Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson, by William H. Rehnquist

Nine stars

At a time when ‘impeachment’ is as much a buzzword as ‘the wall’, I have taken time to explore the former topic through a detailed, academic lens. The idea of a constitutionally-entrenched means of removing certain figures in the American political system is not new by any means. There have been many impeachment trials—and even some successes—though they receive little fanfare in the history textbooks. Former (and late) Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (USSC), William Rehnquist, offers up a historic look at two significant impeachment trials of the 19th century, those of USSC Justice Samuel Chase and President of the United States Andrew Johnson. Rehnquist seeks not to offer a legal analysis of the rights and wrongs done in these trials, but to provide a thorough context that led up to events, the House debates over Articles of Impeachment, and the Senate trial.

In exploring the Chase impeachment, Rehnquist offers the reader a thorough backstory about the legal decisions that led House members to consider him unfit to serve on the High Court. These included refusal to hear witnesses in certain cases or lack of proper instruction to a grand jury in another case. Interestingly enough, Rehnquist points out that none of these actions took place when Chase was on the USSC, but rather in the years when he served in lower courts. The Articles were presented by a vindictive House and taken to the Senate, in hopes of a quick conviction. Many of the Articles were highly legalistic, perhaps losing their impact on the non-legal minded senators who sat as the congressional jury. Rehnquist shows in detail how the evidence was presented and what arguments were used to sway senators, before the voting began. With the severity of the act, a super-majority of two-thirds would be needed to convict, something that did not occur. There were, however, significant divisions within the American political system in the lead-up to the trial, which only deepened in its aftermath.

Shaken, but not toppled, the American state moved forward from the Chase Impeachment and into the ravages of slavery and how that tore apart the fabric of the country. Rehnquist offers a brilliant exploration of how the country used its constitutional foundation to either justify or deny the right of slavery in the country, which fuelled divisiveness in a country that was just shedding the mantle of infancy. With drums of conflict beating in the background—and soon in the foreground—the country elected Abraham Lincoln to guide them, though the selection was highly divisive across the regions. By the end of the US Civil War, the country was strongly divided and literally bloodied, only made worse when its so-called unifier was assassinated shortly after the formal truce had been signed. With Lincoln gone, it was Andrew Johnson who took over the reins of power, which led to years of conflict as the US Congress tried to right itself with legislation seeking to reconstruct the country under this new acceptance of all being equal and slavery being abolished. As Rehnquist explores through historical documentation, Johnson did little to assuage the climate of hostility, fanning flames and trying to assert his right to rule in his own way. Firing Cabinet officials and replacing them without seeking Senate consent—something enshrined in the Tenure of Office Act—while also developing his own form of reconstruction that contradicted much of the legislative plans enacted by Congress. Rehnquist explores how these clashes led House Republicans to begin drafting Articles of Impeachment, eleven in all. When they were approved, the case went to the Senate to be adjudicated. The impeachment trial proved a political spectacle that saw many of the divisions within the newly reassembled United States exacerbated. When the voting began, Johnson was saved from impeachment by a single vote, though only a few of the Articles were ever voted upon, leaving many others to wither away before the trial was closed.

I had heard much about Rehnquist’s book when reading the more recent academic discussions surrounding impeachment, but had never taken the time to read it. As I mentioned before, the book seeks not to analyse impeachment from a legal standpoint—though, who greater to offer a detailed analysis than the more senior juror in the United States at the time?—but rather a historic snapshot of events that actually took place. Rehnquist spends much time offering actual excerpts from newspaper headlines, articles, debates on the floor of the House of Representatives, as well as transcripts from the formal impeachment trials of both men. The reader is permitted to view some of the strongly worded arguments surrounding the Articles of Impeachment, as well as a little more of the context that would offer a well-grounded understanding of events and circumstances. Of note, Rehnquist does mention that both impeachments of which he writes were brought about my legislatures with a majority of members from the opposing party. This is not to say that impeachment is solely a political weapon, but the impetus to bring it about sometimes requires partisanship. Even in modern American politics, while many can see that the current president is paving the way to his ouster, a Republican House of Representatives did not act and the current (at time of this review) GOP majority in the Senate would not take the bold move and remove their renegade party leader. Penned and published seven years before Rehnquist would have to sit as figurehead arbiter of a presidential impeachment, many have said that this book helped substantiate the author’s knowledge of the nuances of impeachment proceedings. What I find most refreshing is that the text is written in such a way that the layperson can grasp and synthesise the concepts and that it is not a tome dripping with academic analysis that only the scholarly might enjoy. Impeachment has long been discussed and does occur more regularly than a few sitting presidents over the years, something that Rehnquist does hint at throughout. But it is nice to see factual presentation rather than overly partisan and esoteric verbiage to explore one of the more exciting parts of the American constitutional rule book. We shall see if impeachment remains a buzzword for the American public over the next little while. One thing’s for sure… doing so would not cost the American public upwards of $6 billion and likely lead to a shutdown. But… I digress!

Kudos, Chief Justice Rehnquist, for this masterful piece of work. While I admit to not agreeing with much of your sentiments during your time on the bench, I could not be happier with this piece of historical analysis.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: