Impeachment is a powerful tool granted to Congress by the Constitution, and it is one that has always been subject to the passions of partisanship. During the Early Republic, calls for impeachment found wide play in the era’s print media — newspapers, pamphlets, magazines, books and broadsides. Soon after John Adams lost the presidential race to Jefferson during the vicious election of 1800, Federalist newspapers printed calls for Jefferson’s impeachment. Shortly after taking office, one editorialist in New York City’s Commercial Advertiser argued that Jefferson should be removed because he was an infidel and an atheist. Unconstrained by religion, the argument went, his oath to uphold the Constitution could not be trusted, despite the fact that the Constitution barred religious tests.
Another essayist going by the name Juris Consultus argued that Jefferson’s decision to halt the federal prosecution of Philadelphia newspaper editor William Duane for violating the 1798 Sedition Act was an impeachable offense. Another newspaper focused on Jefferson’s decision to dismiss the Federalist governor of the Mississippi Territory as an impeachable offense because he had “prostituted the dignity of his high office” and “prostrated the dignity of government.” Once again, this ignored the fact that the chief executive had every power to dismiss appointed officials by nominating successors.
The Democratic-Republican Party, with control of both houses of Congress after the election of 1800 and with the support of Jefferson, actually pursued impeachment, too — of two federal judges as part of a partisan effort to reform the country’s laws. John Pickering was charged with insanity, and ultimately convicted after he responded to the summons by demanding a trial by combat with Jefferson. The case against Samuel Chase was premised on his conduct (and alleged mishandling) during the treason trial of John Fries and the sedition trials of Thomas Cooper and James Thomson Callender. He was ultimately acquitted after a lengthy trial overseen by Vice President Aaron Burr.
Yet, these impeachments were the exception. If anything, the ordinariness of such accusations in the press overstated the potential use of impeachment as a political tool.
Even so, with little over a month remaining in Jefferson’s presidency, Quincy introduced an impeachment resolution, even though it had no chance of passing with Jefferson’s allies in control of Congress.
On Jan. 25, 1809, Quincy rose to denounce the president as he had done numerous times in the past. This time was different, as Quincy alleged that Jefferson had failed to carry out his duties as chief executive. The president’s “high misdemeanor,” according to Quincy, was that he kept Benjamin Lincoln, the customs collector for the port of Boston, in federal office despite the man’s protestations that he was too old, and too feeble, to do his job. In 1806 Lincoln had written to Jefferson proposing to resign his office, but Jefferson asked him to stay on until he had appointed a successor. The president did so to nominate Henry Dearborn, his friend and the secretary of war, to this important position before his eventual retirement to Monticello. Jefferson wanted to reward his longtime ally with the Boston collectorship, but first, he needed to keep the long-serving Dearborn in the War Department until the foreign crisis with Great Britain over trade restrictions and the impressment of American sailors was resolved.
Quincy saw it differently, alleging that Jefferson unfairly allowed a federal official to be paid a $5,000 annual salary “for doing no services.”
Quincy’s motion received intense pushback in the floor debate that followed, as both Democratic-Republicans and Federalists objected to it. Seventeen Congressmen in total spoke against even considering the resolution, a high number for any House debate at the time. Thomas Gholson, an administration ally from Virginia labeled Quincy’s impeachment attempt as a “ridiculous proposition” while William A. Burwell, Jefferson’s former private secretary now a Virginia Congressman, referred to the ploy as something out of “Gulliver’s Travels.”
Their incredulity stemmed from the charge against Jefferson being devoid of substance. Asking the customs collector to stay in office was neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor, and there was no evidence that the customs house was actually inefficiently managed. In the end, Quincy refused to withdraw his motion and it was defeated by a lonely vote of one to 117.
But, that didn’t mean that Congress approved of how Jefferson had handled the situation. Quincy had exposed something troubling and there was a real political cost for Jefferson. Senators took the charges seriously and deemed them problematic enough that they applied newfound scrutiny to Jefferson’s final nominations.
Administration allies in the Senate cautioned secretary of state and President-elect James Madison that Jefferson might have trouble getting his final appointments filled. Sen. William Branch Giles of Virginia wrote the incoming president that “a nomination from [Jefferson], is rather a signal of distrust than confidence in the person nominated.” Although the Senate approved Dearborn’s nomination to the Boston collectorship, that body rejected the nomination of William Short, Jefferson’s “adopted son,” to serve as a diplomat to Russia.
Calls for impeachment were common in the early republic, but such charges were also taken seriously when they reached the floor of Congress. This is why even during a time of intense partisanship congressional leaders stuck to the facts of the case, not their partisan loyalties, and no Federalist supported Quincy’s impeachment resolution.
But for Quincy, lame-duck impeachment was not about removal from office. He wanted to expose perceived wrongdoing on Jefferson’s part. Although the president’s motives and his wisdom in filling the Boston collectorship might be up for historical discussion, Quincy successfully forced a contemporary political debate on the issue.
The current situation of Trump and that of Jefferson more than 200 years ago are clearly quite different. One similarity, other than both being lame ducks at the time, is that regardless of whatever happens in the coming weeks and months in the House and Senate, there will likely be a political price paid down the line. When that is and who, or what, will bear the brunt of it, however, remains to be seen.