WASHINGTON — A firebrand Pennsylvania lawmaker led the charge in the nation’s first presidential impeachment.
It was 1868.
President Andrew Johnson, a southern Democrat, had clashed with Republicans almost since the day he took office after President Abraham Lincoln’s death. They disagreed over reconstruction of the defeated South and civil rights for freed slaves.
His chief critic was Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, an aging but powerful force in the House of Representatives and a fierce opponent of slavery. Stevens was the leader of the “Radical Republicans” who sought to oust Johnson, and one of the House prosecutors in the impeachment trials.
There was no love lost between the two. Even before impeachment talks began, Stevens said Johnson was an affliction on the country, worse than plagues or lice, according to a biography, “Thaddeus Stevens,” from historian Hans Trefousse.
And Johnson called for “hanging” his nemesis in speeches he made on a tour.
The event that spurred impeachment proceedings was when Johnson attempted to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a Lincoln appointee and ally of the Radical Republicans. Congressional opponents said it violated the Tenure of Office Act, a law that required presidents to seek congressional approval for new appointments or removals.
The House approved 11 impeachment articles, and the Senate took up the first presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history.
The two-month Senate trial was a public spectacle, held in open session before a packed gallery — with Stevens frequently arguing at center stage.
“When the charges against such a public servant accuse him of an attempt to betray the high trust confided in him and usurp the power of the whole people, that he may become their ruler, it is intensely interesting to millions of men,” Stevens said at the impeachment trial, according to a transcript from Furman University. “Such is the condition of this great Republic, as looked upon by an astonished and wondering world.”
In the end, the Senate was one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to impeach. Seven Republican senators voted against impeachment.
Pennsylvania’s two senators at the time voted along party lines. Sen. Charles Buckalew, a Democrat, voted not guilty; Sen. Simon Cameron, a Republican, voted guilty.
‘It’s a matter of constitutional integrity’
Fast-forward 150 years, and another impeachment inquiry is under way with Pennsylvania lawmakers in the front seat for the proceedings.
U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, is the vice-chair of the House Judiciary Committee, the panel at the center of the Trump investigation, and in position to steer the debate going forward.
Scanlon has been out front for the past six months, raising concerns about the Trump presidency. She led a public reading and podcast of the report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and said last May that Congress needed to investigate if there were grounds for impeachment.
“It’s a matter of constitutional integrity. There are so many things to look at, personally I have been trying to look at the things that were outlined by the authors of our Constitution,” Scanlon said of impeachment investigations in an interview on MSNBC in September. “It was things like misuses of pardons, bribery or corruption in an election, being under the sway of a foreign government, profiting off of your positions. I think what the Founding Fathers did not expect is that we would have one president that would try to tick all of the boxes.”
The other Pennsylvania Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, of Montgomery County’s 4th District, has also pushed for an impeachment inquiry.
“President Trump and his administration have obstructed justice over and over again, leaving us no choice; we must open an impeachment inquiry into the President of the United States,” Dean said in a statement last May.
Scanlon and Dean, both freshmen, could potentially be managers in a Senate trial if the House passes articles of impeachment.
All of the Democrats in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation have come out in support of an impeachment inquiry.
Several of them have voiced their support over the past month, as the allegations gained steam in light of revelations about Trump’s attempts to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
Pennsylvania Democratic lawmakers who were reluctant to support impeachment proceedings but have now said they want the process to move forward include U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.; and U.S. Reps. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th District; Susan Wild, D-7th District; Matt Cartwright, D-8th District; and Conor Lamb, D-17th District.
Pennsylvania’s Republican representatives oppose the impeachment inquiry. One of them, U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District, could make a stir as a member of the Judiciary Committee. He has been sharply critical of the panel’s impeachment investigation, blasting Democrats on his Twitter account and in broadcast news interviews.
“The @WhiteHouse is exposing the “impeachment inquiry” for what it really is: an unprecedented, illegitimate sham that throws fairness & due process out the window. @SpeakerPelosi will stop at nothing to overturn the will of the American people who chose @realDonaldTrump,” Reschenthaler wrote in a tweet this week.
Pennsylvanians lead the prosecution
Pennsylvania lawmakers also played prominent roles in the Clinton and Nixon impeachment investigations.
Former U.S. Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., was one of the House managers in the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. House lawmakers voted, largely on party lines, to impeach Clinton, who lied about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The Senate trial thrust Gekas, a fairly low-key Republican, into the spotlight. Prior to the trial in 1999, his name had appeared in the state’s largest newspapers an average of only seven times a year since his election in 1982, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The Senate ultimately acquitted Clinton.
“In this case, it’s not a question of winning or losing,” Gekas told the Associated Press after the trial. “It’s only a question on our part of evaluating, ‘Did we do a fair job?’ I feel 100 percent confident that we did.”
Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation voted largely along party lines in the Clinton impeachment votes, with one exception. Democratic U.S. Rep. Paul McHale Jr., voted in favor of three of the four impeachment articles against Clinton.
“Mr. Speaker, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to salvage any sense of nobility in reviewing the allegations before us,” McHale said in remarks during the House debate. “But there is one truth. The most basic rights of the people will be preserved only so long as public officials at every level of government tremble before the law.”
Pennsylvania also had a voice on the Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment trials. Democratic U.S. Rep. Joshua Eilberg voted in favor of all four articles of impeachment. Five years later, Eilberg himself was convicted on federal ethics charges.
Allison Winter is a Washington D.C.-based correspondent for the States Newsroom Project, which supports the Capital-Star.