By Carl M. Cannon | It’s Monday, January 7, 2019. Twenty years ago today Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle huddled on opposite sides of the Senate chamber, each with members of his own party. The gavel that day was wielded by 96-year-old Strom Thurmond, who called the session together and set the stage for the unfolding historical drama with these simple words: “The managers will be received and escorted to the well of the Senate.”
The “managers” were a contingent of elected officials from the House of Representatives led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde. The great issue to be managed was the impeachment trial of William Jefferson Clinton. It was the first time in 130 years that the Senate had tried a sitting president. Including Richard Nixon, who resigned to avoid such a trial, it was only the third time in our nation’s history that a president was made by Congress to answer to charges that he should be removed from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Adopted in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the phrase had been around in English common law since the 14th century. The principle involved — that Americans had the right to choose their own leaders, and even to replace them for certain transgressions — was at the heart of the Colonies’ Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776.
In Philadelphia on this date in 1776, Samuel Adams fretted in a letter to his friend and fellow patriot James Warren. Adams was ruminating on whether the 13 Colonies could unite in a strong enough bond to effectively oppose Great Britain. The Colonies were fractious, Adams conceded, but were continuously being reminded by the actions of Parliament and the Crown of the necessity for a united front. The idea of such a confederation “is not dead, but sleepeth,” Adams wrote. “To those who believed they would see the confederation completed long ago, I do not despair of it — since our enemies themselves are hastening it.”
Two days after Adams wrote these words of hope about the Colonies getting their act together, Thomas Paine published “Common Sense,” a fiery manifesto that did much to solidify public opinion in favor of independence.
Sam Adams’ “confederation” did indeed come into being. But getting a large and diverse nation (and it is much larger and more diverse now) to bridge regional, racial, spiritual and ideological differences — not to mention setting aside political partisanship — has never been a modest task. You could ask Bill Clinton about that: His impeachment trial that began 20 years ago today was initiated in the House on a party-line vote — and decided in the Senate essentially the same way.
President Clinton’s lawyers didn’t, but could have, invoked the words of Sam Adams. In that same letter to James Warren in which he said the idea of union was merely sleeping, Adams added his opinion that certain members of the Continental Congress possessed “the vanity of the ape, the tameness of the ox, or the stupid servility of the ass.”
This was 230 years before Twitter, and 170 years before Bill Clinton (and Donald Trump) were born. Yet, some things are constant.
Four years later, in another latter to James Warren, Samuel Adams found himself trying to bolster the spirits of his friend. Warren had grown disillusioned and was talking of retiring from politics. Adams appealed to him to remain in public life on the grounds that officials who put the general welfare ahead of their own are treasured assets in a democracy. Adams closed by saying that when governors and other government officials were appointed by a far-off power, “it was our misfortune.” But in the future, he added, if a people empowered with choosing its own representatives cannot choose better leaders, “it will be our disgrace.”
Carl M. Cannon is Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics.