Once again, Maine Governor Paul LePage is in trouble, and race is at the heart of the matter. The Governor’s long history of tendentious remarks about minorities has led to repeated showdowns with the Democratically-controlled legislature. Most recently, LePage attacked Representative Drew Gattine in an obscenity-laced voice message for allegedly labeling him a racist. Talk is once again circulating about removing the governor from office.
Governors of U.S. states rarely face this. Had this year’s earlier effort to impeach LePage succeeded, it would have been Maine’s first. Over the course of American history, there have been seventeen instances of gubernatorial impeachment, with eight convictions resulting. The last governor to be impeached, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, lost his position in 2009 for trying to sell the Senate seat Barack Obama left vacant when he became President. Readers may also remember the 1988 impeachment of Arizona Governor Evan Mecham for misappropriating campaign funds and then covering it up. One would have to go back nearly sixty years before that to find another case.
But while the power of impeachment has been a feature of state constitutions since the founding of the republic, it was never used until the Civil War — on Charles Robinson, who served as midwife at Kansas’s violent birth in the guerilla war over slavery in the territories. As the state’s first governor, Robinson had a conflict with one of its first Senators, James Henry Lane, whose charges of graft and corruption succeeded in ousting his rival in 1862. Robinson was acquitted, but his political career never recovered.
There is an important difference, of course, between being impeached, which simply brings a governor before a sort of trial conducted by the legislature, and being convicted of the charges brought at that trial. In 1868, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives impeached U.S. President Andrew Johnson, but seven Republicans in the Senate, among them Maine’s William Pitt Fessenden, denied their party the conviction it sought.
The first conviction of an impeached governor occurred in the post-Civil War period, when North Carolina’s Democratic legislature convicted Republican William Holden for using martial law to protect the rights of freed slaves against white racial terrorists. Back then, the Republicans were the party of civil rights. This era–during which Southern white supremacists engaged in an armed insurgency against the victorious Union government for control of Reconstruction in the defeated Confederate states–witnessed nearly half of all gubernatorial impeachments in American history.
The tumultuous Reconstruction period witnessed no impeachments in Maine, but a Mainer was impeached during it. Adelbert Ames, the Rockland native who commanded the 20th Maine Regiment before Joshua Chamberlain, served as “carpetbag” governor of Mississippi after the Civil War. Like Holden of North Carolina, the Republican Ames fell afoul of Democratic rivals, who used fraud and terrorism to wrest control of the state from those sympathetic to the plight of freed slaves. Having succeeded in taking over the Mississippi state house, they impeached him on trumped-up charges of corruption. Ames chose to leave office rather than face the inevitable, if unfair, conviction.
These Reconstruction-era cases illustrate how frequently impeachment has been used as a political weapon. In them, the leaders of outgoing administrations were not simply driven from office (often by electoral fraud and campaign violence), they were tainted with criminality on their way out. In other instances — Harrison Reed of Florida, Powell Clayton of Arkansas, and Henry Warmouth of Louisiana— hostile factions within the Republican Party joined with Democrats to oust their own leaders.
After the white South won the battle for Reconstruction, politics stabilized and instances of impeachment declined. When they appeared, though, they frequently carried with them the old tinges of bigotry and racism. Oklahoma suffered such a fate in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan virtually took over the state in the wake of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Governor Jack Walton declared martial law, but could not contend with Klan representatives in the legislature, which in 1923 convicted him on corruption charges.
Interestingly enough, the lesson Oklahoma learned from this incident was not that white supremacist groups must not be permitted to rise to power, but that crowded fields of party nominees produced bad candidates. In response, the state adopted a novel system of ranked preference primary voting that was shortly after voided as unconstitutional.
To this day historians debate whether Jack Walton was a civil rights martyr or an unscrupulous villain, but the words contemporaries used to describe him cannot fail to resonate with anyone attuned to the present political climate: “He traveled over the state, indulging in demagogic appeals, attacking the blood-sucking corporations, promising eternal prosperity, and announcing himself as the people’s choice in the most approved Gumpian [simple-minded] manner.”
The history of impeachment, then, is not simply about misconduct and malfeasance. It is also a story of the intensely contested politics produced by racial conflict in America. Especially at times of great instability, impeachment has been used as a weapon for incoming administrations committed to white supremacy to punish outgoing forces committed to civil rights. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote that “the genius of impeachment lay in the fact that it could punish the man without punishing the office.” But abusing this power undermines a political system that was designed to transfer power from one party to another peacefully. In the United States, losers lose their offices; they aren’t also supposed to lose their heads.
There is more than a little historical irony in the present state of affairs. Once again, Democrats are seeking to remove a Republican over matters of race. This both repeats and reverses historical precedent. Back then, it was racist Democrats seeking to oust civil rights Republicans; now, the roles are reversed. And though our politics are indeed badly fractured, they are nowhere near their sorry state during Reconstruction.
At the same time, the public calls for the impeachment of Maine’s governor offers one viable option in light of recent developments. The governor of Maine recently stated that “the enemy right now” is “people of color or people of Hispanic origin.” The present effort to impeach him has all the earmarks of proper political stewardship rather than political vendetta. Although gubernatorial impeachment has been misused by white supremacists to prosecute champions of civil rights, it may prove to be a useful device for remedying gross incompetence and unchecked racism.
A shorter version of this essay appears in the Bangor Daily News.
Patrick Rael is a Professor of History at Bowdoin College. He earned his Ph.D. in American History from the University of California, Berkeley in 1995. He is the author of numerous essays and books, including Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002). He is currently working on a book project, entitled Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865.