Once again, Maine Gov. Paul LePage is in trouble, and race is at the heart of the matter. Most recently, LePage attacked Rep. Drew Gattine, a Democrat from Westbrook, 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 17 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.
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’ violent birth in the guerilla war over slavery in the territories. As the state’s first governor, Robinson conflicted 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.
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 a political 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, was elected “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. Gov. Jack Walton declared martial law, but could not contend with Klan representatives in the legislature, which in 1923 convicted him on corruption charges.
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. 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 ability has undermined 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 thus 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 switched. And though our politics are indeed badly fractured, they are nowhere near their sorry state during Reconstruction. We have a governor who recently stated that “the enemy right now” is “people of color or people of Hispanic origin.” The present effort has all the earmarks of proper political stewardship rather than illegitimate political vendetta.
Gubernatorial impeachment is an important safety device for remedying gross incompetence and corruption. But history shows that it has also been misused by white supremacists to prosecute champions of civil rights.
Impeachment can thus also be a sign of the poor health of our political system, both in the state and across the nation. History suggests that those contemplating it should use it with great care, or justly suffer the judgement of later generations.
Patrick Rael is a professor of history at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.