The First Time Congress Tried to Impeach a President Was a Disaster

Fred Lucas

The president’s critics thought his presidency was illegitimate to begin with. His Cabinet members changed frequently. Mainly based on policy disagreements, members of Congress demanded his ouster.

Some lawmakers were willing to toss out constitutional norms based on what they said was the president’s “ignorance of the interest and true policy of this Government, and want of qualification for the discharge of the important duties” of his office.

But we’re talking 1843, not 2019.

In the midst of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump, many pundits make comparisons to the impeachments of Presidents Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, as well as the near-impeachment preempted by President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

But lawmakers’ first serious effort to impeach a president was against President John Tyler in 1843. And it didn’t succeed, not even in the House.

The attempt to impeach Tyler had some similarities to the Johnson impeachment: A vice president—with a history in the opposition party—takes the top job upon a president’s death but fails to get along with the elected president’s party in Congress.

The Whig ticket of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler—“Tippecanoe and Tyler too”—won by a decisive landslide in the 1840 election. Harrison scored 234 electoral votes and 53% of the popular vote to oust President Martin Van Buren, the unpopular Democrat, who collected just 60 electoral votes.

Harrison, a former Ohio senator, was known as “Tippecanoe” for his military heroism against Native American forces in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana.

For vice president, the Whigs tapped Tyler, a former Virginia governor and U.S. senator. He was a Whig convert after leaving the Democratic Party in protest of President Andrew Jackson’s policies.

Harrison died one month after taking office, thrusting the United States into uncharted waters. Harrison’s Cabinet insisted that Tyler was only an acting president, but Tyler established a precedent that would hold by asserting that a vice president automatically moves into the presidency upon a vacancy in the office.

At 51, Tyler was younger than any other president before him.

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