Lessons on impeachment from the Civil War

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said President Donald Trump was becoming “self-impeachable,” and she’s right: The president keeps breaking laws and rejecting constitutional limits on his power. There is the Mueller report, of course, which spells out his multiple attempts to obstruct justice. There are his repeated efforts to criminalize his political opponents — first Hillary Clinton, now Joe Biden — by inducing official federal investigations.

Trump’s most recent offense is his total blockade of congressional oversight, which The Washington Post calls “the most expansive White House obstruction effort in decades.” The president has blocked aides from testifying, refused document requests and rejected congressional subpoenas. A 1924 law passed in response to the Teapot Dome bribery scandal says the Treasury Department “shall furnish” Congress with any tax returns it requests. But Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, refused to honor such a request from Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, arguing that the demand served no “legitimate legislative purpose.”

Despite the president’s lawlessness, key Democratic leaders are wary of impeaching him. The same week she said he was “self-impeachable,” Pelosi also said: “He knows that it would be very divisive in the country, but he doesn’t really care. He just wants to solidify his base.” Pelosi believes impeachment would backfire and raise Trump’s chances of re-election.

I have been revisiting a few popular histories of the Civil War, both for personal interest and future work. It’s almost impossible to count all of the connections to make between that period, Reconstruction and present-day political life. But there’s one series of events that stands out as a potentially useful analogy for thinking about Democrats’ decision-making as they prepare to face Trump in a presidential election.

In January 1862, after weeks of prodding from President Abraham Lincoln, Gen. George McClellan submitted plans for a spring offensive against the Confederate garrison at Manassas, Va.

McClellan was an infamously cautious battlefield leader. He believed that Confederates held the tactical advantage at Manassas, with their strong fortifications and an army of nearly equal size. Instead of direct engagement with the rebels, he planned to send his force of 100,000 men down the Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Rappahannock River, placing Union forces between the Confederate garrison and Richmond, Va. The rebel general, Joseph Johnston, would have to head south, an 80-mile march from Manassas. By then, McClellan believed, the Army of the Potomac would have either captured the Confederate capital or forced Johnston into a battle on ground of McClellan’s choosing.

But Johnston anticipated this maneuver and withdrew his forces to a position behind the Rappahannock, forcing McClellan to improvise. When Union forces eventually surveyed the evacuated Confederate position at Manassas, they found modest defenses, not the impenetrable fortress that McClellan feared. “The fancied impregnability of the position turns out to be a sham,” a newspaper correspondent wrote. “Utterly dispirited, ashamed and humiliated,” wrote another reporter, “I return from this visit to the rebel stronghold, feeling that their retreat is our defeat.”

McClellan’s new plan was a landing and assault on the peninsula formed by the York and James rivers. But when half of his army approached rebel defenses near Yorktown, Va., he hesitated. McClellan believed he was at a disadvantage, if not outnumbered. In reality, his 55,000 men greatly outnumbered the roughly 13,000 Confederate defenders. Lincoln urged him to attack and warned that with “delay the enemy will relatively gain upon you.” But a wary McClellan opted for an artillery siege instead.

This pattern would repeat over the course of the campaign, with McClellan overestimating Confederate strength and opening his armies up to attack and defeat. At the Battle of Seven Pines outside of Richmond, Union armies sustained heavy casualties but successfully repelled a rebel assault. Unnerved by the experience, McClellan settled in for a siege of the capital rather than press his advantage. Now led by Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate armies fortified defenses around Richmond and counterattacked, ultimately breaking McClellan’s will to fight. The Union commander withdrew to a base on the James River before returning to Washington on Lincoln’s command. A potential strategic breakthrough had become a defeat that would prolong an already brutal war.

Democrats are roughly in McClellan’s position. With the House of Representatives in hand, they have the power and authority to aggressively check the president’s behavior. Voters may not expect it, but it’s hard to think they would oppose it. And Trump is unpopular, with a 42% approval rating.

Democrats have the upper hand, but they aren’t acting like it. Yes, they have taken action against the president — that’s why he has fought to stymie their investigations. But the logic of their arguments and accusations leads to impeachment, and there, they have flinched. Instead of a confrontation, Democrats want to maneuver around the president as if there’s another path to victory.

At this stage, when most Americans say they won’t vote for Trump in 2020, Democrats have the public. They have evidence of wrongdoing. They have all the tools they need to center the next year of political conflict on the president’s contempt for the Constitution and the welfare of the American people.

On April 9, 1862, an agitated Lincoln sent McClellan a telegram, urging him to move against Confederate defenses. “I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.” McClellan refused, the Confederacy claimed the field, and the Union paid the price.

Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.