At least a dozen Republican senators have signed on to a last-ditch effort to overturn the results of the presidential election, vowing to object to the electoral vote totals from several swing states when they are certified in a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
That has critics accusing the lawmakers of sedition — inciting rebellion against the authority of the government — and calling for their expulsion. No senator has been expelled since the Civil War, when 14 mostly Southern senators were kicked out by their colleagues.
The fuse had been lit Nov. 6, 1860. Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election despite not being on the ballot in 10 Southern states and earning less than 40 percent of the popular vote.
Four days after the election, the first senator bailed; James Chesnut of South Carolina submitted his resignation in a one-sentence note, which was “accepted enthusiastically” by other lawmakers, according to New York Times coverage.
As states seceded that December and January, more senators followed their states out the door. Some simply didn’t show up for the next session; others made formal resignations. Crowds lined up in the frigid dawn to hear Sen. Jefferson Davis‘s farewell address, during which he made clear he thought secession was justified because he believed Lincoln would end slavery:
“[Mississippi] has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races. That Declaration of Independence is to be construed by the circumstances and purposes for which it was made.“...They have no reference to the slave; else, how happened it that among the items of arraignment made against George III was that he endeavored to do just what the North has been endeavoring of late to do--to stir up insurrection among our slaves? Had the Declaration announced that the negroes were free and equal, how was the Prince to be arraigned for stirring up insurrection among them?”
The audience wept openly and gave him rapturous applause. A few weeks later, he was president of the Confederacy.
In March, the remaining senators debated what to do about the empty seats. Did they not exist anymore because those states said they were no longer a part of the Union? Or if states were not permitted to secede, then were they merely vacant? They decided on the latter.
Some senators, such as Texas’s Louis T. Wigfall, tried to have it both ways, remaining in the Senate even after their states seceded. Wigfall used his perch in Washington to spy on the Union and smuggle weapons South. For a time, he was both a U.S. senator and a member of the Confederate Congress, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Then in April 1861, he rowed into the middle of the action — literally in a boat — at Fort Sumter and into the Civil War.
When the Senate reconvened in July, the remaining members had had enough. Sen. Daniel Clark of New Hampshire proposed a resolution to expel 10 senators on the grounds they were “engaged in [a] conspiracy for the destruction of the Union and government, or, with full knowledge of such conspiracy, have failed to advise the government of its progress or aid in its suppression.”
The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority to expel a member of the Senate. Before this moment, only one senator had been expelled, and more than six decades had passed since that time. The motion passed 32 to 10; those expelled were the two senators each from Arkansas, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, plus Chesnut of South Carolina and Alfred O.P. Nicholson of Tennessee.
Within seven months, four more were expelled for offering aid to the enemy, including John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, whom Lincoln had beaten in the 1860 election.
Almost all of the expelled men joined the Confederacy in leadership positions. Four died during or shortly after the war; when the Confederacy surrendered, four escaped to other countries and two were briefly imprisoned. Within a few years, all had resumed distinguished careers, though none ever returned to the Senate.
In one strange instance, an expulsion was revoked. Among the first 10 expelled was Sen. William K. Sebastian of Arkansas. He returned to his hometown and practiced law before dying a few weeks after the end of the Civil War. He was never found to have participated in the Confederacy. In 1877, his name was cleared and his family was compensated.
Since 1862, the Senate has considered expulsion in 16 other instances, but it never removed a member connected to those cases.
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