The Business of Impeachment

Hearings have begun in Washington DC against President Donald Trump. The stated intent of these hearings is to determine if formal impeachment charges will be filed against President Trump, which could then be used to kick off the “actual” impeachment trial.  In commemoration of an impeachment process that I do not believe is likely to end in the removal of Trump from office, I was curious about the history of impeachment. 

Impeachment as an institution has its roots in ancient Rome and it was Rome that the Founding Fathers were thinking about when it was written into the Constitution. Only senators could be impeached in ancient Rome—the emperor could not, leading to a number of chaos-making political assassinations. 

The Founding Fathers wrote impeachment into the constitution for the purpose of removing an official who had “rendered himself obnoxious,” in the words of Benjamin Franklin. Without impeachment, Franklin argued, citizens’ only recourse was assassination, which would leave the political official “not only deprived of his life but of the opportunity of vindicating his character.

Franklin, and others like Alexander Hamilton, paid special attention to impeachment because British politics didn’t have a structure for impeaching the leader. The British crown—the king or queen—is literally unimpeachable. And the Founding Fathers didn’t think that impeachment should happen for just any reason. For example, Hamilton wrote in the Federalist papers that grounds for impeachment should be:

“Those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

The founders also debated on the criteria for impeachment, settling on treason, bribery and high crimes and misdemeanors against the state. “High crimes and misdemeanors” was another term that originated in British law.

James Madison saw the Impeachment Clause as “indispensable . . . for defending the Community [against] the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.” Elbridge Gerry stated that impeachment was needed as a check against presidential abuse of power. “A good magistrate will not fear [impeachments]. A bad one ought to be kept in fear of them,” he argued. George Mason then refuted Morris’ argument that only the President’s assistants should face the impeachment process. “No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued. Shall any man be above Justice?” he asked.

Impeachment remains as a rarely used process to potentially remove the “President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States” if Congress finds them guilty of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” That is, until 1973.

The impeachment process is governed under Article 1, Section 3, of the US Constitution – in particular, clauses 6 and 7. Article 1 of the US Constitution covers the Legislative Branch of the Federal Government. Article One grants Congress various enumerated powers and the ability to pass laws “necessary and proper” to carry out those powers. Article One also establishes the procedures for passing a bill and places various limits on the powers of Congress and the states.
 

CLAUSE 6

The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
 

CLAUSE 7

Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

 

While there have been demands for the impeachment of a few presidents, only two—Andrew Johnson and William J. Clinton—have actually been impeached; however, both were acquitted by the United States Senate and not removed from office. Eight people have actually been impeached and convicted in Congress – all were judges who faced charges including perjury, tax evasion, bribery, and in one case, supporting the Confederacy.

Thirteen sitting Presidents have either been threatened with impeachment or had resolutions filed against them. 

President John Tylor [Whig] (1841-1845) – faced on impeachment resolution which was defeated. Tylor was the first impeachment proceeding against a president in American history

President James Buchanan [Democrat] (1857-1861) – hearings were held but there was no impeachment resolution filed.

President Andrew Johnson [Democrat] (1865-1869) – subject to three impeachment resolutions, neither of which succeeded.

President Ulysses Grant [Republican] (1869-1877) – threats and measures given, but nothing happened

President Herbert Hoover [Republican] (1929-1933) – subject to two resolutions had been entered but they were both tabled

President Harry Truman [Democrat] (1945-1953) – two were put in front of Judiciary Committee, but the committee sat on them

President Richard Nixon [Republican] (1969-1974)  – faced 17 impeachment resolutions.

President Ronald Reagans [Republican] (1981-1989)  was subject to two, but both failed.

President George H.W. Bush [Republican] (1989-1993) was also subject to two, but both resolutions were voted down.

President Bill Clinton [Democrat] (1993-2000) was subject to one.

President George W. Bush [Republican] (2001-2009) – was subject to three. All three failed during a vote.

President Barack Obama [Democrat] (2009-2017) was subject to one resolution that was filed and died in Judiciary Committee

President Donald Trump (Republican] (2017-    ) has been subject to five resolutions so far. Inquiry ongoing.

 

Prior to 1973, eight (8) impeachment resolutions had been filed; however, since 1973, there have been thirty-one impeachment resolutions filed. 

President John Tylor is the only president to have threats of impeachment that does not belong to one of our current political parties (he was a member of the Whig Party).

There have been 7 impeachment resolutions filed against Presidents from the Democratic Party and thirty-one impeachment resolutions filed against Presidents from the Republican Party.

It may come as no surprise that many historians believe that some of the impeachment threats were purely politically motivated in order to discredit the sitting President from being elected for a following term. It will be interesting to see what the outcome of the current impeachment hearings will have against President Trump. Unfortunately, regardless of the outcome, it may be a decade or more before an unbiased and more credible analysis is made.