By Jack Mollin
Recently juniors in Advanced Placement United States His- tory took a break from their normal classroom activities to travel back to 1865 and impeach Abraham Lincoln. While the historical events that students simulated never actually occurred, the tradition of impeaching presidents in APUSH is one that has spanned over the past 15 years. It started when current principal, Elizabeth Clain, then a history teacher, and her colleague Craig Goldberg decided to simulate history in order to further engage students. Initially students impeached President Andrew Jackson, but two years ago he was replaced with Lincoln in order to keep the trial fresh. It has been a hit ever since, engaging students in crucial parts of U.S. history.
Despite the change, there has always been a lot of preparation involved for the jury members and attorneys in the trial. Students who volunteered for the workload were tasked with doing the research needed to build a compelling case either for or against Lincoln, which included everything from reading a 700-page biography about the 16th president to scanning the Internet for obscure bits of information that could help ensure victory. While all of this research took up large chunks of the attorneys’ time, everyone involved agreed that it was worth it. Sam Sarkozi ’17 elaborated on this idea, stating that the “moment of realization” reached after “figuring out what you were going to argue and then getting all of the support… made the preparation process less of [a] burden and more of an adventure.”
Though all attorneys involved experienced the same preliminary process, the actual format of the trial differed between classes. Students of Caroline Scudder were signed out of class to complete the entire trial in one day, while Goldberg’s students played out the trial over a number of class periods. Students with Scudder appreciated completing the trial in one day, since “the fact that it was over a whole day made it feel like a real trial,” said Jack Tunguz ’17.
Regardless of the time frame of the trials, all participants got to experience the high-stakes en- vironment that took place during the proceedings of the trial. The witnesses, who each represented a historical figure, had to be able to answer detailed questions about events during the Civil War. While “it was a little scary” for witnesses who had to recall large amounts of information, “it was also really fun [since the witnesses] were going against the lawyers,” commented David Lehman ’17, another student who participated in the trial.
Meanwhile, the lawyers, who were questioning the witnesses, got to see all of their work go to good use. Competition was fierce between the defense and prosecution, but all enjoyed the experience. Lawyers particularly enjoyed “recognizing the other side of the argument” and seeing “that the work was worth it,” noted Griffin Alcott ’17. The attorneys’ enthusiasm stood out during the closing statements, where in one class Sarkozi went as far as ripping a printout of the Constitution to represent Lincoln’s treatment of it. When Sam Mollin ’17, a member of the jury, was asked about the speech, he said that “it was dramatic, and made me realize that Lincoln threw away America’s value for the sake of America itself.”
The final impression given by the closing statements played an important role in the next part of the trial: the deliberation. For about 45 minutes, the attorneys exited the “courthouse” as the jurors, who also participated as witnesses, discussed the points made in the trial and came to a final decision. Lincoln’s impeachment would require the approval of two-thirds of the jury—an advantage for the defense. But if Lincoln were found guilty on any of the four charges he would be kicked out of office. The jurors attempted to abide strictly by the arguments presented, but for some it was difficult because all of the events had already taken place. Witnesses were aware “of the events that transpired that no one in the trial brought up,” making it “hard to not let those facts factor into [the] decisions,” Lehman said.
Nevertheless, the jurors still generally managed to come up with decisions that reflected the strength of the attorneys’ arguments. At press time, Lincoln was found guilty in two trials, and innocent in one.
Regardless of whether the attorneys ended up winning or losing , they all agreed that it was a rewarding experience. “The trial [was] a great bonding experience between lawyers,” said Sarkozi, “Seeing it all come together was really something special.”
Photo courtesy of Lizzy Herbst: “Students in A.P. United States History participated in a mock impeachment trial in January.”