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Mike Pence and the History Behind the January 6th Committee

MPence’s upcoming autobiographical ike takes the title, So Help Me Lord, from an oath he has sworn many times to keep during his long career in public office. But as the Jan. 6 Committee concludes its investigation, with the next hearing possibly the last, the question of whether Pence will appear under oath to speak to the panel about events surrounding the uprising remains an open question. Negotiations on the possibility were still ongoing in mid-September, according to the Politico report; speaking at an event last weekend in September, Rep. Liz Cheney said she still expects Pence to appear before the panel, of which he is vice chair. On Sunday, Rep. Pete Aguilar, also on the committee, said “the discussion is growing” and he thought it was “important” the panel heard from the Vice President.

But when Pence was asked about the possibility of testifying at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics breakfast on Aug. 17, he took a cautious stance. “I had to reflect on my unique role as vice president,” he said. “This is unprecedented in history for a vice president to be called to testify on Capitol Hill.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence addresses attendees at “Politics & aEggs” at the New Hampshire Institute Politics in St. Anselm College on August 17, 2022 in Manchester, NH

Scott Eisen—Getty Images

But the Senate History Office, the Senate Library, and presidential historians and biographers clarified that he would never appear before. Throughout history, the legislature and the American public have been enlightened on small and significant issues by the highest office holders—including the vice president. As the late legal ethics scholar Ronald Rotunda wrote, “History shows that assuming the role of a witness is neither demeaning nor unprecedented for a President or former President… When a President or former President has knowledge relating to allegations of executive misconduct in color; he has made his testimony available.”

Read more: January 6 Committee Plan in Flux to Play Next Hearing, Final Report

The first Veep to testify in a congressional hearing was Schuyler Colfax, the incumbent vice president, who like Pence began his national politics as a member of the Indiana House of Representatives. In January 1872, Colfax, who became Ulysses Grant’s first vice president, was embroiled in one of the greatest political corruption scandals of the 19th century.

A blockbuster story in New York Sun said government officials had taken cash and share payments from a fake construction company, Credit Mobilier, in exchange for making favorable policies for the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. Grant’s campaign for re-election was marred by sensational newspaper stories involving Grant’s vice president, Colfax, as well as several outgoing members of Congress.

A more smiling Colfax, who also served as Speaker of the House of Representatives, denied the allegations in an 1873 trial. His defenses wavered and new disclosures—such as the ledger bearing his name and transactions made with Credit Mobilier—provided weak explanations. Colfax will testify four times before the House Election Committee to try to clear his name.

James A. Garfield, a then suspected member of the House of Representatives who also testified, years before he became president, recounted the experience in a letter to Colfax. “I didn’t know there was a public process so brutal and unfair as some of these Investigations,” he wrote. “Calm and justice will prevail in the end.”

dear Schulyer Colfax, between 1855 and 1865. (Legacy Image via Getty Images)

dear Schulyer Colfax, between 1855 and 1865.

Legacy Images via Getty Images

Colfax, who had presidential ambitions, found his reputation badly damaged by his actions and he never held public office again. He began a successful career as a lecturer and died on his way to becoming a speaker after he walked nearly a mile in the frigid Minnesota winter temperatures to get to a train depot.

Read more: Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger on Where the January 6th Committee Goes Next

Henry A. Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s second vice president, also testified before Congress, appearing on the Senate Committee on Banking and Commerce in December 1942, regarding his role as chairman of the entity responsible for the procurement and production of export materials for the war effort. The testimony was explained in New York Time related to a simmering dispute with Commerce Secretary Jesse Jones over a bill to increase the lending authority of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which Jones runs. The session ended with no action being taken on the bill and by 1943 competition had become a liability for the administration and Roosevelt dissolved the agency.

Wallace testified at least once more after he left office. He appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 1948 to oppose President Truman’s call for universal military training for all eligible men. His disdain for the threat of Communism did not resonate and in the presidential election that same year, he received less than 3% of the vote.

Colfax and Wallace may be the only vice presidents or former vice presidents to testify before Congress—the Senate History Office told TIME that their research on the topic isn’t exhaustive—but they certainly aren’t the only members of the executive branch. In fact, several Presidents have sat in the hot seat. None other than Abraham Lincoln was the first president to testify before a congressional committee.

Despite his involvement in the conduct of the Civil War, Lincoln had personal reasons to clear his calendar for a visit to the Capitol. Lincoln meets with members of the House Judiciary Committee to testify about the leaks into New York herald his annual presidential message. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was suspected of being the source of the leak and the president was desperate to clear his name, so he agreed to meet privately with members of the Judiciary Committee. New York pulpit reports, “President Lincoln today voluntarily appears before the House Judiciary Committee and testifies on the matter of premature publication at herald part of his last yearly message.”

Lincoln’s testimony and an article in New York pulpit, who identified the culprit as White House gardener Watt, end the investigation.

The next president to face the committee is Woodrow Wilson, who accepted an invitation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify about the peace treaty with Germany and the proposed League of Nations. In reply to a letter to committee chairman Henry Cabot Lodge, the president urged transparency and agreed with the committee’s desire for his testimony to be made public. He offered, “So that the committee can have a complete and reliable record of what was said, I will have a stenographer.” The letter concluded, “It would be my pleasure to have the opportunity to notify the committee of any that may be useful to them in their deliberations on the agreement.”

Wilson’s close aide and White House physician, Cary Grayson, attended the session and explained what he witnessed in a letter to his wife. The president “showed that he was nervous—But he certainly handled himself wonderfully. “

Grayson continued, “They chased him with a lot of prepared questions—but he just had too much brain for them… Some Republicans would go to a corner of the room—the East room—get their heads together and then come back and ask questions and the President would answer them as if -as if he already had the answers written for them.”

Even so, the Senate twice rejected the Treaty of Versailles, and the United States never joined the League of Nations.

On October 17, 1974, President Gerald Ford voluntarily appeared before the House subcommittee on Criminal Justice to testify about his controversial pardon of Richard Nixon. Some historians cite it as the first official, publicly broadcast and recorded appearance by a president before a congressional panel.

In his opening statement, Ford said, “My attendance at your esteemed hearing of the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee has been viewed as an unusual historic event—one that does not have a strong precedent in the entire history of the President’s relationship with Congress. . However, I am not here to make history, but to report history.”

Ford assured Congress and the millions watching on television that there was no deal for pardons and that his reason for pardons was because “I want to do all I can to shift our attention from pursuing a fallen President to pursuing the urgent needs of a rising nation. ”

In the 1983 article for Quarterly Presidential Studies, Stephen W. Stathis, who is an analyst at the Congressional Research Service, concludes that former executive officers who testify to congress share a dedication to duty. “The common thread… is that they understand, at least for a moment, an important role that the Founding Fathers never thought of, but the role they are willing to play in continuing to serve their country.”

Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who is vice chair of the Jan. 6 Committee, seems to agree. Cheney said in an interview with ABC News on Aug. 21, “I believe in executive privilege … But I also think that when the country has gone through something, as serious as this, everyone with information has an obligation to move forward.”

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