In 1998, University professor Sean Wilentz drafted a letter — signed by over 400 historians — opposing the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton. Twenty-one years later, Wilentz has penned another statement, which offers a very different message on impeaching a president.
On Monday, Dec. 16, over 750 historians collectively published an open letter supporting the impeachment of President Donald Trump. According to The New York Times, Wilentz — the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History — worked with non-fiction writer Brenda Wineapple to draft the statement. Two days after the initial publication of the letter, the House of Representatives passed two articles of impeachment against the President.
Of the original signatories, over 100 are affiliated with the Ivy League, and 13 are or have been professors at the University. By Tuesday evening — less than 24 hours after the letter’s initial publication — the names of 1,508 historians appeared on the letter, with two additional University professors signing on.
The list of signatories also includes many other public intellectuals including author Robert Caro ’57 and filmmaker Ken Burns.
The group released the letter just two days before the anticipated congressional vote on articles of impeachment against Trump, whose actions the historians describe as “a clear and present danger to the Constitution.” The letter asserts that if President Trump’s misconduct does not constitute grounds for impeachment, almost nothing could.
“President Trump’s numerous and flagrant abuses of power are precisely what the Framers had in mind as grounds for impeaching and removing a president,” the statement notes. “We therefore strongly urge the House of Representatives to impeach the President.”
Upon initial publication, nine current University history department faculty members signed the letter, including Wilentz. The other eight names listed were Doris Stevens Professor in Women’s Studies Regina Kunzel, Edwards Professor of American History Tera Hunter, professors Margot Canaday, Martha Sandweiss, and Kevin Kruse, associate professor Beth Lew-Williams, and assistant professors Rhae Lynn Barnes and Michael Blaakman. Additionally, four University professors with emeritus status — Hendrik Hartog, Nell Painter, Anson Rabinbach, and former Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel — had signed on.
On Tuesday, Visiting Professor of Public and International Affairs Martin Flaherty and Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion and religion department chair Judith Weisenfeld added their names to the letter.
“President Trump has attempted to subvert the [C]onstitution and fundamental structures of American law,” Lew-Williams wrote in a statement to The Daily Princetonian. “It’s part of my job as a historian to make clear that this merits impeachment. Now I hope Congress will also do its job.”
Echoing the text of the letter, Kruse wrote to the ‘Prince’ that “if this case does not warrant impeachment, virtually nothing does.”
“During the House impeachment hearings, several Republican members made statements about both the founders’ intent regarding impeachment and the details of previous instances of presidential impeachment that simply don’t square with the historical record,” Kruse wrote. “In signing the statement with my fellow historians, I wanted to set the record straight and to offer our own sense of the lessons history actually provides here.”
Canaday deferred comment to Wilentz, who — along with Kunzel and Hunter — did not respond to the ‘Prince’ by the time of publication.
Referring to the letter as “a kind of petition to the public,” Wilentz told the Times that it “is a form that historians and others have used over the decades to express collective opinions.”
Seven months ago, over 1,000 former federal prosecutors used the same form to publish an open letter stating that “the overwhelming weight of professional judgment would come down in favor of prosecution for the conduct outlined in the Mueller [’66] Report.”
In September, over 300 national security professionals signed a statement calling Trump’s conduct surrounding American relations with Ukraine “serious enough to merit impeachment proceedings.”
Earlier this month, over 850 legal scholars — including University Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs Kim Lane — added their names to a letter calling Trump’s conduct “clearly impeachable under our Constitution.”
Though an advocate for Trump’s impeachment, Wilentz was a staunch critic of those who advocated for impeaching Clinton. In the same year that he drafted the anti-impeachment petition, Wilentz argued against impeachment before the House Judiciary Committee.
During his testimony, he said that any representative who voted in favor of impeachment without being absolutely convinced that Clinton’s crimes were impeachable would “earn the condemnation of history.”
“It is no exaggeration to say that upon this impeachment inquiry, as upon all presidential impeachment inquiries, hinges the fate of our American political institutions,” he added then. “As a historian, it is clear to me the impeachment of President Clinton would do … great damage to those institutions and to the rule of law, much greater damage than the crimes of which President Clinton has been accused.”
This defense that impeachment sets a “dangerous precedent” for the future and could damage U.S. political institutions has also been employed by Trump’s defenders. Wilentz, however, believes there are significant differences between the two situations.
“The Clinton impeachment bears the least resemblance to the Trump crisis,” he wrote in an op-ed in Rolling Stone. “With a single telephone call, Donald Trump betrayed the presidency in ways almost unimaginable until that moment … Trump’s offenses represent the greatest threat to American democracy since the Confederate secession.”
On Wednesday, Dec. 18, both articles of impeachment against Trump passed — the first with 230 votes in favor and the second with 229.
Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman — the representative for Princeton’s congressional district — had publicly supported the articles, tweeting that Congress has “an urgency to act,” and voted “yes” on both articles of impeachment.
The six University alumni serving in the House of Representatives voted along party lines. Democrats John Sarbanes ’84, Terri Sewell ’86, Raja Krishnamoorthi ’95, and Derek Kilmer ’96 voted in favor of both articles of impeachment, while Republicans Mike Gallagher ’06 and Ken Buck ’81 voted against both.
As of 7 p.m. on Dec. 17, the historians’ letter has 1,508 total signatories listed online. The end of the letter links to a Google Form for historians who wish to add their names. Prior to President Trump being impeached, Hunter, Kruse, and Lew-Williams took to Twitter to encourage more academics to become involved. Lew-Williams tweeted on Monday that it is “not too late” for others to sign on.
“I’m one of the 750+ historians that signed a statement urging the House to impeach @realDonaldTrump,” Hunter noted on Twitter Monday evening. “I encourage my fellow historians to add their names.”
“Less than a day later, this statement has now been signed by 1500+ historians,” Kruse tweeted Tuesday evening.
This story was initially published on Dec. 17 and was last updated on Jan. 5.