The ghost of Thaddeus Stevens, Lancaster County’s Civil War-era congressional representative, must be watching the ongoing turmoil in Washington with a horrified sense of déjà vu. Stevens also had to deal with fallout from treason against the United States.
The House of Representatives has impeached President Donald Trump for inciting an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
An element of the impeachment resolution includes the third section of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That section prohibits anyone who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States from holding office.
Several House Democrats also have called for using section three to rebuke members of Congress, including Lancaster County’s Rep. Lloyd Smucker, who supported Trump in his anti-democratic effort to overturn the election of Joe Biden as president. Following the insurrection of Jan. 6, these members voted to reject the state-certified results of the Nov. 3 election.
These congressional actions may seem unprecedented. They are not.
Ross Hetrick, president of the Gettysburg-based Thaddeus Stevens Society, is writing a monthly column called “The Thaddeus Stevens Chronicles.”
Hetrick wrote his first piece, “Kicking traitors out of Congress” last month after 126 Republican House members supported a lawsuit brought by the Texas state attorney that would have invalidated votes in four states that Trump lost, including Pennsylvania.
The U.S. Supreme Court summarily rejected the case.
That left the Republicans who signed on to what Hetrick calls a “very undemocratic effort” open to calls that they be expelled from Congress under section three.
“While this action would be highly unusual,” Hetrick wrote, “it is not unprecedented. In fact, it was done 155 years ago when Thaddeus Stevens orchestrated the exclusion of ex-Confederates from the House of Representatives.”
Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, Vice President Andrew Johnson allowed southern states to elect former leaders of the rebellion — ex-Confederate military officers and politicians — to Congress.
These southern representatives planned to join with northern Democrats to take over Congress and protect newly enacted southern state laws, termed Black Codes, which essentially reinstated white supremacy.
Thaddeus Stevens, the most powerful Republican in Congress, developed a plan to thwart this design when Congress reconvened on Dec. 4, 1865.
House Clerk Edward McPherson, a Stevens ally, prepared to call the roll of the new Congress, skipping the names of ex-Confederates. The rebels protested.
With the support of a majority of House members, Stevens countered these protests by raising a point of order that barred debate until after McPherson called the roll. Barred from the roll call and from debate, the southerners also were barred from Congress.
Led by Republicans, Congress went on to eliminate Black Codes and approve the 14th and 15th amendments.
“But Congress was not content with just barring traitors on that one occasion,” Hetrick explained. “They went on to include the prohibition in the third section of the 14th Amendment to take care of future threats to the country.”
The question, Hetrick concludes, is whether supporting the Texas court case constitutes “insurrection or rebellion.”
The more pressing question, beyond what Hetrick wrote about, is whether voting to alter the results of the election following the Jan. 6 riot constitutes “insurrection or rebellion.”
The House has determined that President Trump incited an insurrection on Jan. 6 and so impeached him. Whether the same determination should apply to GOP members of Congress remains open to debate.
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at email@example.com.