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‘Casual Reminder That in 1861, 11 Senators and 3 Representatives Were Expelled from Congress for Failing to Recognize Lincoln’s Election and Supporting Insurrection’

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"Just a casual reminder that in 1861, 11 Senators and 3 Representatives were expelled from Congress for failing to recognize Lincoln’s election and supporting insurrection."

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On February 10 2021, a post titled “Casual Reminder” was shared to r/WhitePeopleTwitter. The post claimed that in 1861, a total of fourteen lawmakers were “expelled from Congress” for failing to recognize the election of Abraham Lincoln and “supporting insurrection”:

Casual reminder from WhitePeopleTwitter

A different screenshot (with a different profile picture and a redacted handle) was shared to Imgur on the same day:

Both screenshots matched a February 8 2021 tweet by Andrea Junker (@Strandjunker); that tweet attracted significant engagement on Twitter (but contained no citations):

Neither the tweet nor shares on Reddit or Imgur included a citation or a link to further reading about the “11 Senators and 3 Representatives … expelled from Congress for failing to recognize Lincoln’s election and supporting insurrection.”

Contemporaneous Context

Clearly, the tweet and shares of it served as commentary about the second impeachment trial of former United States President Donald Trump, which began on February 9 2021. CNN’s live coverage of the trial started with a recap of the events between U.S. President Joe Biden’s November 2020 electoral victory, swiftly followed by Trump’s protracted efforts to subvert the election and remain in office:

Instead of accepting his loss in the 2020 presidential election and moving toward a transition, former President Trump and his allies set their sights on Congress’ largely ceremonial role in certifying Electoral College votes on Jan. 6 [2021] as a final stage where the will of the voters could be subverted.

This culminated in Trump’s speech near the White House. The President told a crowd of supporters to march to the Capitol building, where Congress was set to formalize his loss in a gathering presided over by Vice President Mike Pence … The insurrection left five dead, including an officer with the US Capitol Police.

Congress reconvened later that night to complete its task, and Biden’s win was certified in the early hours of Jan. 7 [2021] — a step delayed by the decision of Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley to proceed with an objection to counting Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania.

Lincoln’s Election and the Start of the Civil War

Abraham Lincoln was elected president on November 6 1860, which wasn’t out of alignment with the claims of the tweet to start. Lincoln’s presidency was associated with a deepening divide in the United States, one which would eventually lead to the Civil War:

Abraham Lincoln [was] elected the 16th president of the United States over a deeply divided Democratic Party, becoming the first Republican to win the presidency. Lincoln received only 40 percent of the popular vote but handily defeated the three other candidates: Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, Constitutional Union candidate John Bell, and Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, a U.S. senator for Illinois.

[…]

By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven states had seceded, and the Confederate States of America had been formally established, with Jefferson Davis as its elected president. One month later, the American Civil War began when Confederate forces under General P.G.T. Beauregard opened fire on Union-held Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

Based solely on chronology, the claim made in the tweet again seemed plausible. Between Lincoln’s election on November 6 1860 and inauguration on March 4 1861, seven of twenty states had seceded (with a total of eleven seceding before the war began). But given the rapidly unfolding progression of events just prior to the Civil War’s first battle in April 1861, a basic chronology suggested that sedition was — at the very least — contextually expected as states continued seceding and the nation hurtled toward the coming war.

A timeline of the Civil War by year hosted on the Library of Congress’ LOC.gov did not, for 1861, reference any events resembling the ones described in the tweet. However, 1861 was well within a particularly active time in American history, and the expulsion of fourteen elected lawmakers might not have at the time been considered a major event warranting mention.

’11 Senators and 3 Representatives … Expelled from Congress for Failing to Recognize Lincoln’s Election and Supporting Insurrection’

As the excerpts above suggested, an outbreak of Civil War and the secession of a large number of states hinted at a reasonable amount of support for insurrection as well as hostility to Lincoln’s election in 1860.

On Senate.gov under “History,” a page (“Ten Senators Expelled [July 11, 1861]”)  described a reasonably chaotic convention of the 37th Congress, during which some members were unsure if their seats still existed and others attended to represent states which had seceded from the Union.

Consequently, the Senate elected to deem absentee senators’ seats as “vacant,” in a broader failure to recognize the secession of states as valid:

Between December 1860 and June 1861, 11 of the nation’s 34 states had voted to withdraw from the Union. What was the status of their 22 senators at the beginning of the 37th Congress? Some were no longer senators because their terms had expired. Others sent a letter of resignation. Still others, believing their seats no longer existed, simply left without formal notice. Several remained, despite their states’ departure.

During a brief special session in March 1861, weeks before the start of hostilities, the Senate decided to consider these seats as vacant to avoid officially recognizing that it was possible for a state to leave the Union.

That initial stance was increasingly untenable, leading to an emergency session to formally address the missing lawmakers. With “open warfare in progress” and “all hope of reconciliation gone,” the Senate voted on a resolution to classify the ten seats initially deemed simply “vacant.”

In a vote of 32 in favor to 10 in opposition, the ten absentee senators were officially expelled from the Senate, albeit under circumstances that were clearly less definitive than the tweet suggested, and furthermore under considerable confusion about whether the affected senators were personally at fault for their failure to attend. In February 1862, a further four lawmakers were expelled for “offering aid to the Confederacy”:

On the Fourth of July 1861, with open warfare in progress, President Abraham Lincoln convened Congress to deal with the emergency. With all hope of reconciliation gone, the Senate took up a resolution of expulsion against its 10 missing members. The resolution’s supporters argued that the 10 were guilty, like Blount years before, of conspiracy against the government. In futile opposition, several senators contended that the departed southerners were merely following the dictates of their states and were not guilty of personal misconduct.

On July 11, 1861, the Senate quickly passed Senate Daniel Clark’s resolution, expelling all 10 southern senators by a vote of 32 to 10. By the following February [1862], the Senate expelled another four senators for offering aid to the Confederacy. Since 1862, despite considering expulsion in an additional 16 instances, the Senate has removed no member under this provision.

In total, fourteen legislators were indeed removed from their Senate seats in 1861 and 1862 under what were fairly chaotic circumstances according to the Senate’s official recounting of its own history. A separate “History” page on Senate.gov provided a bit more detail about the expulsions.

That entry detailed the March 1861 approach of one elected individual (Louis Wigfall), and the “still murky” status of “remaining southern senators.”

In March [1861], Louis Wigfall of Texas declared to the Senate that he understood that Texas had seceded from the Union and that, if this was the case, he was now a foreigner and owed no allegiance to the United States. He announced his intention to remain in Washington to carry out his duties in the Senate until he received official confirmation of the secession. This announcement sparked an effort to expel him. In the ensuing debate, a number of the southern senators who remained in Washington contended that expulsion was a punitive action created to deal with actual wrongdoing and that it should not be taken against a member simply for expressing the political opinion that secession was possible. Led by Thomas Clingman of North Carolina, the southerners claimed that, if Texas had indeed seceded, the proper approach would be to adopt a resolution stating that, since Texas was no longer one of the United States, “she is not entitled to be represented in this body.” They also pointed out that none of the senators who had already withdrawn had been expelled, but the Senate had simply declared their seats vacant.

[…]

By the time Congress reconvened in July 1861, open warfare was in progress, and the Senate faced the unresolved problem of the remaining southern senators, who had now left Washington but had not formally withdrawn their membership. Still murky was the status of William Sebastian and Charles C. Mitchel of Arkansas, Thomas Clingman and Thomas Bragg of North Carolina, South Carolina’s James Chesnut, Tennessee’s A. O. P. Nicholson, Texas’ John Hemphill, and James M. Mason and Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia. Also included in this group was Louis Wigfall of Texas.

In the course of determining how to handle the novel situation, active and present members of the Senate attempted to draw up a boundary between individual responsibility and what could be reasonably expected of the members in question under the circumstances:

As he had in the March debates, James A. Bayard, Jr. (D-DE) rose to the defense of the southern senators and urged moderation. Bayard opposed the expulsion measure, arguing that the southern senators followed the directions of their states and that no senator individually had conspired against the government. Bayard suggested that the expulsion rule should be reserved for individual acts of misconduct, since formal expulsion of the southern senators would only exacerbate an already inflamed situation. Milton S. Latham (D-CA) supported Bayard because he believed expulsion implied moral turpitude, a stain upon the personal character of the individuals that most would agree was unjust.

Meanwhile, other lawmakers called for stricter sanctions on flirting with insurrection:

But the passions of war produced more fervent arguments from their opponents. Daniel Clark retorted that he failed to admire the “openness” of the absent senators, and he hoped the Senate would not repeat its action of the March [1861] session. Clark declared, “They have taken up arms against the Government; . . . their guns are now within sound of your capital; and shall we sit here in the Senate and deliberate and doubt whether we shall turn out of this Senate the very men who are ready to explode those guns against your capital?. . . let them be ejected from the councils of the nation.” Near the conclusion of the arguments, James A. McDougall (D-CA) derided the cautions of his California colleague Latham when he dryly noted that there might be no moral turpitude in their actions because, “Treason was always a gentlemanly crime. . . . However, it is none the less a crime. . . . No man has a right to a place on this floor who espouses a cause adverse to the Government.”

A final section of the page (fittingly titled “Conclusion”) was perhaps in need of some revisions following the events of January 6 2021. Nine of the ten senators expelled went on to participate in the Confederacy; one was later ruled “not an active conspirator against the Union,” and the expulsion order was revoked after his death:

The wholesale expulsion of ten senators represented but one in a series of events unique to the Civil War. For such an extraordinary decision, the Senate debate lasted a remarkably short time. The brevity of the discussion reflected the intense acrimony generated in a war where friends and neighbors became bitter foes. The firing upon Fort Sumter had dashed any lingering leniency among senators toward their opponents in the Confederacy. On some occasions the Senate might be in a tolerant and forgiving humor, but not in the heat of civil conflict.

Nine of the expelled senators participated actively in the Confederacy as senators, military officers, or diplomats. Most returned to private life after the war, although James Chesnut and Thomas Clingman attended the National Democratic Convention in New York in 1868. Robert M.T. Hunter, a delegate to the Hampton Roads peace conference with Abraham Lincoln in 1865, was imprisoned briefly at the close of the war. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, he secured positions in the Virginia state government. A.O.P. Nicholson served as chief justice of the Tennessee supreme court from 1870-1876.

Only William K. Sebastian did not engage in confederate politics or military service. He returned to his home in Arkansas, resumed the practice of law, and did not support the Confederacy. Shortly before his death in 1865, Sebastian moved to Memphis, Tennessee. In 1877, the Senate, convinced by Sebastian’s passive demeanor before and during the Civil War that he was not an active conspirator against the Union, revoked the expulsion order and gave full compensation to his children.

Although there was some accuracy to the claim that eleven senators were expelled, the underlying circumstances were (as the record indicated) “still murky.” As for the three members of the House of Representatives mentioned in the tweet, a January 2012 Congressional Research Service report [PDF] titled “Recall of Legislators and the Removal of Members of Congress from Office” contained information pertinent to the 2021 tweet:

In the United States Senate, 15 Senators have been expelled, 14 during the Civil War period for disloyalty to the Union (one expulsion was later revoked by the Senate), and one Senator was expelled in 1797 for other disloyal conduct. In the House of Representatives, five Members have been expelled, including three during the Civil War period for disloyalty to the Union. Two other House Members have been expelled, one in 1980 after conviction of conspiracy and bribery in office, and the other Member in 2002 after conviction for conspiracy to commit bribery, receiving illegal gratuities, fraud against the Government in receiving “kickbacks” from staff, and obstruction of justice. Although actual expulsions from Congress are fairly rare, it should be noted that several Members of Congress have chosen to resign from office rather than face what was apparently perceived as an inevitable congressional expulsion.

Fourteen senators were expelled “during the Civil War period” for actions considered disloyal to the Union. Three Congressmen were expelled in the same period for the same reason — “disloyalty to the Union.” None of the information we reviewed indicated the seventeen senators and members of Congress in total were expelled for disputing Abraham Lincoln’s election.

TL;DR

On the eve of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s second impeachment, a viral tweet shared to Reddit and Imgur presented a “casual reminder” that in 1861, “11 Senators and 3 Representatives were expelled from Congress for failing to recognize Lincoln’s election and supporting insurrection.” Senate historical records provided a slightly less definitive account of the 1861 expulsions, indicating that some confusion over matters such as whether the seats still existed influenced the lawmakers’ absences. None of the historical materials we reviewed mentioned their “failing to recognize Lincoln’s election,” an element that seemed to appear to link historical moves to more recent events. In sum, the claim is lacking essential context, but it contains some elements of truth.