Top 10 U.S. Political Trials: Part 1
Taking a breather from the book I’m writing on the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson in 1868, I find myself wondering which are the top ten American political trials.
My ground rules are simple: (1) there was an actual trial, and (2) the trial had a direct and powerful impact on the nation’s political life. So, if I can have the envelope, please, for numbers 6 through 10:
10. The Chicago Seven (or Eight) Trial (1969-70) — A federal prosecution of eight anti-Vietnam War Radicals for conspiring to cause violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The trial was great theater — Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Black Panther Bobby Seale bound and gagged, peace activists Tom Hayden, Dave Dellinger and Rennie Davis. Five were convicted and sentenced to five years in jail apiece, slightly more than their lawyer (William Kunstler) got for contempt of court. All jail sentences were vacated on appeal. The trial radicalized the left, radicalized the right, and made everything worse for years.
9. Boss Tweed Trial (1873) — William Marcy Tweed, Tammany Hall boss of New York’s Democratic Party, stole more public money than any other public official in our history. Though the trial itself was not electrifying, convicting Boss Tweed was an essential act of public morality in a very corrupt era. For a great account, check out Ken Ackerman’s Boss Tweed.
8. Impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase (1805) — Chase, known as “Old Bacon-Face” to his contemporaries, was a splenetic judge prone to making intemperate remarks from the bench. President Thomas Jefferson wished to purge the federal courts of Federalist judges appointed by his predecessor, John Adams, and decided to start with Chase. In a Senate trial presided over by Vice President Aaron Burr, who was fresh from killing Alexander Hamilton in their duel, Chase was defended by two former delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (Edmund Randolph of Virginia and Luther Martin of Maryland). He was acquitted and Jefferson gave up his scheme to run the Federalists out of the courts.
7. Clement Vallandigham and Lambdin Milligan (1863) — A prominent “peace Democrat,” the former Copperhead congressman was convicted by a military tribunal in Ohio of “uttering disloyal sentiments.” The courts refused to intervene on behalf of Vallandigham, who was sentenced to a year in prison, but President Lincoln chose to send him to join the South instead. The Supreme Court later ruled in Ex Parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866) that habeas corpus relief was available to those seized like Vallandigham and tried before military tribunals. Milligan had been sentenced to hang for a plot to steal weapons and attack Northern prisoner-of-war camps, releasing captured Confederate soldiers.
6. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1951) — Convicted of espionage for stealing scientific information about atomic weapons and giving it to the Russians, the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953. Their trial was the centerpiece of the anti-communist hysteria of the early Cold War.
Five more to go — let me know any ideas you have!