How Impeachment Works


The people are often the ones who demand impeachment. Here, retired Air Force Gen. John Douglass is calling for impeachment of President Donald Trump at the Tax March rally held on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol on April 15, 2017. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images
The people are often the ones who demand impeachment. Here, retired Air Force Gen. John Douglass is calling for impeachment of President Donald Trump at the Tax March rally held on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol on April 15, 2017. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

At around 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 16, 1868, Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas sat at his desk in the Senate chamber shredding paper into smaller and smaller pieces until his lap and feet were covered in scraps of white. The stress must have been getting to him. One by one, all around him the voices of his fellow senators were answering a single question from Chief Justice Salmon Portland Chase: "Mr. Senator, how say you?"

On that day, the senators of the United States were voting, for the first time in the nation's history, whether to impeach their commander in chief President Andrew Johnson. Johnson had been Abraham Lincoln's vice president and moved into the Oval Office after Lincoln's assassination in April 1865. By December of that year, the new president's Republican opponents in Congress were beginning to rail against him, and a year later they would begin the first in a series of attempts to impeach him.

In the wake of the Civil War, U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens and his followers felt that Johnson had failed to stop the brutalization of freed slaves by their previous owners, and was likewise ceding control of the Southern states to former Confederates.

Now at last, Congress had the opportunity to do something about the situation. To impeach a president requires a so-called "super-majority," or two-thirds, of the Senate vote. The problem was that in the time leading up to the impeachment vote, corruption, backroom deals and bribery had been rife.

As a result, it was, by this time known exactly how all the senators were going to vote. All, that is, except for Edmund Ross of Kansas. Ross was the lynch pin, the fulcrum, the straw that could break the proverbial camel's back. Hence the anxious paper-shredding routine as he waited for his name to be called. Senator after senator voted exactly as expected. Finally, the chief justice said the words everyone was waiting to hear, "Mr. Senator Ross, how say you?"

Edmund Ross rose from his chair, his face as white as the shredded paper falling from his lap. He felt, as he would later say, as though he were facing death. Nevertheless, he quickly and clearly declared, "Not guilty."

A sigh went through the chamber, whether of disappointment or relief, it was difficult to say. Although the voting continued, everybody now knew what the final result would be: The first effort to impeach a U.S. president had failed by a single vote [source: Stewart].