Commentary: Delaware’s representatives never agreed on removing presidents

Amid the impeachment drama involving the incumbent American president, it is appropriate to consider history and precedent.

Pertaining to Delaware’s members of Congress, there has never been unanimous — or even majority — support for removal of the chief executive by the aforementioned means.

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson — a career Tennessee Democrat who stayed with the Union during the Civil War and joined the Union ticket with Abraham Lincoln in 1864 — was impeached by the Republican House of Representatives on 11 charges, mainly associated with alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act.

At the time, Delaware’s federal legislators were all Democrats. The at-large member of the U.S. House of Representatives was John A. Nicholson, an attorney from Dover whose military record and party views propelled him to victory over an “Unconditional Unionist” (read: Republican) incumbent.

The House approved a general impeachment resolution against Johnson on Feb. 24, 1868 by a 126-47 vote; a week later eleven separate charges were approved by a similar vote margin as above.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Nicholson voted nay on all but one charge, which he did not vote on at all. He did not run for reelection in 1868 and returned to private law practice.

In the 1868 Republican-dominated U.S. Senate, Delaware was represented by James A. Bayard, Jr. and Willard Saulsbury, Sr., both Democrats. Bayard had been a senator from 1851 until 1864, but resigned his seat rather than swear loyalty to the Union. He was replaced by Democrat George Riddle — known to be one of the last slaveholders in Delaware — but in turn replaced Riddle after Riddle’s death while in office in March 1867.

Saulsbury, a former attorney general of Delaware, served from 1859 until 1871. A severe critic of President Abraham Lincoln, Saulsbury was once removed from the Senate chamber after threatening the sergeant-at-arms with a revolver. Both Bayard and Saulsbury voted “not guilty” on the only three charges which the Senate voted on. Given that the 35-19 vote to remove was one less than the two-thirds margin required, Delaware’s senators certainly played a crucial role in the outcome.

Subsequently, Bayard retired to private law practice and Saulsbury was defeated by his older brother in the next Senate election.

Though the impeachment process against President Richard Nixon never reached a final, full vote by the House of Representatives, one can certainly project how Delaware’s members of Congress would have vote. After the Senate Watergate hearings of 1973 and the evidence provided by the special prosecutor, the House of Representatives took up and its Judiciary Committee passed three charges in July 1974.

At that time, Delaware’s congressman was Pete DuPont, a moderate Republican who served from 1971 until 1977. Although DuPont would later trumpet campaign finance reform after Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, he was a loyal supporter of the president and most certainly would have rejected any impeachment charge brought to the full House, which along with the Senate was controlled by Democrats.

In 1974, Delaware’s two senators were William Roth, Jr. and Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Roth, a Republican whose Senate career lasted three decades, began service in 1971; Biden, a Democrat, took office two years later. Based on future actions and known views, it is likely that Roth would have defended Nixon had the case reached the Senate for trial. Conversely, Biden had every reason to follow Democratic leadership in its effort to remove Nixon from office.

In October 1998, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 258-176 to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, who was accused of having an affair with a White House intern and covering up the investigation. Eventually, the House of Representatives voted on four charges, approving two: perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice.

The member of the House representing Delaware at that time was former governor Michael Castle, a moderate Republican who began service in 1993. Although Castle backed the perjury charge against Clinton, he was one of eight Republicans to reject the obstruction charge. Castle was reelected eight times before unsuccessfully seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2010.

Both Bill Roth and Joe Biden were still in the Senate in 1999, when that Republican majority tried Clinton on the two charges. Not surprisingly, both senators voted along party lines. On the 50-50 obstruction and 45-55 perjury votes, Roth voted guilty and Biden voted not guilty on each. Because neither vote came near the two-thirds margin required for removal, the president was acquitted. Roth, defeated for reelection by Tom Carper in 2000, is the last Republican senator from Delaware. Biden continued tenure in the Senate until 2008, when he successfully ran for vice president.

Delaware’s party history has been relatively balanced over most of the last century. However, all of Delaware’s current members of Congress are Democrats. Given the partisan atmosphere prevailing, along with the previous voting records of House member Lisa Blunt Rochester — in office for three years — and Senate members Tom Carper and Chris Coons — the latter of whom has served since 2011 — it is predicted that Delaware’s congressional delegation will make history by all voting for charges and for removal of the president for the first time.

While the full House will impeach President Trump — making him the third president to suffer that official sanction — the Senate will surely acquit, resulting in a similar fate to Trump as that which befell Andrew Johnson (though AJ did make a comeback as a U.S. senator following his contentious tenure as America’s 17th president).

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor for the Delaware Society of the Cincinnati and Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at Delaware State University.

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