A brief history of presidential impeachmentBreaking News
tags: presidential history, impeachment, Trump
Adam I P Smith is the Edward Orsborn Professor of United States politics and political history at the University of Oxford and the Director of the Rothermere American Institute. He also regularly writes and presents documentaries for the BBC. His latest book is The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017). To find out more, visit www.adamipsmith.com
A few questioned its necessity, but for most of the delegates to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787 giving Congress the right to impeach the President was an obvious move. It was not to be used lightly. It was an emergency break against authoritarianism. Outside the convention, proto-democratic radicals warned of the danger in investing in one man so many kingly privileges. What if a would-be dictator bribed his way into office? What if he colluded with foreign powers, or abused his power: would it be sufficient simply to wait until the next election to remove him? Impeachment was a possible solution.
It was a practice deeply rooted in English history and legal precedent, as was the phrase the Founders included in the Constitution as the criteria that would justify it: “treason, bribery or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The Founders did not discuss in any detail what this phrase meant, but that was because they thought it was pretty obvious – it meant crimes against the state, not personal crimes. A president shouldn’t be impeached for dodging taxes, swindling people as a private businessman, or any other criminal offences that had no direct bearing on the exercise of his presidential powers. Such matters could be dealt with once the man left office (one respect in which the president retained kingly powers was in his apparent immunity from prosecution). Impeachment was not about punishment — it was simply about preserving the republic by removing from office someone who constituted a danger to liberty.
No one ever imagined impeachment would be anything other than a national trauma. “The prosecution of them,” Alexander Hamilton predicted in Federalist no. 65 (one of his essays promoting the new Constitution), “will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties, more or less friendly or inimical, to the accused. In many cases, it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will inlist all their animosities, partialities, influence and interest on one side, or on the other; 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.”
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