WASHINGTON — At 8:34 p.m. Wednesday, Donald Trump became just the third U.S. president to be impeached by the House of Representatives. As the gavel pounded, I stood maybe 100 yards from the lectern, but outside, on the Capitol steps.

Despite frigid blasts of Arctic air, nearly 20 hearty souls — some jumping to stay warm — were also outside the House chamber at the moment that the first impeachment article passed the 216-vote threshold. They were a strange mix — two tourists from Colorado, a couple of history buffs from the University of Virginia, a guy who’d been holding a vaguely anti-Trump sign for 13 hours, and some evangelicals from Tennessee there to pray for the president.

“It’s a historic day, and we wanted to be a part of it,” 41-year-old Kimberly Reyes told me as the mercury plunged into the teens in the December darkness.

I knew how they felt. At age 60, this history buff has been either lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at it, to have lived through three of the four meaningful impeachment pushes in America’s 243-year history. I’m also praying that this will be the last — so this time I wanted to be on Capitol Hill, to inhale the same momentous air.

Protestors gather during a pro-impeachment rally near the U.S Capitol Building in Washington, DC on December 18, 2019.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Protestors gather during a pro-impeachment rally near the U.S Capitol Building in Washington, DC on December 18, 2019.

Somehow, the weather gods created a day that felt perfect for impeaching a president. The mid-December sun was blindingly bright, blasting through the raw autumn gloom that had hung over much of America for days. But the wind was crisp and bracing, an icy wake-up call for a nation addicted to bamboozlement to rise up and finally face reality.

Even with real-feel temperatures in the 20s, hundreds had crowded by 9 a.m. into a small park in the shadow of the Capitol — to rally not for a tax cut or to end an unpopular war but for the more abstract democratic principles that have kept America a republic for more than two centuries. They chanted loudly, “No one is above the law!”

Thomas Tibor, a 68-year-old retired film producer and writer from Arlington, Va., told me he was working out at a gym while reading the morning newspaper, and “I got so upset” that he jumped into the shower to head straight to this Impeach and Remove rally organized by progressive and good-government groups. It was his first protest since the Women’s March in early 2017. Carrying memories of fleeing Soviet tyranny as a 5-year-old refugee after 1956′s Hungarian Revolution and then watching Richard Nixon’s Watergate roil his new homeland, Tibor said, “I’m here because I still think there’s a constitutional duty for the Congress.”

I’ve attended dozens of protests over the last four decades, but I’d never been to one quite like this. Sure, there were boisterous chants, and even an attempt at levity with a pre-Christmas impeachment carol — “We wish you ... would leave the White House!” But both speakers and attendees kept coming back to the same few duty-bound words. It was a “solemn day,” a “sober day.”

“We’re not out here because we don’t have anything better to do,” thundered Diallo Brooks of People for the American Way, the rally’s last speaker, who brought his 18-year-old son onstage to dramatize the stakes for future generations. Some on the crowd shivered as a blast of wind funneled through the canyons of Capitol Hill’s supersize government edifices. “We don’t care how hallowed these buildings are,” Brooks said. “They belong to us."

In many ways, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founders could never have imagined a day like Dec. 18, 2019 — not the sleek iPhones that citizens used to send images from the rally around the globe in nanoseconds, nor the large jets that cruised steadily beyond the Washington Monument, and certainly not that the Electoral College would have raised to the presidency a reality-TV star firing thunderbolts of rage into cyberspace with his thumbs.

And yet somehow, in the horse-and-buggy world of the 18th century, the framers of the Constitution knew this day would come. They didn’t know it would be in 2019, but they knew. In 1792, Hamilton warned of some future demagogue “unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents … despotic in his ordinary demeanour.” Wednesday night, history tagged Donald Trump as that man, through the only remedy that Hamilton and the other framers left us: Impeachment.

Protesters gather at a pro-impeachment rally near the U.S Capitol Building in Washington, DC on December 18, 2019.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Protesters gather at a pro-impeachment rally near the U.S Capitol Building in Washington, DC on December 18, 2019.

But Wednesday was also a day to celebrate the Founders’ foresight as voiced by Benjamin Franklin, that America would only remain a republic “if you can keep it.” For three years, everyday folks have fought like hell to keep it — marching in the streets, flooding airport terminals to aid refugees, and ringing doorbells to elect a Congress pledged to check a demagogue’s power. In the final hours, with Trump’s perfidy in his extortionate dealing with Ukraine laid bare this fall, they came outside one last time — into bitter rain in Philadelphia’s Center City, snow in Maine, frostbite in Minnesota ... and finally Washington’s frigid sunshine.

A couple of hours after the rally ended, I found myself in the balcony of the House chamber, watching our national debate enter the home stretch. Underneath stately relief portraits of human history’s great lawmakers from Moses and Hammurabi to Jefferson and George Mason, today’s members of Congress argued whether Trump’s impeachment means overturning the 2016 election results or ensuring that a tyrant does not obliterate the rule of law.

At first glance, the scene failed to match the lofty stakes of the speeches, with the galleries half-empty and scores of empty seats on the House floor. But then I felt the power of the moment of Donald Trump’s day of reckoning in the spirits that one could not easily see — Franklin and Hamilton and all their offspring, out there in the whipping winds and the cold, the ghosts of impeachment past and impeachment present.