Tennessee Presidents Problems Offer Lesson (280)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The only impeached and censured U.S. presidents were from Tennessee and their history may hold lessons for Congress in deciding President Clinton’s fate, University of Tennessee historians said Wednesday.

Dr. Paul Bergeron, who heads UT-Knoxville’s Andrew Johnson presidential papers project, said Johnson’s impeachment and Senate trial weakened the presidency.

Dr. Harold Moser, director of UT’s Andrew Jackson papers, said Jackson’s censure in 1834 was unconstitutional.

“What happened to the presidency after Johnson was a succession of very weak presidents who, frankly, were not very good,” Bergeron said. “You had a very strong Congress controlling the national government and there was no parity.”

Some congressional leaders have called for impeaching Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but Bergeron said others may fear it could weaken future presidencies as it did following Johnson.

“I’m giving credit to members of Congress for knowing their history,” Bergeron said. “I think there are some members who are saying, ‘Wait a minute, let’s look at what happened 130 years ago. Is this where we want to go?’ “

While some call for Clinton’s impeachment or resignation, others say they favor censuring the president to include fines or a criminal trial after his term ends.

Moser said Andrew Jackson’s censure disrupted government and led to formation of the Whig party. But the censure was unconstitutional, did nothing to punish Jackson, and was later removed from his record, Moser said.

“Senators who pushed for Jackson’s censure were making up the rules as they went along,” Moser said.

“It was a political matter, but even if the censure had not been expunged from his record, Jackson still would have gone down in history as a strong president.”

Contact: Dr. Paul Bergeron (423-974-2449), Dr. Harold Moser (423-974-0660)