The recently concluded impeachment proceedings involving President Donald J. Trump have prompted many opinions and observations, some less valid or less accurate than others. Americans, and indeed all of humanity, display a continual willingness to believe that their own circumstances are the most extraordinary or unique in history. This accounts for the many references plastered across social media and the internet characterizing President Trump’s impeachment as the “ugliest,” “least fair,” or “most political” in United States history. Such characterizations are consistent with other political rhetoric demonizing President Trump (or President Barack Obama, during his tenure) as the “worst” or “most corrupt” president of all 45 to date.
What the majority of political rhetoric appears to neglect is that, as the late ABC radio broadcaster and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Paul Harvey observed, “In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.” Indeed, adolescent name-calling among contemporary politicians, such as President Trump’s nicknames for his GOP opponents in the 2016 presidential race, pales in comparison to the slander thrown about by some of our Founding Fathers. For instance, as John Adams sought reelection to the presidency in 1801, he was labeled by one of Thomas Jefferson’s supporters as a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Likewise, despite the excitement surrounding President Trump’s trial, impeachment investigations and threats of removal from office are nothing new. In the nearly 230 years since the ratification of our Constitution, 14 US presidents (31 percent) have been subject to impeachment investigations. Additionally, a handful of vice presidents, a dozen cabinet members, and numerous other lower-ranking officials in the federal government have experienced the same.
Of the US presidents investigated, only three — Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Trump — have actually been impeached by the House of Representatives, the only body with constitutional authority to pass articles of impeachment. A look at the former two shows the third is not exceptionally different. Whether in regard to political motivation, partisanship, a hostile political climate, or malicious ad hominem attacks, it would be difficult to prove that Trump’s impeachment (or subsequent acquittal) is anything we have not already seen.
There is a good argument to be made that the contexts in which the Johnson and Clinton impeachments took place were actually more dire than that surrounding Trump’s. Consider that in 1868, the United States (27 states anyways; 10 had not yet been reinstated) was still reeling from the unprecedented bloodshed and destruction of the Civil War. On top of that, Johnson was in office because the presidency had lost its first casualty to assassination not three years earlier. Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, had been unwilling to appease the radical members of his party as he prosecuted the war and looked forward to reconstruction. His vice president, Johnson, an anti-secession Democrat and former military governor of Tennessee, wasn’t interested in appeasement either. In February 1868, the Radical Republicans seized their opportunity, and the House approved 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson, primarily dealing with his supposed violation of the Tenure of Office Act. The Senate voted on three articles: Each came up one vote short of the 36 needed for conviction. Ten Republicans voted with all nine Democrats for acquittal.
Clinton’s more recent circumstances should be less unfamiliar, but most current freshman or sophomore college students were as yet unborn in 1998–99. Official investigations have a way of turning up all kinds of dirt, but much of Clinton’s was already exposed to the elements of politics. After the “Starr Report” (detailing Clinton’s elicit sexual encounters with Monica Lewinski) was delivered to Congress in September 1998, 31 House Democrats joined Republicans to vote in favor of impeachment proceedings against the president in October. The House passed two articles: These accused the president of perjury to a grand jury and the obstruction of justice. Neither garnered sufficient votes in the Senate, and 10 Republican senators voted against the article of perjury.
Both impeachments, though separated by 130 years, remain remarkably similar to the third during the current administration. All three have been largely politically motivated, all have been essentially partisan, and all have been contextualized by a hostile political climate. All have been the result of serious allegations (unconstitutional processes, inappropriate sexual relations, or foreign collusions). None have removed a president from office. Perhaps one of their primary legacies will be that they simply served as three thrilling moments of excitement punctuating an otherwise tedious political landscape.
What does all this mean for Americans as we move into what promises to be another contentious November? How does this apply when more grandiose claims about the exceptionalism of our current circumstances inevitably arise? Keep calm and carry on, and remember, “There is no new thing under the sun.”