Historical Comparisons

Historical Comparisons

In a recent interview, basketball megastar LeBron James compared NFL owners to plantation slave owners.  He was not the first to do so.  In fact, it has become a common way to describe NFL owners.  In some ways, I understand the reasons to make historical comparisons.  This entire column is dedicated to doing just that.  Yet there are some comparisons that are, one, unfair and, two, dangerous.  The danger comes from making outrageous comparisons that strip away any common ground and have the potential to normalize past behavior. 

The comparisons I find most troubling lately are the NFL owners to plantation owners and political leaders we disagree with to Hitler and the Holocaust.  At first glance, the NFL comparison is easy–powerful rich white men with almost absolute authority over their predominantly black work force.  It is true that NFL owners hold a great deal of power over their players; owners can players them or trade them for any cause, but does that equate them to slave owners?

Slavery is one of this nation’s darkest experience.  Hundreds of thousands of Africans were forcefully taken from their homes and families to be shipped across an ocean and sold into bondage.  Once in America, slave owners used pure torture, both physical and psychological, to make those slaves and their descendants do their bidding.  Slaves had absolutely no control over any aspect of their lives, and most lived that way from the cradle to the grave.

Compare that to the NFL.  There may be issues between labor and management, but I find it difficult to see a strong comparison between an NFL player making millions of dollars to the life of a slave.  For one, slaves had absolutely no choice, whereas most NFL players have dreamed of playing in the league since their childhood.  Slavery was back-breaking labor, whereas football is a game.  Slavery was a life condition for the slave and their children, while professional football is a short time, and if money is managed properly, players can retire under forty.  Thousands of men across the nation are willing to sacrifice much for the chance to play in the NFL, even with the labor differences.  That is a far cry from slavery.  Yes, a player can be cut from the team, but there are few careers where an employed is not let go for lack of performance or for bad behavior.  Employees complaining about their boss is as old as America.  Why is the NFL seen differently? 

The other comparison I think we need to be careful of is constantly making comparisons to Hitler.  His is an easy name to throw around whenever we disagree with a political leader.  The most recent Hitler and Holocaust comparisons were with President Trump’s policy of separating children of illegal aliens on the border.  I am not going to argue this policy here.  It is safe to assume most disagree with it.  It is true that when illegal migrants were captured crossing the border they were separated by age and sex and put into holding facilities.  It is understandable that this may invoke comparisons of Jews being separated by sex when they reached concentration camps.  Yet that is where the comparisons end.  Immigrants were sent to camps where they were housed, fed, and given medical attention.

I am not saying separating a child from their parent is not a horrific situation, but during the Holocaust six million Jews were forcefully taken from their homes, distributed to different work or death camps, then tortured, starved, experimented on, and worked to death.  Those who did not die from the conditions were stripped naked, gassed in large chambers, then either mass buried or burned in Nazi ovens.  Hitler was a monster who tried to eradicate an entire race.  You may really hate President Trump, and he has done plenty to criticize, but he is no Hitler. 

There are plenty of good historical comparisons to make about our leaders.  I have done it several times in my stories, but if we continue to compare everyone to Hitler, the more we normalize what he did.  If Trump, Obama, and Bush are all like Hitler, and those comparisons have been made by their opposite side, then Hitler becomes just one in a list of unpopular leaders instead of what he truly was, evil. 

Also if Trump is Hitler, how do we ever work to find a middle ground?  If someone is as bad as Hitler, we are past compromise, for how can we find common ground with such a man.  I am not saying comparisons can never be made when looking at specific examples.  I remember comparisons being made with the Nazi practice of having papers to the Arizona law requiring the carrying of IDs.  Those practices are on par.  Comparing the separation of illegal immigrants to detention camps for the Japanese during WWII would make for a great future column.  I just find it difficult to compare what has happened on the border to what happened in the Holocaust.

History is an incredibly powerful weapon.  Churchill once said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”  While this is true, it may also be true that normalizing history can have the same effect.  Are NFL owners as bad as slave owners?  No.  Is Trump as bad as Hitler?  Also no.  We need to keep looking to the past to find comparisons and ultimately answers.  I know I will.  But comparisons need to fair and not normalize past bad behavior. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium.   Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Mayday Bombings

Mayday Bombings

Happy New Year! I thought I would start off this year by publishing a story I wrote last year. Right before I was going to publish it, a bigger story came up and I ended up putting it on the back shelf. The article deals with the bombs that were found in the mail, which received some attention and then was quickly overshadowed, but it is still an important story.

Mayday, mayday, mayday. Most of us know this as an international call for distress. Calling a national Mayday is an appropriate reaction to the discovery of bombs sent by mail to prominent Democrats back in October. These attacks were blamed on presidential rhetoric and the overall political divisiveness prevailing in the nation, especially before the midterm elections. While this was true, it is giving those who report that our nation is hopelessly divided more ammunition. We are in difficult times, but one of the key jobs of historians is to show that we have faced difficult times in the past, and on each occasion we have persevered. With the example of mail bombs, not only has America seen divisive times before, in fact we have seen almost this exact same thing happen.

Whereas today Mayday means distress, in the early twentieth century May Day, or May 1, was International Workers Day, or, to some, Communists or Anarchist Day. On May 1, 1919 about 20 bombs were sent by mail to prominent government leaders and business men, such as John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes.

The years following the Great War were not unlike ours. Race relations were at a low, as soldiers returning home from war found that thousands of African Americans had moved up to northern cities during what is known as the Great Migration and replaced them at work. The next few summers found race riots erupting in northern cities, including the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots. In the South, whites feared that returning black soldiers would expect equal treatment. Not only had black soldiers sacrificed for this nation, they were now trained killers. To make sure blacks knew their place, a rash of lynchings occurred across the South, including the murder of ten black veterans.

Labor relations were also at an all-time low after the War. During the Great War, workers showed their patriotism by not striking, but with the armistice their truce with management ended. Strikes broke out across the nation. Strikes were common in America, but things had changed during the war. One of the largest consequences of WWI was the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Where before a strike was just a strike, now every strike was seen as a possible communist revolution. In 1919, the Russians even called for a world revolution.

In the midst of these fears came the May Day attacks. The bombs were all sent in late April, trying to time their delivery on May 1. All the bombs were similarly wrapped in brown paper and the same size. Each bomb had a stick of dynamite and was rigged to explode when the side marked open was opened. Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson’s aide opened one of the first packages, but he opened it upside down so it did not detonate. Georgia Senator Thomas W. Hardwick was not so lucky when his maid and wife were injured from the blast. The police and post office were both notified and with national media coverage the other recipients knew not to open their packages.

In New York, sixteen of the packages were set aside by a clerk for insufficient postage. On the way home, the clerk read in his paper about the Georgia bomb and recognized the description of the packages that he set aside. He rushed back to his office and secured the bombs, probably saving many lives.

Over the next few months more bombs were sent, some deadly. One bomb detonated at the home of the Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, while he was away. Palmer struck back. With the General Intelligence Division, he raided twelve cities and arrested hundreds of suspected communists. Many were deported and many others illegally detained. The man Palmer used to gather information on suspects was a young lawyer in his office named J. Edgar Hoover. The worst of the attacks happened the next year in September when a horse-drawn wagon blew up in front of the Stock Exchange, killing thirty people. No one was ever tried for the bombs, but as the Roaring Twenties moved in, the Red Scare died away and everything returned to normal.

For two years Americans were on heightened alert as fear gripped the nation. As Americans we were greatly divided not only about racial and class issues, but over the way Palmer and the government handled the crisis. Palmer had presidential ambitions, but his tactics and civil liberty violations eventually came to light and damaged his chance at the White House.

The bombings of 1919 are not the only time we saw similar scares. There was the anthrax attacks of the 2000s. In each of these cases, we endured. What history teaches us is that even with the divide today, when the rhetoric from both sides is stirring violent protests and even potential bombings, we too can endure. I still hope that sanity will one day soon rule in America, as it eventually did in the 1920s, but in the meantime remember most Americans are just like you, just trying to live their lives and find some semblance of happiness.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blogor Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Historical Christmas

With the closing of my first year writing HistoricallySpeaking, I thought I would end it right with a historic Christmas story.  Being a Civil War historian, one of myfavorite Christmas songs is, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”.  That may sound strange, most do not associatethe two together.  However, “I heard theBells on Christmas Day” is a Civil War song. Most versions of the song do not include all of the verses, but if used,you can understand that it is a song about the pain and struggle during thewar.  In fact, it can really be a songabout any war.

In the years before the Civil War, the great poet HenryWadsworth Longfellow would have enjoyed Christmas like most in the Victorianera with his wife and six children enjoying their version of a Dicken’sholiday.  These early memories might haveeven been the inspiration in the song’s first verses:

                I heard the bellson Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

                  And wild andsweet

                  The wordsrepeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

                  Had rolledalong

                The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day

                  A voice, achime,

                  A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

However, for the Longfellows, like so many others during the war, theirlives would be shattered as the nation tore itself apart and caused the deathsof thousands.  For the Longfellow household,their suffering began when Longfellow’s wife, Fannie, caught her dress on fireand she was killed in 1861.  In trying toput out the flames, Longfellow himself was severely burned.

To make matters worse, right before Christmas in November 1863,Longfellow’s oldest son was wounded in the Battle of Mine Run.  The letters from the doctors told him that hemight be permanently paralyzed. Longfellow rushed down to Washington, D.C. to help nurse his firstbornback to health.  It is easy to understandthe next few lines:

                Then from eachblack, accursed mouth,

The cannon thundered in the South,

                  And with thesound

                  The carolsdrowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

 hearth-stonesof a continent,

                  And madeforlorn

                  The householdsborn

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

                 “For hate isstrong

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Yet the Spirit of Christmas was able to overcome such great suffering.  Since the Civil War there have been too manyChristmases with soldiers away from their families, and I am sure many familiestoday have had similar thoughts as Longfellow. I hope this year Christmas can bring you some joy and peace and likeLongfellow, be able to say:

                Then pealed thebells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!

                  The Wrong shallfail,

                  The Rightprevail,

 peace on earth,good-will to men!”

This has been an amazing year for me, I have thoroughly enjoyed writingthis column.  I hope it has not onlyentertained you, but made you take a moment to think about some of the currentissues.  From my family to yours, I wantto wish you all a merry Christmas. 

14th Amendment

With immigration being one of the hottest topics of the year, it is no surprise that President Trump made it an issue during the midterm elections.  However, his latest push for immigration reform has taken a much different twist as he is considering the use of an executive order to define the 14th Amendment and strip away birthright citizenship.  There are two separate controversies here, the use of executive orders and the meaning of the 14th Amendment.  To help understand these issues, some historical information may be helpful.

I don’t want to spend much time on executive orders.  I wrote an entire column on the subject back in June, which can be read on my Historically Speaking page.  It is enough to say that, even though I try not to give opinion here, just historical information, there are no situations I can see that allow the president the legal ability to change or interpret the Amendment.  Even if you completely agree with President Trump’s interpretation of the law, and some legal scholars do, it still needs to be handled correctly.

The other issue is the 14th Amendment and the issue of birthright citizenship.  The debated part of the 14th Amendment states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”  It seems easy enough, but the problem is it is not.  What is tripping everyone up is the clause, “and subject to the jurisdiction therof.”  What does that mean?  Well, it’s open to interpretation.  The problem and the brilliance of the Constitution is that it is vague.  It has to be.  If the Constitution was packed full of specifics, it would have been scrapped years ago.  True, a few things are specified: the president must be thirty-five to be elected, but it also says the president must be compensated, without giving a figure.  So how much does the president make?  Congress has determined that along the way.

When it comes to citizenship, the original Constitution is silent.  The requirements of citizenship have been determined by the courts and Congress.  In other words, citizenship requirements have changed many times.  Some examples are the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in 1789 during John Adam’s administration, which changed the length of time one must live in America from five years to fourteen years before applying for citizenship.  In the 1857 Dred Scott case the courts basically said that slaves were not citizens.  A few years later in 1868, we get the 14th Amendment, which changed the earlier legal precedent on citizenship.  In other words, citizenship laws have been fluid.  Even with the acceptance of the 14th Amendment, later cases were still required to understand exactly what the amendment meant.  In 1898, in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, the courts said a child born to immigrant parents was a citizen.  What I am trying to say is that whether or not you agree with the President on birthright citizenship, history shows us that the laws are subject to change. 

Back to the difficult clause, “and subject to the jurisdiction therof.”  Historically, this was always seen as addressing two main groups.  The first were diplomats.  If children of diplomats were born in America, they were not granted citizenship because they were subjects of a different jurisdiction (country).  The second group were Native Americans for the same reasons.  In 1868, Indians were subjects of sovereign tribes, not the United States, and so their children were not given citizenship by being born in America.  Note that today diplomat’s children are still not granted citizenship, but Native American children are.  Citizenship laws have changed.

Intent does not seem to matter as much as legal precedent, and intent is often difficult to ascertain, but it is worth noting the intent of the 14th Amendment.  The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments are considered the Civil War or Reconstruction amendments because they all came at the end of or right after the War.  The intent of these amendments seems clear.  The Republican–controlled congress was trying to protect the newly freed slave population and fix the lack of official citizenship requirements in the Constitution.  The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, the 14th defined citizenship, and the 15th protected the freedmen’s right to vote.  The Congress wanted to make sure freedmen could not lose their rights because they were once slaves or because of their color.  The mere fact that they were born in America meant they were citizens with all the rights that go with citizenship. 

What is impossible to know is if those members of Congress ever intended that to apply to a baby of an illegal alien.  An argument can be made that illegal aliens are not subject to the jurisdiction therof and so their offspring are not covered under the 14th Amendment.  The other issue of intent is if the writers of the Amendment intended it for use to skirt immigration laws.  They probably never foresaw thousands of people swarming across our southern border when they created this new rule.

What is important to take away is that our citizenship requirements and our immigration laws have changed many times during our history.  It also seems believable that the Congress did not write the 14th Amendment with illegal immigration in mind.  I am not calling for the birthright citizenship to end, but I do think it is worth examining, and history has shown that is the precedent.  However, that conversation needs to happen in the halls of congress and not done by the stroke of a pen from the President. 

The Great War

I did not intent to write another column so soon, but I am becoming concerned by the lack of recognition of the hundred year anniversary of the armistice of World War I.  The nation went all out on the Bicentennial of our nation (for good reason), the same for the 100 and 150 year anniversaries of the Civil War, but, at least locally for me, nothing on the Great War.  I understand some of the reasons why: the Great War just does not carry the weight or popularity as these other wars. 

I believe the reason is that WWI is not a sexy war.  It’s a weird way to describe a war, I know, but it’s true.  The Civil War and WWII are totally sexy wars, with probably more books written about them than any other American subject.  Think about what draws attention to them–larger than life generals engaged in vast sweeping campaigns and movements.  One time in class I asked my students to name one general or battle from WWI.  All I got were blank stares, and these were history students.  I followed up my question with the same but for WWII.  I got Patton, Ike, Bradley, Nimitz, and McArthur, even Rommel, and he fought for the enemy.  For battles there was D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, the Italian campaign, Stalingrad, Midway, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, just to name a few.  All that but nothing about WWI. 

Every history students knows about Patton racing across Europe to rescue the 101st Airborne in the Argon Forest.  It’s a great action story, even if the 101st never claimed to need rescuing.  What Stonewall Jackson did in the 1862 Valley Campaign is nothing short of pure genius Generalship.  But in WWI, men suffered and slugged it out in trenches for months at a time only to wait for the next general to order them over the top.  Men would pour out of their enclosed positions running towards the enemy trench only to be mowed down by machine gun fire.  The war was fought over hundreds of yards at a time in what was basically a stalemate. 

There is also the issue of cause.  I know the Civil War is complicated, but men were fighting for their rights, their states, to keep the Union together, and ultimately for slavery.  WWII men were fighting to rid the world of evil personified in the person of Adolph Hitler.  But what were men fighting for in The War to End All Wars? It’s too difficult to really explain here and is not really a good reason anyway.  There were alliances and an Archduke died, but it is hard to call it a justifiable war.

So, yes, it’s not a sexy war, but that does not mean it’s not an important war.  In fact, I believe World War I is the most important event in the 20th century.  It has farther reaching consequences than anything else.  I don’t have room to discuss everything, or anything in detail, so I just want to highlight a few.  Maybe the biggest is World War II.  This is more than just you have to have one before two, but without one there would not have been a two.  The way that the Great War ended set up a situation that allowed Hitler to come to power.  Under normal circumstances. I can’t believe the German people would have ever supported Hitler, but under the Treaty of Versailles, they were desperate.

As long as we are talking about future problems, WWI also gave us the Communist Revolution in Russia.  This war so profoundly devastated the Russian people that they rose up and overthrew the Czar.  The democratic government they created, the Duma, made the mistake of releasing all political prisoners, allowing others back in the nation, but also not ending the war.  One of the exiled Russians who returned was Vladimir Lenin.  A few months after the first revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks held a second revolution, promising the people land, bread, but mostly peace.  Without WWI, there never would have been a communist government in Russia.  Think how the rest of the world’s history would be different without communists Russia.

Another area that affects us greatly today is the Middle East.  This is too complex to explain here, but it was during WWI that T.E. Lawrence and the Arabs rose up and threw off their Ottoman Turkish rulers.  With the Ottomans defeated, the western power carved up new nations, creating the modern Middle East, including nations like Iraq, a nation we now know too well.  All because of WWI.

There are so many other things to address, such as the Armenian genocide, the Spanish Flu, and the rise of America’s economic prominence in the world.   However, with the little room I have left, I want to say something about the men, the ones we should honor this day.  First, the sheer numbers.  The American Civil War established a new high in casualties with 700,000 men dead, yet this WWI dwarfed those numbers, numbers that could never have been conceived of before the war.  The Germans lost 1,8000,000 men; the Russians, 1,700,000; the French, 1,385,000; the Austrians, 1,200,000; the British, 947,000; the Americans come in with the much lower number of 116,000.  The numbers are staggering. 

The men in this war lived through a virtual hell.  They spent a great deal of the conflict living in muddy trenches that were six feet deep and wide enough for two men to pass.  It seemed as if the trenches were always full of water or at least muddy to the point that the term “trench foot” was given to men’s rotting feet.  They eat, slept, and worked in the mud next to the rats and lice that were as numerous as they were.  They had to endure new technologies like tanks, planes, machine guns, but, worst of all, poison gas.  The conditions were so bad that the men experienced what was known as shell shock, what today we would call PTSD.  But those men were expected to get back to the trenches.

 Americans today do not really study the Great War.  We don’t have many movies or shows depicting the events.  Those who were alive during the war, never forgot the misery of that conflict, but those soldiers are gone now.  The agreement for the guns to cease firing was on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a date that became known as Armistice Day.  Today we call November 11th Veterans Day, a day to remember all who have served to keep American free.  Today however, let us spend a few more minutes thinking about those who served in the Trenches.  Maybe at 11:00 remember a world that was broken and the men who gave their all in a war that seems to be slipping away from memory.  If we remember that the Cold War, 9/11 and the Gulf War, and even WWII may never have happened with the Great War, maybe we can do better honoring its memory and try to understand the conflict so that we do not repeat its mistakes in the future.   

9/11 and Football

Once again, one of the biggest stories in the NFL this year is player protests of the national anthem.  To add gas to the fire, earlier this year Nike released a campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick with the tag line “Believe in Something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”  As you all know, the nation is split over the protest and over Kaepernick.  I have thought of historical similarities I can talk about.  There are plenty dealing with the race issue and sports, Muhammad Ali protesting the draft and Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the black power salute in the 1968 Olympics, just to name two.  However, I also think there is a historical explanation to the current anthem debate.  Knowing the history will not solve any of the issues, but possibly might help understand it better.   The protesters have stated that they are only protesting injustice, so why does kneeling during a sporting event feel like an attack on the military and police?  I believe it all has to do with 9/11.

 9/11 is the most dramatic day of my lifetime.  It has been compared to JFK’s death for my parents and Pearl Harbor for my grandparents.  For those old enough to remember that day, we will never forget it or how we felt.  For myself, I was a master’s student at Va Tech in 2001.  The semester had just started and I was spending the day working on a paper for class.  After a few hours writing I had a question and so called a friend who told me to stop what I was doing and turn on the TV.  Following his advice I flipped on my set just shortly after the second plane crashed into the second tower.  I spent the rest of the day, really the next few days, glued to the news. 

Like most Americans, I was devastated.  I did not know what to do, I ended up helping my church organize a blood drive so I could stay busy. The next day was even harder, I had to teach a class on the Civil War and I did not know what to say.  I could not just launch into the war, not that day, I felt I had to say something calming first. Over the next couple of days, I ran through a gamut of emotions, from fear to sorrow to anger.  I do not remember how many days I, and everyone around me, walked around in a daze.  I also cannot remember the day-to-day occurrences, but I do remember one thing, after a week off, the NFL decided to play football. 

To be honest I had to look that up.  In my memory the NFL played the week of the attacks, that is how vivid the scenes of the NFL are in my mind.  When looking up some facts to write this piece I was reminded that the NFL decided to cancel that first week.  They even considered canceling the entire season.  There were some who did not see sports as a priority after such a tragic event.  Though they were right, sports was not a priority, many others felt the need to show our resilience by not giving into the terrorists and continue to live our lives.  Finally, many just felt that what America needed was a distraction from our lives and the NFL decided to play football.

I know this may sound skewed, but my memories of that Sunday are almost as ingrained in my mind as 9/11 itself.  The emotions were overwhelming, as players ran out of the tunnels carrying American flags.  Every stadium was covered with flags, both on the field and in the stands.  Fans from both sides stood and shouted USA in an act of unity.  When the anthem played, emotions overtook both players and fans as tears flowed easily.  This act of flag waving went even beyond football, it seemed as if every home and every car flew a flag for at least the remainder of that season.  With all that had happened, football helped, even if just a little, it helped.  It somehow reinforced that we would endure.

Jump ahead several years.  9/11 has not been forgotten, but its impact has softened.  Flags are flown on holidays from many homes, but few are seen on cars anymore.  However, when an athlete in the NFL kneels down during the anthem to protest, I think for many, even if subconsciously, there is still a connection to 9/11.  I could be wrong, but I do not think that the NBA or MLB would draw as much criticism as the NFL.  Baseball was playing at the same time as 9/11, but at least for me I don’t remember any iconic images of when baseball played, outside of the Yankees.  I know it happened, but they are not as much part of our shared past.  Football, the flag, the military, and our first responders are now all connected.  Right or wrong, for many Americans protesting the flag during a football game is the same as protesting our military to their face.

Having said all that, the other side has a tragic and even a deeper history.  The history of racial injustice is older than the history of our nation and even more engrained in the lives of those who live it than the NFL is to its fans.  From slavery to Jim Crow to unarmed black men shot in the streets, there is a reason to stand up for social justice.  Kaepernick meant to protest injustice; I do not think he set out to disrespect armed service members or first responders.  He had to expect some kickback, but if I had to guess, he had no idea the firestorm he would create by kneeling.  Maybe he had not thought of the connection the NFL has with the military or police, or maybe he had.  We are still talking about him three years later.  Maybe both sides can try to understand each other’s history.  It will not solve all our problems, but maybe if we try, it can bring a bit more understanding. 

Historical Look at Impeachment

With all the talk of impeachment, it is time once again to explain exactly what impeachment is and also to look at it historically.  The important things to remember are that, one, impeachment does not mean removing a sitting president; two, we have never removed a president before; and three, impeachment is very difficult because it is political.  Both impeached presidents actually did what they were accused of, but neither were removed. 

                First things first, Article II, Section 4, of the Constitution reads, “The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”  The tricky part of the clause is impeached for and CONVICTION of.  It is a two-part process; you are first impeached and, second, put on trial.  The House of Representatives impeaches a president and then the Senate, with the Chief Justice presiding, conducts the trial. 

Two presidents have been impeached, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, but neither were removed for office.  I can already hear the question, so I will answer it.  Richard Nixon was not impeached; he resigned.  He probably would have been impeached and probably would have been convicted.  However, I use the word probably because in politics we never really know.  Again, I believe both Johnson and Clinton did what they were accused of, yet neither was removed. 

                First, let us look at the example most are unfamiliar with, Andrew Johnson.  Johnson became president after the death of Abraham Lincoln.  Johnson was in a difficult circumstance; he was not Lincoln’s V.P. for his first term and was brought in to help Lincoln secure votes for reelection.  What made Johnson interesting was that he was a slave-holding Democrat from Tennessee, who believed secession was illegal.  The Democrats were arguing for peace, so Lincoln hoped that Johnson would secure possible northern Democratic voters who wanted to continue prosecution the Civil War.

                Johnson was never supposed to reach the highest office but when he did the Republicans, who controlled the Congress, feared Johnson’s lenience on the South after the war, as well as replacing Lincoln’s Republican cabinet with Democrats.  To prevent the first, Congress made sure he could not do the latter.  In 1867 Congress passed, over Johnson’s veto, the Tenure of Office Act that stated the president could not remove any member of his cabinet without Senate approval.  When the president fought with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton over the army’s role in Reconstruction, Johnson replaced him.  Johnson was hoping this would challenge the Act and take it to the Supreme Court.  Instead, the Congress acted first and brought up articles of impeachment. 

                Long story short, Johnson broke the law, one later repealed, but he still broke the law as it currently stood.  When the Senate voted, they fell one vote short of the required vote for conviction.  All the Democrats and enough Republicans felt the trial was a sham.

                It took 102 years for the next impeachment hearings.  In 1998, the House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton.  The charges were lying under oath to a federal grand jury and obstructing justice.  Kenneth Starr, a special prosecutor investigating Clinton for the Paula Jones and Whitewater scandals, learned of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.  Lewinsky, allegedly instructed by the president, filed an affidavit in which she denied ever having had a sexual relationship with him.  Clinton then denied the affair to a grand jury.  When Lewinsky later changed her testimony, Clinton was forced to admit the affair and the House started to debate impeachment.

After a five-week trial, the Senate acquitted Clinton on both charges.  Officially, the acquittal came because of legal wrangling over the definition of sex.  Unofficially, it is because the American people saw this trial more about the morality of an affair than the legality of lying.  Immorality was superseded by a strong economy and politics.

If Watergate happened after the Clinton trial, maybe Nixon would have remained in office and fought his removal.  With only the Johnson precedent, Nixon probably felt his presidency was doomed.  Yet what we see is that politics are fickle.  Like it or not, in my opinion both previous presidents broke the law.  In both cases, the party that brought the charges had the majority in the Senate, yet they were unable to get a conviction.  Therefore, what history tells us is that even if Democrats win the House and the Senate in the midterm elections, it is not a foregone conclusion that Trump will be impeached. And if he is, there is no guarantee of conviction.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.