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The Historical Underpinnings of Impeachment

Focus on a row of USA Constitution mentioning the President
By Laura Temme, Esq. on September 26, 2019

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that the House will pursue impeachment proceedings against President Trump created buzz across the country this week. A holdover from Britain’s constitutional system, impeachment provides the House with the power to investigate actions by elected officials, and the Senate with the ability to remove them from office. However, given the dramatic results impeachment can have, legislators in the U.S. have rarely used it.

Here’s a look back at the origins of impeachment in the United States:

How Did the Framers View Impeachment?

The Framers of the Constitution saw impeachment as something reserved for acts that violated the public’s trust. As Alexander Hamilton pointed out in Federalist No. 65:

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 prosecution of them, for this reason, 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 ways, framers viewed impeachment as the nuclear option; in fact, many delegates to the Constitutional Convention thought officials should only be “punished” in elections. Others, like Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, thought impeachment was a necessary check on the executive branch, saying that a competent official would not fear impeachments (although a bad one should be kept in fear of them).

In the end, the delegates decided impeachment was important enough to include in the Constitution – writing Article II Section 4 before even tackling provisions outlining presidential powers.

Why “High Crimes and Misdemeanors?”

One of the most common criticisms of the Constitution’s impeachment language is the lack of guidance on what acts should trigger impeachment. The founders saw bribery and treason as obvious grounds for impeachment, but beyond that, they weren’t sure how far to go. Arguing that “maladministration” was too vague, James Madison proposed borrowing a phrase from British legal practice used to denote crimes against the government – high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

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