In Case You Missed This . . .
(Another History Lesson)
“Impeachment” is an odd term, isn’t it? According to the (online) Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to impeach (transitive verb) means “to charge with a crime or misdemeanor.” The process of impeachment, of course, was written into our Constitution as a means of removing a public official from office for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” For those who may have slept through their U.S. History class in high school (and I know you are Legion!), let’s take a look at what the Founders debated when drafting this section of our Constitution. Article One, Section 2, Paragraph 5 states: “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.” In Article 2, Section 4 they elucidate: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. “ (heritage.org) Let’s take a look at how the Founders came to this conclusion.
Law professor Clark D. Cunningham (Georgia State University) wrote on snopes.com:
I’ve found statements made at the Constitutional Convention explaining that the Founders viewed impeachment as a regular practice with three purposes:
Based on that, the Founders saw impeachment as, potentially, a regularly used tool the legislature would employ to ensure the Executive would not engage in criminal or unpatriotic behavior. Let’s hear what delegates at the Constitutional Convention said at the time.
Massachusetts merchant Elbridge Gerry moved that the chief executive “be removable on impeachment and conviction for malpractice or neglect of duty.” Virginia’s George Mason riposted, “No point is of more importance than that of the right of impeachment. Shall any man be above Justice…who can commit the most extensive injustice?” (Harlow Giles Unger, historynewsnetwork.org)
James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” (and future President) noted:
It is indispensable that some provision be made for defending the community against incapacity, negligence, or perfidy of the chief magistrate. The limitation of the period of his service is not a sufficient security. He might lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation (to steal or take dishonestly (money, especially public funds, or property entrusted to one's care; embezzle) or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers. (Unger, historynewsnetwork.org – Bold, mine)
Prophetic? Not entirely, as Madison wasn’t the only one at the Constitutional Convention with those concerns. Virginia’s Governor, Edmond Randolph, and New York’s Gouverneur Morris echoed Madison’s concerns.
Randolph called impeachments “a favorite principle with me. Guilt, whenever found, ought to be punished. The executive will have great opportunities of abusing his power, particularly in time of war, when military force and in some respect the public money will be in his hands.” (Unger, historynewsnetwork.org- bold mine)
Morris stated: Our executive may be bribed by a greater interest to betray his trust, and no one would say that we ought to expose ourselves to the danger of seeing the first magistrate in foreign pay without being able to guard against it by displacing it…. The executive ought to be impeachable for treachery; corrupting his electors, and incapacity. He should be punished not as a man but as an officer and punished only by degradation from his office. This Magistrate is not the king! The people are the king!
Wise old Benjamin Franklin, assuming George Washington would be the first President, said: “The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” Benjamin Franklin mused to the Constitutional Convention in early June, perhaps winking in Washington’s direction as he said it. But then he added ominously, “Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.” (Gillian Brockell, Washington Post, 09/28/19). Indeed, Alexander Hamilton, writing in Federalist #65 anticipated the world we are living in when he said:
“In many cases [impeachment] will connect itself with the preexisting factions ... and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”
Washington, in his Farewell Address, had warned about the perniciousness of Political Parties. In September of 1796, anticipating the upcoming election in which he would not run for a third term, he described the importance of keeping the Union together. Beyond his “avoid entangling alliances” foreign policy advice, the first President said this about political “factions:”
the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests. However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion. (owleyes.com – bold, mine)
Jeffrey Engle, the Director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, discussing how the Founders might view our current proceedings, told the Washington Post:
They say, ‘Well, what if a president works with a foreign power? Well, then of course he should be impeached. What if a president decides to try and make money in office? Well, of course he should be impeached. What if a president lies as part of his campaign? … Well, then of course he should be impeached,’” Engel said, before alleging, “which really is Donald Trump’s biography.” (Brockell, WaPo 09/28/19)
Sean Wilentz (Princeton History Professor) “offered his assessment of how the framers would view the current impeachment-related process in the House. ‘Should the Senate Republican majority refuse to remove Trump on specious grounds, cloaking partisanship, the framers would have concluded that the republic had collapsed.’” (Brockell, WaPo, 09/28/19)
That may well be where we are headed, given Moscow Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate. We may be on the brink of testing Ben Franklin’s famous quote: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” It would be sad, indeed, if we were watching the demise of our Republic at the hands of a craven autocrat who cares only for his personal advancement.