A Precedent for Presidential Censure

In his remarks on Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) called for his fellow legislators to censure the president. “Censure would allow this body to unite across party lines,” Manchin argued, “and as an equal branch of government to formally denounce the President’s actions and hold him accountable.” While there appears to be little likelihood that the Senate will take up Manchin’s resolution, there is a precedent for such a reprimand.

In 1834, the Senate passed a censure resolution against President Andrew Jackson. The decision to rebuke Jackson stemmed from his actions during the Bank War. Suspicious of the 2nd Bank of the U.S., Old Hickory had waged a battle against the financial institution since his first term. In 1832, he vetoed a congressional bill that would have granted the Bank a new contract four years earlier than expected. The following year, in an attempt to permanently weaken the Bank, Jackson ordered Secretary of the Treasury William J. Duane to remove the government’s deposits. When he refused, the president fired Duane. Jackson replaced him with Roger B. Taney, who implemented the removal policy. Bank president Nicholas Biddle responded by instigating a recession. “This worthy President thinks that because he has scalped Indians and imprisoned Judges, he is to have his way with the Bank,” Biddle said. “He is mistaken.”

Jackson’s opponents, led by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, also took action. When Jackson refused to give the Senate a document on the removal of government deposits that he had submitted to his cabinet, Clay introduced censure resolutions against both Jackson and Taney. “We are in the midst of a revolution, hitherto bloodless, but rapidly tending toward a total change of the pure republican character of the government, and to the concentration of all power in the hands of one man,” Clay said in a speech on the Senate floor. He compared Jackson to a tyrant and warned his fellow senators that if they did not stand up to him, then the nation would collapse. “We shall die—ignobly die! base, mean and abject slaves— the scorn and contempt of mankind—unpitied, unwept, unmourned!” he concluded dramatically. In a decidedly partisan vote, in March 1834, the Senate passed censure resolutions against both Jackson and Taney. Senators also rejected Taney’s recess appointment as Treasury secretary.

Jackson responded in his usual restrained manner. The following month, he sent the Senate a “Protest” of its censure. He denied the Senate’s authority to judge him guilty of “the high crime of violating the laws and the Constitution,” chiding its members for not following the constitutional process for impeaching and removing him if they truly believed that he had overextended his authority as chief executive. He also reasserted his right to expect cabinet officers to follow his orders. Finally, Jackson argued that “the President is the direct representative of the American People . . . elected by the People and responsible to them.” Jackson’s opponents did not let this claim pass unchallenged. Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster offered the most strident criticism. “He who may call himself the single representative of a nation, may speak in the name of the nation, may undertake to wield the power of the nation,” Webster warned, “and who shall gainsay him in whatsoever he chooses to pronounce to be the nation’s will?”

Ultimately, Jackson had the last word. In January 1837, Thomas Hart Benton led a successful effort to expunge the censure resolution from the official U.S. Senate journal. The vote followed strictly partisan lines: 24 Democrats voted in favor of expunging, 19 Whigs voted against.[1]

Andrew Jackson was not cowed by censure; it’s unlikely that Donald Trump would be, either. Without a realistic chance of removing Trump from office via a Senate trial, however, censure may be the only opportunity to send a signal to the president, and to the American people, that his actions regarding Ukraine were beyond the pale.

[1]. The Whig party had formed during the Bank War, taking as a unifying creed its members’ opposition to “King Andrew I.”

Some of the above description of the censure fight and its origins come from my book, Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democratic Party (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2018).

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