Not that long ago, it seems, Congressional Democrats were calling the Constitution an outdated impediment to “smart,” progressive government, but lately they are professing their high regard for the founding document and its framers.  “Solemn” and “prayerful,” they feign a reluctance to impeach Donald Trump while conducting a ruthless campaign to disenfranchise the 63 million people who voted for him in 2016. In spite of their newfound “originalism,” they attribute his victory over Hillary Clinton to America’s archaic electoral process.  And the Republicans, with their global interventionism and Federal subsidies are hardly more respectful of constitutionality than are the Democrats.  But one GOP congressman, at the House Judiciary Committee’s first impeachment hearing on December 4th— purely by accident —schooled both parties in real American history and the actual high crimes and misdemeanors of another president 160 years ago.     

At that Wednesday session, the Democrats signaled their intention to adopt articles of impeachment, not for bribery and extortion in connection with the July 25th phone call between Donald Trump and Ukraine’s President Zelensky, but for the more generic and therefore more expedient, allegations of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power.  Jonathan Turley, a left-leaning “libertarian,” who, along with three other academics, appeared as a witness at the hearing, took apart what he called the Democrats’ slipshod case for unseating Trump.  With studied folksiness—he is from Chicago—the George Washington University law professor informed Chairman Jerrold Nadler that the majority members were vindictive and guilty of abusing the power of their office. In their haste, they were, Turley said, railroading Trump just as the Republican regime had done to Andrew Johnson in 1868.

Offering more historical perspective, a lesser known Republican from Colorado, Ken Buck, as the eight-hour hearing was drawing to a close, posed a provocative question to Professor Turley, ignoring the Trump haters on the panel of witnesses.  Knowing that Turley considered the Democrats’ abuse-of-power standard “amorphous,” he asked the professor if the majority, applying their own benchmark, would have found America’s most revered leaders unfit for office: FDR instructed the IRS to audit his political enemies; JFK directed his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy to deport one of the president’s mistresses and the FBI to wiretap Congressional staffers; and Obama, on the eve of the 2012 election, dispatched Susan Rice to make the rounds of the Sunday morning news shows to lie about what happened at the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi on September 11th of that year.   

Certain of Turley’s answer and confident that he was about to score points for the Republicans, Buck then challenged the professor to confirm or deny that the Democrats’ low threshold, if applied to the 16th president’s actions, would have led to the impeachment of Abraham Lincoln himself. 

“So what about when…Lincoln arrested legislators in Maryland so that they wouldn’t convene to secede from the union? And Virginia already had seceded, so it would have placed Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, in the middle of the rebellion. Would that have been an abuse of power for political benefit?”

Turley agreed that the Democrats would have indicted “even” Lincoln, unaware of the irony inherent in the congressman’s line of questioning:  Buck had assumed that no one would quarrel with the non sequitur that Lincoln had to act unconstitutionally to preserve the constitutional order, with the tautology that he had to save the union because the union had to be saved.  Unwittingly, however, the congressman had provided a nationwide television audience a rare opportunity to learn about Lincoln the revolutionary, Lincoln the despot, notwithstanding Buck’s incorrect use of the word “rebellion” to describe the South’s struggle for self-determination, its Tenth Amendment-protected right to have separated from the union, precipitously or otherwise, for any cause. Lincoln tacitly acknowledged this when he forced South Carolina’s hand, provoking the Confederates into firing first at Charleston, the sooner to get his war on the South underway. 

In the years before an assassin’s bullet apotheosized the Great Emancipator, who once told newly freed and hungry slaves to “root hog or die,” he had visited untold injustice and suffering on America. Refusing to meet with peace commissioners from the South, he engaged in total warfare, starved the Southern people and refused the Confederates’ offer to exchange POWs to alleviate the misery of his own men, misery that was the direct consequence of his scorched-earth policies.  And as the South was brought to its knees, he unleashed the coldblooded Sherman and his legions to make war on Southern innocents, black and white. Donald Trump is sometimes tone deaf—often a bull in a china shop—but his alleged missteps are trifles in comparison to Lincoln’ lawlessness and villainy, his criminal coercion of peacefully departing sovereign states. 

J.L. Bennett

J.L. Bennett is an independent historian living in Maryland and the author of Maryland, My Maryland: The Cultural Cleansing of a Small Southern State.

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