GROTON -- "So mighty is the machinery of the Government that the weight of the President's hand upon the central lever affects the fortune of every citizen," the congressman from Massachusetts said in an impassioned speech before the House of Representatives. "A nod of his head makes his friends prosper while his enemies perish."
The only solution, the congressman argued, was to impeach the president, cast him out of office and allow the country to move forward once more.
That speech, of course, occurred a century and a half ago. George Boutwell, a representative at the time in between stints as governor of Massachusetts and secretary of the Treasury, was deeply involved in the effort to remove President Andrew Johnson from office, even sitting on the seven-member Johnson Impeachment Committee for the House alongside fellow Bay State Rep. and famous Lowellian Benjamin Butler.
So when leaders at the Groton Historical Society, whose offices are based in Boutwell's former house on Main Street, looked at the current political climate, they saw a handful of similarities to those tumultuous mid-1860s -- and they saw an opportunity.
"The idea of impeachment is talked about quite a bit," said Bobbie Spiegelman, president of the Groton Historical Society. "It was a great opportunity to bring out some of the work that George Boutwell did and educate some people about the impeachment process."
After renovations to the Boutwell House -- which, among its various historical significances, has a bedroom where President Ulysses S.
This spring, local historians dug through archives and storage to put together an exhibit about Boutwell's role in the Johnson impeachment. The exhibit opened in May, and those in charge want to see it run through the fall.
One room of the Boutwell house, immediately to the right after entering, is dedicated to the impeachment proceedings. Original tickets to the March 13, 1868 hearing before the Senate sit atop a glass display in surprisingly good condition, the text still readable on a beige background. In a large, framed picture from the era, Boutwell stands steely-eyed in the back row among six individuals, listed in a caption as "Managers of the House of Representatives of the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson."
The impeachment matter itself grew out of what was largely a political clash. Following the Civil War, a wing of the Republican Party wanted to impose harsh penalties on former Confederates and make drastic changes to the south. But Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, vetoed many of those measures.
Boutwell was a particularly passionate adversary of Johnson's at the time. According to an account by historian Brian Bixby the Historical Society used in its newsletter, Boutwell suspected the president of conspiring with former Confederate leaders on a new plan to destroy the Union. And in a colorful anecdote at the end of the trial, Boutwell noted that "astronomers had recently found an area in the Southern hemisphere of the sky in which there were no stars, and he wished that President Johnson would fall into this 'hole in the sky,'" Bixby wrote.
He was also a particularly big fan of the 10th article of impeachment sought, which, according to Bixby, alleged that Johnson was discrediting and destroying the country's reputation through his behavior.
"The article charged Johnson with no violation of any existing law, just that he was acting improperly for a President," Bixby wrote. "This tenth article was Boutwell's favorite. Boutwell argued that 'high crimes and misdemeanors' were not limited to breaking actual laws, but could involve any conduct by a Federal official that constituted an abuse of power."
So the Republicans passed laws to limit Johnson's powers, and when the president -- expecting them to be considered by the Supreme Court -- violated them, a group of Republicans moved to impeach him.
The House can adopt articles of impeachment, and then the Senate must vote whether to convict an official on those articles, which is similar to a criminal trial taking place. Spiegelman put forth a simple analogy for the process: the House draws up the equivalent of a criminal indictment, while the Senate actually puts it to a trial.
Johnson was ultimately acquitted by the Senate by a one-vote margin, so he was never officially removed from office. Bill Clinton, the only other president to be impeached by the House, was similarly acquitted by the Senate and remained in office. (Richard Nixon was never formally impeached -- he resigned as proceedings began amidst investigation into his role in the Watergate scandal.)
One of the main reasons the Historical Society decided to install the exhibit, Spiegelman said, was to educate the community on how impeachment actually works.
"I am concerned that there are a lot of people who don't know the inner workings of our government," Spiegelman said. "I think this is an opportunity to use the history that we have to inform."
The Boutwell house is open to the public Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or by appointment. The Historical Society will also host an open house, where the impeachment exhibit will be viewable, on Aug. 19 from 10 a.m. to noon.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.