Politics

Impeachment Should ‘Only Be Used for the Most Serious of Situations’

In an exclusive interview, a scholar of history sheds light on the Founders' intentions for this extreme move — and their worries

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As of this moment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has not yet transmitted the two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the Senate, leading outraged Republicans to accuse her of weakness, partisan politics — and far worse.

The House this past Wednesday voted to impeach President Donald Trump on two counts — for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — related to the president’s dealings with Ukraine.

Related: Democrats Are Getting Trapped in Their Own Impeachment Web

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But the House did so without any Republican support for that whatsoever.

Neither was there any criminal conduct alleged against the president nor any violation of law alleged.

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Speaking exclusively to LifeZette about the issue of impeachment, noted presidential expert and scholar of American history Tim H. Blessing, PhD, of Alvernia College in Reading, Pennsylvania, shared insights into why the Founders included impeachment in the Constitution, what they worried about in regard to this extreme move — and why the historical background is relevant today.

As Blessing told LifeZette shortly before this interview, “The impeaching of Trump is about much more than impeaching Trump. Instead, Trump, and the nation, may be in the process of being held hostage to an in-party civil war.”

Question (LifeZette): Give us some essential background on the way the Founders approached impeachment when they included it in the U.S. Constitution.
Answer (Blessing): Before the Founders even wrote our Constitution, Warren Hastings, the first British Governor-General of India, was impeached for the mistreatment of his colonial subjects. He had broken no laws and there was not a groundswell of discontent against him. However, he had wounded a powerful political opponent, Phillip Francis, in a duel while in India — and Francis’s influence “encouraged” some members of the House of Commons to indict him for what today might be considered “crimes against humanity.”

The trial, on the thinnest pieces of evidence, ran on for seven years and required the House of Lords to spend 148 days in session on Hastings’ impeachment.

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The Founders of the American republic knew of the Hastings impeachment — we have contemporaneous letters from them on the subject — and they were horrified at the carnage the trial caused. At one point, Hastings had pointed out that he had been punished more by the costs incurred than he would have if he’d just pled guilty.

So the Founders were adamant that impeachment be used only for the most serious of situations — that is, no vendettas and such — and put in the two-thirds vote requirement for conviction to stop the malicious use of impeachment.

Related: Dems Are Now Stalling on Impeachment

So toxic was the Hastings trial and similar trials for things minor and personal that at least two leaders of the constitutional convention — George Mason and Gouverneur Morris, plus probably William Paterson — argued for a time that there should be no impeachments allowed.

Their worry about the use of the impeachment power was assuaged by using the two-thirds vote to set a very high bar.

But the Founders underestimated the fury that can grip parties whose members are selected by popular vote.

Q: Talk to us about the first U.S. presidential impeachment.
A: President Andrew Johnson — the 17th president, from 1865 to 1869 — may have been a bit of a dunderhead as a political leader. And he certainly underestimated the ferocious emotions let free by the Civil War. As a result, he stood far too often and far too foolishly in the way of a Republican Party committed to the goals of punishing and remaking the South and uplifting and protecting ex-slaves.

The Republicans enacted the Tenure of Office Act, designed to block Johnson from removing federal officials who favored strong measures in the South — and Johnson obliged them by removing one. The House impeached him on 11 repetitious counts of abusing his authority. The main one was the last, “Bringing disgrace and ridicule to the presidency by his aforementioned words and actions.”

The only count that had a chance was the summary count at the end. The oft-heard statement that Johnson was acquitted by one vote is technically true — but once the motion was consigned to sure defeat, other senators — prepared to vote no — decided to save their political skin and vote yes.

Almost all senators freely admitted that Johnson did what the other 10 counts said he did. But the problem was that many senators simply could not bring themselves to vote for impeachment for doing what all executives do: Fire subordinates over differences.

Q: The second, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in December 1998 — explain that clearly for us.
A: There is no question Clinton committed perjury and that he suborned perjury in at least two incidents. But the perversity of impeachment, as Morris and Mason foresaw, is that a despised chief executive — despised in this case by House Republicans, who were led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia — can be hauled before the court of the Senate on grounds not related to the survival and good functioning of the nation.

“The Founders knew all too well what evil lurked in the hearts of men with the power of impeachment.”

Clinton had been under investigation by Special Counsel Ken Starr since 1994. The House really did not need to undertake a second investigation. It came down to the question of whether there was a national interest involved in the issues the Clinton case raised or not. The votes in the House were almost purely on partisan grounds and the votes in the Senate were much the same.

Q: Are there similarities between the two cases?
A: The Johnson impeachment and the Clinton impeachment consisted of precisely the score-settling the Founders warned against. Johnson so annoyed the GOP that he was impeached, on the flimsiest of grounds, for being a block to their passions.

Clinton was impeached, admittedly on somewhat firmer grounds — but not nationally important grounds — in what was essentially a vendetta.

The Founders knew all too well what evil lurked in the hearts of men with the power of impeachment.

The steps they took to stop it in the Constitution have so far kept the country free — almost — of the partisan poison of the disgrace and removal of the people’s only elected national representative.

David Kamioner
meet the author

David Kamioner is a veteran of U.S. Army Intelligence and an honors graduate of the University of Maryland's European Division. He also served with the Pershing Nuclear Brigade and the First Infantry Division. Subsequent to that he worked for two decades as a political consultant, was part of the American Red Cross Hurricane Katrina disaster relief effort in Louisiana, ran a homeless shelter for veterans in Philadelphia, and taught as a college instructor. He serves as a Contributing Editor for LifeZette.

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