November 4th, 2019


Presidents and Impeachment: The First Impeachment Resolution

The first time that Congress tried to use its power to impeach a President happened in 1842. The President that Congress wanted to fire was poor John Tyler. John Tyler was elected to Congress in 1816 as a Democratic-Republican. In 1825 he served as the Governor of Virginia and from 1827 to 1836 as a US Senator from Virginia. He remained a Democrat for much of that time, but broke with the party after he found himself unable to agree with President Andrew Jackson's position on patronage (or the "spoils system") as well as with Jackson's practice of making recess appointments. He finally broke with the Democrats in 1833 over the nullification issue. Tyler supported South Carolina's position on the right of the federal government to use force against a state who tried to nullify a federal law. He switched to the Whig Party in 1834.

When Tyler became President in 1841 following the death of William Henry Harrison, he soon found himself a man without a party. Though elected as a Whig, he twice vetoed legislation championed by Henry Clay to establish a national bank. Most of the members of Tyler's cabinet resigned and Clay hoped that this would force Tyler to resign as well, but when he did not, the Whigs voted to expel Tyler from their party. Tyler was heavily criticized by Whig newspapers and received hundreds of letters threatening his assassination.

The Whigs supported high protectionist tariffs and national funding of state infrastructure. The Distribution Act of 1841 created a distribution program with a proviso requiring tariffs to remain below 20 percent. This plan left the federal government in dire fiscal straits. In a recommendation to Congress, Tyler decided that it would be necessary to override the Compromise Tariff of 1833 and raise rates beyond the 20 percent limit. The Whig Congress refused to raise tariffs if it would affect the distribution of funds to states. In June 1842 they passed two bills that would raise tariffs and unconditionally extend the distribution program. Believing it improper to continue distribution at a time when federal revenue shortage necessitated increasing the tariff, Tyler vetoed both bills, burning any remaining bridges between himself and the Whigs.

Shortly after the tariff veto, Whigs in the House of Representatives initiated the first impeachment proceedings against a President in American history. Until the presidency of Andrew Jackson, Presidents vetoed bills rarely, and then generally on constitutional rather than policy grounds. Tyler's actions also went against the Whigs' concept of the powers of the presidency. John Minor Botts of Virginia, who had been Tyler's greatest critic, introduced a resolution on July 10, 1842. It levied several charges against the President and called for a nine-member committee to investigate his behavior, with the expectation of a formal impeachment recommendation. Henry Clay found this measure premature. He favored a more moderate progression toward Tyler's "inevitable" impeachment. The Botts bill was tabled until the following January, when it was rejected, 127-83.

On July 22, 1842, Botts presented a petition from Wetumpka, Alabama, a community that Harper’s Weekly had once described as rivaling Chicago as one of “the most promising two cities of the West.” The petitioners asked that a resolution be passed “requesting ‘John Tyler, the acting President of the United States,’ to resign his office; and in case he do not comply with such request, they pray that he may be impeached, ‘on the grounds of his ignorance of the interest and true policy of this Government, and want of qualification for the discharge of the important duties of President of the United States.” The petition was tabled.

A House select committee was formed and headed by former President John Quincy Adams, who was now a member of Congress. The committee condemned Tyler's use of the veto and as well as his character. Adams, an ardent abolitionist, disliked Tyler for being a slaveholder. While the committee's report did not formally recommend impeachment, it clearly established that this was a possibility. In August 1842, by a vote of 98–90, the House endorsed the committee's report. Adams sponsored a constitutional amendment to change the two-thirds requirement to override a veto to a simple majority, but neither house passed such a measure. The Whigs were unable to pursue further impeachment proceedings in the subsequent 28th Congress, because in the elections of 1842 they lost control of the House (although they retained a majority in the Senate).

When the Botts bill was eventually voted on on January 10, 1843, it was worded as follows:

"I do impeach John Tyler, Vice-President, acting as President of the United States, of the following high crimes and misdemeanors:

First. I charge him with gross usurpation of power and violation of law, in attempting to exercise a controlling influence over the accounting officers of the Treasury Department, by ordering the payment of accounts of long standing that had been by them rejected for want of legal authority to pay, and threatening them with expulsion from office unless his orders were obeyed; by virtue of which threat thousands were drawn from the Public Treasury without the authority of law.

Second. I charge him with a wicked and corrupt abuse of the power of appointment to and removal from office: First, in displacing those who were competent and faithful in the discharge of their public duties, only because they were supposed to entertain a political preference for another; and, secondly, in bestowing them on creatures of his own will, alike regardless of the public welfare and his duty to the country.

Third. I charge him with the high crime and misdemeanor of aiding to excite a disorganizing and revolutionary spirit in the country, by placing on the records of the State Department his objections to a law as carrying no constitutional obligation with it; whereby the several States of this Union were invited to disregard and disobey a law of Congress which he himself had sanctioned and sworn to see faithfully executed, from which nothing but disorder, confusion, and anarchy can follow.

Fourth. I charge him with being guilty of a high misdemeanor, in retaining men in office for months after they have been rejected by the Senate as unworthy, incompetent, and unfaithful, with an utter defiance of the public will and total indifference to the public interests.

Fifth. I charge him with the high crime and misdemeanor of withholding his assent to laws indispensable to the just operations of government, which involved no constitutional difficulty on his part; of depriving the Government of all legal means of revenue, and of assuming to himself the whole power of taxation, and of collecting duties of the people without the authority or sanction of law.

Sixth. I charge him with an arbitrary, despotic, and corrupt abuse of the veto power, to gratify his personal and political resentments against the Senate of the United States for a constitutional exercise of their prerogative in the rejection of his nominees to office, with such evident mark of inconsistency and duplicity as leave no room to doubt his disregard of the interests of the people and his duty to the country.

Seventh. I charge him with gross official misconduct, in having been guilty of a shameless duplicity, equivocation, and falsehood with his late Cabinet and Congress, which led to idle legislation and useless public expense, and by which he has brought such dishonor on himself as to disqualify him from administering the Government with advantage, honor, or virtue, and for which alone he would deserve to be removed from office.

Eighth. I charge him with an illegal and unconstitutional exercise of power, in instituting a commission to investigate past transactions under a former Administration of the custom-house in New York, under the pretense of seeing the laws faithfully executed; with having arrested the investigation at a moment when the inquiry was to be made as to the manner in which those laws were executed under his own Administration; with having directed or sanctioned the appropriation of large slim of the public revenue to the compensation of officers of his own creation, without the authority of law, which, if sanctioned, would place the entire revenues of the country at his disposal.

Ninth. I charge him with the high misdemeanor of having withheld from the Representatives of the people information called for and declared to be necessary to the investigation of stupendous frauds and abuses alleged to have been committed by agents of the Government, both upon individuals and the Government itself, whereby he himself became accessory to these frauds.

Mr. Botts also submitted this resolution, for the action of the House:

Resolved, That a committee of nine members be appointed, with instructions diligently to inquire into the truth of the preceding charges preferred against John Tyler, and to report to this House the testimony taken to establish said charges, together with their opinion whether the said John Tyler hath so acted in his official capacity as to require the interposition of the constitutional power of this House; and that the committee have power to send for persons and papers.

Mr. Botts stated in his place as a Member that he was himself able to prove every charge made, and he not only asked but demanded the opportunity to do so.

The Speaker of the House decided that the charges involved a question of privilege, and the House proceeded to consideration of the resolution. Cave Johnson, of Tennessee, moved that the proposition be tabled. This motion was defeated, yeas 104, nays 119. When the motion itself was voted on, the votes were yeas 84, nays 127 and the resolution was defeated.

Amidst these troubles in his administration, Tyler had to deal with personal tragedies as well. His wife, Letitia, had been ill for some time, and in September of 1842, she died from a stroke.

Tyler was able to hang on to his Presidency, and he was also able to bring about his major goal as President: the annexation of Texas. But he was ultimately unable to garner enough support to run as the candidate of either major party in the 1844 election. He ultimately abandoned his plans to run as an independent candidate, and left office following the inauguration of his successor.