, as now, nobody seemed too sure where the process would lead or what its reverberations might be. In one respect, perhaps, the proceedings have become more civilised: if Bill Clinton believes he has been on the receiving end of unkind jibes from his Congressional adversaries, he can at least be thankful he was spared some of the more colourful epithets hurled at Andrew Johnson.

One Republican House member denounced Johnson as "an ungrateful, despicable, besotted traitorous man - an incubus". The editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, called him "an aching tooth in the national jaw, a screeching infant in a crowded lecture room". Amid the hysteria, particularly in the course of the House debate, Johnson was accused of dragging the robes of his office through "the purlieus and filth of treason" - and all this just because he had insisted on dismissing his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.

Times have changed, of course, and while the rhetoric may have become more polite the issues have changed in weight and importance. Johnson was the man thrust into the presidential limelight after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. A Democrat and a southerner brought on to Lincoln's Republican ticket in the name of national unity, Johnson had his own ideas how to conduct the reconstruction of the country after the Civil War and his sympathies for former southern slave owners incensed the Republican- dominated Congress.

Stanton became of the focus of his incessant tug-of-war with Congress because Johnson considered him the last key congressional ally left in his cabinet. When he insisted on his removal, Congress rose up in revolt, dug up an old law (subsequently deemed unconstitutional) on Tenure of Office and presented 11 articles of impeachment to the Senate.

The odds looked considerably longer for Johnson than they do for Clinton. Of the 54 senators then sitting, 42 were Republican and only 12 were Democrats. Furthermore, Johnson enjoyed barely a fraction of Clinton's popularity. In his efforts to stay in power, Johnson organised a speaking tour around the country and was heckled relentlessly across the Midwest. "I never saw a man who seemed as friendless and forsaken, and I never felt for any man so much," an unusually sincere Mark Twain wrote for the Chicago Republican.

What saved Johnson was a growing realisation of the absurdity of the charges against him, the possible damage removal from office might do to future presidencies, and misgivings about his putative successor. It came down to the very last vote - that of Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas who eventually sided with the president and was reviled as a perjurer by many of his old friends.

Johnson saw out his full term, but his reputation never recovered. The incident also did considerable damage to the country's political institutions - which, according to Twain, "are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet". Clinton may need to be careful, but the Senate had better watch out, too.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Creative Director / Head of Creative

£65K - £75K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Creative Director...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Luxury Brand

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global wholesaler and reta...

Recruitment Genius: Store Manager - Department Store

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This organization is one of the founding names...

Recruitment Genius: 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Engineer - IT Managed Services

£30000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company are loo...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence