‘He lies like a dog’: The first effort to impeach a president was led by his own party
Long before President Donald Trump, there was President John Tyler
On July 22, 1842, Virginia Rep. John Minor Botts rose from his seat in the House of Representatives to introduce the first proposal in U.S. history to impeach a president. The president was fellow Whig John Tyler. Botts vowed to “head him or die.”
Whig Party leader Henry Clay of Kentucky cautioned that impeachment might be a risky way to counter the president’s bitter clashes with the Whig-controlled Congress.
“There is cause enough, God knows,” Clay said, “but it is a novel proceeding, full of important consequences, present and future, and should not be commenced but upon full consideration.”
Some of the rhetoric aimed at Tyler echoes what House Democrats are leveling at President Trump. On Sunday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff said allegations that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son may make impeachment inevitable. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also sent a letter to Republicans and Democrats that demanded more information from the director of national intelligence about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, but did not use the I-word.
When John Tyler faced impeachment 177 years ago, it was the Whigs who decided to create an investigative committee headed by a respected elder statesman, former president John Quincy Adams, who had become a Massachusetts congressman.
John Tyler was the first vice president to succeed to the presidency in April 1841 when William Henry “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison died after just one month in office.
The 51-year-old Tyler, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Virginia, had only recently switched to the Whig Party. As president, he began vetoing so many bills passed by Congress that the Whigs kicked him out of their party. Mobs of angry Whigs protested in front of the White House.
The anger boiled over on the House floor, where Rep. Edward Stanly of North Carolina got into a fistfight with Tyler’s best friend, Rep. Henry Wise of Virginia. Stanly complained of Tyler: “He lies like a dog.”
The president was aware of the discontent in Congress. He wrote a friend, “I am told that one of the madcaps talks of impeachment.” That “madcap” was Botts, who on July 11 gave notice of his plans, warning, “If the power of impeachment is not exercised by the House in less than six months, ten thousand bayonets will gleam on Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Eleven days later, Botts formally introduced a petition to impeach Tyler “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 House voted to table the proposal for the time being.
Botts separately specified his charges against Tyler. Among them: “I charge him with the high crime and misdemeanor of endeavoring to excite a disorganizing and revolutionary spirit in the country, by inviting a disregard of, and disobedience to a law of Congress.” He charged the president with “abuse of the veto power, to gratify his personal and political resentment,” and of being “utterly unworthy and unfit to have the destinies of this nation in his hands as chief magistrate.”
The same Democratic newspapers that had pilloried the Whig presidential ticket of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” defended Tyler and attacked Botts. “The bastard son of Virginia has performed his foolish threat and produced articles of impeachment against the President of the United States,” wrote the Madisonian.
Clay, who had resigned from the Senate to prepare to run for president in 1844, feared a voter backlash to a premature impeachment action. “Let [Tyler] serve out his time and go back to Virginia from whence the Whigs have bitter cause to lament that they ever sent him forth,” he said.
Botts rejected such concerns.
“There may be some honest but timid men” who fear impeachment efforts would create sympathy for the president, he said. “But to my mind it would be quite as reasonable to suffer a mad dog to escape that runs through the public streets biting every living thing he met with, from an apprehension that it might excite a sympathy for him by the cry of kill him.”
The Whigs were especially frustrated because Congress had failed to override any of Tyler’s vetoes. The clash hit a breaking point on Aug. 9 when Tyler vetoed a major tariff bill. Adams took to the House floor to declare that the president had put the legislative and executive branches “in a state of civil war.”
On Aug. 11, the House authorized a 13-member Select Committee on the Veto headed by Adams to investigate the president’s actions. Adams despised Tyler because he was a slaveholder.
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The committee reported back just a week later. The majority report accused Tyler of “gross abuse of constitutional power and bold assumptions of powers never vested in him by any law” and of having assumed “the whole legislative power to himself.” The report said Tyler had “strangled” the life out of Congress and committed “offenses of the gravest character.” The majority also charged Tyler with obstruction of justice by withholding information needed to investigate the “misdeeds by government.”
The majority concluded “the case has occurred” that was “contemplated by the founders of the Constitution by the grant of the power to impeach the President of the United States.” However, the report didn’t recommend proceeding with impeachment because “of the present state of public affairs.”
With the nation sharply divided, the report said, such action would “prove abortive.” The House approved the majority report. Tyler responded that he had “been accused without evidence and condemned without a hearing.” In a letter to a friend, the president said he apparently had committed the high crime of “sustaining the Constitution of the country and daring to have an opinion of my own.”
On Jan. 10, 1843, the House voted on Botts’s articles of impeachment. But the Whigs had lost control of the body in the 1842 election, and the resolution failed. Tyler eventually issued a total of 10 vetoes (far below Franklin D. Roosevelt’s record 635 vetoes).
The Whigs finally got some revenge in Tyler’s final month in office, March 1845, when Congress overrode a veto of a bill on building Marine service ships. Thus, Tyler became the first U.S. president to have a veto overridden.