The chief justice who presided over the first presidential impeachment trial thought it was political spectacle
On March 5, 1868, the first day of President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, the following item appeared on the front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
The sheer poetry of this news item is unlikely to be repeated in the coverage of President Trump’s Senate trial.
As Trump’s trial gets set to begin, the spotlight is inevitably turning — just as it did with Johnson — to the chief justice of the United States, who must somehow preside over this very odd, kind-of-sort-of legal process of politicians sitting in judgment of the country’s commander in chief.
In Trump’s trial, it’s John G. Roberts Jr.
In Johnson’s trial, it was Salmon P. Chase.
Chase — not to be confused with Justice Samuel Chase, whose nickname was “Old Bacon Face” — was an extremely serious and pious man. Some of his closest friends could not recall ever seeing him laugh.
“Chase neither drank nor smoked,” the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin once wrote. “He considered both theater and novels a foolish waste of time and recoiled from all games of chance, believing that they unwholesomely excited the mind.”
Born in New Hampshire to farmers, Chase was an Episcopalian. From early on, his parents hammered into his psyche that there was a bright line between moral and amoral. Naturally, this upbringing imbued in Chase a keen sense of right and wrong.
Chase became a lawyer, eventually settling in Ohio were he defended runaway slaves. He was grumpy but popular. In 1848, the Ohio legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate — that’s how it worked back then — and upon tasting political power Chase could not shake it.
Chase won two terms as Ohio’s governor, then ran for president against Abraham Lincoln — losing, of course to the more affable Honest Abe.
Lincoln made Chase part of his “Team of Rivals,” the title of Goodwin’s bestseller about Lincoln’s presidency, appointing him treasury secretary. Chase’s contributions to the formation of the national banking system were celebrated years later when his portrait appeared on the $10,000 bill.
Chase and Lincoln got along about as well as Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. Lincoln always harbored the suspicion that Chase was a political opportunist. Chase thought Lincoln wasn’t as anti-slavery as he was. There were disputes over war policy and personnel matters at Treasury.
Ultimately, Chase resigned — three times. Lincoln refused the first two, then accepted the third. There were no hard feelings from Lincoln, though.
In 1864, after the death of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, Lincoln selected Chase as his replacement. It was yet another stroke of Lincoln’s political genius.
Taney wrote the majority opinion in what many historians consider to be the worst Supreme Court decision in history — Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that those of African descent could not be U.S. citizens. Chase had defended runaway slaves. After emancipation, Lincoln saw Chase as an inspired choice.
Lincoln nominated Chase on Dec. 4, 1864. The Senate confirmed him on Dec. 4, 1864.
(Imagine a Supreme Court nomination taking a single day!)
On the evening of April 14, 1865, Lincoln was shot. He was pronounced dead the next morning. His vice president, Andrew Johnson, became president. Chase swore him in. Three years later, Chase presided over Johnson’s impeachment trial.
This was a confusing time. There were no precedents to follow. In fact, according to historian John P. Niven’s biography of Chase, it wasn’t even clear who should conduct the trial — the president of the Senate (who was Johnson’s political enemy) or the chief justice (who was supposed to be nobody’s enemy.)
Chase consulted the Constitution, which said the “Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments.” That meant the Senate’s highest officer was in charge. But it also said, “When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside.”
So Chase would preside. Next problem: The Constitution gives no guidance about what “preside” actually means. Chase took it upon himself, Niven wrote, to pressure the Senate to “be organized in some particulars as a court” and Chase “insisted he should rule on the competency of witnesses and on the evidence.”
Johnson was on trial for, among other things, violating the Tenure of Office Act in 1867, which said the president couldn’t fire important government officials unless he got the go-ahead from the Senate. Johnson had fired the secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, without consulting the Senate. Cue impeachment.
Chase thought the whole thing was much ado about nothing.
“Chase had profound misgivings about the trial,” Niven wrote. “He considered the articles more of partisan rhetoric than substantive evidence for a conviction.”
In a letter to Gerrit Smith, a fellow abolitionist and former congressman, Chase wrote that “the whole business seems wrong, and if I had any opinion, under the Constitution, I would not take part in it.”
Chase suspected the whole business would become a public spectacle.
He was right then — and now.