Senator from Parkersburg made history in impeachment trial

Published: Dec. 27, 2019 at 7:22 PM EST
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Born in New York City, it was in the part of the state that eventually became West Virginia where Peter Godwin Van Winkle made his mark: as a lawyer, a business owner, and-when West Virginia became a state-one of its first two U.S. Senators.

He would make history a few years later, when President Andrew Johnson was impeached and faced a Senate trial.

"He was one of eight Republicans who voted not to impeach." recalls Judith Smith, President of the Board of Directors of Parkersburg's Riverview Cemetery. In fact, he was the last; he was the deciding vote."

While a majority of the Senate favored President Johnson's removal, Van Winkle's "no" vote meant it fell short of the two-thirds majority it needed to do so. And that vote likely cost Van Winkle his Senate seat a year later.

"His constituents-many of his constituents-thought that Johnson should be impeached," Smith says.

Van Winkle and his place in history was featured in John F. Kennedy's book, "Profiles in Courage". And in 1960, when Kennedy ran for president and campaigned in Parkersburg, he took time out to visit Van Winkle's grave.

Van Winkle passed away just a few years later, in 1872. He is buried, along with his wife, at Riverview Cemetery, a short distance form the remodeled home where he lived in Julia-Ann Square.

Van Winkle's legacy goes far beyond the Senate trial vote. He also had a role in West Virginia becoming a state in 1863.

"After the Civil War," Smith says, "he became very much involved in anti-slavery endeavors."

And with yet another Senate impeachment trial likely, a person who can be studied for his conscience and convictions.

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