Author & Speaker

Top 10 U.S. Political Trials, Part II

We’re up to the top half of this top ten, which must (i) have had significant political effect on the nation, and (ii) have been an actual trial.
5. Sacco/Vanzetti: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of shooting to death a paymaster and guard in the theft of a factory payroll in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1920. Both were anarchists with ties to a group suspected in a wave of bombings over the preceding year. A long campaign to save their lives transformed them from Italian-American political activists to symbols of American repression. Their guilt is still contested, eighty-one years after their execution. For more, see Ken Ackerman’s Young J. Edgar, http://www.amazon.com/Young-J-Edgar-Assault-Liberties/dp/0786717750/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1202667772&sr=1-2
4. Clinton Impeachment Trial (1999): The nightmare of trivialized politics in the post-modern era: Monica Lewinsky, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” the meaning of is, the blue dress. The case grew from a civil lawsuit brought by Paula Jones of Arkansas, claiming then-Governor Clinton demanded sex from her. When Clinton denied under oath that he had sexual relations with Lewinsky, a special prosecutor expanded his investigation of the Whitewater real estate deal. Angry House Republicans ultimately impeached the president for his testimony, but the Senate acquitted him, 45-55, with 10 Republicans voting to acquit.
3. In re Debs (1894) and Debs v. United States (1919): In the first case, labor leader Eugene Debs was jailed for contempt of court because he refused to honor a federal injunction barring a strike by railway workers against the Pullman company. Debs was defended by Clarence Darrow, and the experience sent both down the road to radical politics. By World War I, Debs was a socialist and opposed America’s entry into the war. Prosecuted for giving an anti-war speech, Debs served almost three years in prison, winning 6% of the vote for President in 1920, while in jail.
2. Aaron Burr Conspiracy Trial: After leaving the Vice Presidency in 1805, Burr took two suspicious trips down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, meeting with local politicians and planning . . . something. Many, including President Jefferson and some Burr met with, thought he planned to organize America’s Western lands into a new nation, invade Mexico, and create a new empire. Detained in Mississippi in the company of about eighty young men, Burr made a break for it, was arrested, and hauled back East to stand trial for treason. In a months-long proceeding before Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, Burr won on all counts.

1. The Andrew Johnson impeachment (1868): After the Civil War, the nation teetered on the brink of renewed war when Johnson, who took office after Lincoln was assassinated, alienated Congress by restoring Confederate state governments in the South, and ignoring the violence used by Southern whites to return the freed slaves to a state of peonage. The bull-headed Johnson tried to create a new political party to support him, then fired his (admittedly disloyal) Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, defying a statute that barred him from doing so. The trial revealed the confusing mixed nature of impeachment (part political, part criminal), the low ethical standards of the time as shady figures bargained for senators’ votes, and the murderous dangers the nation faced in this difficult time of rebuilding. Johnson escaped conviction by a single vote: It’s a great story, and the subject of the book I’m working on now, to be released next year.