Origins of Impeachment
The warm summer of 1787 in Philadelphia was the setting for the nation’s best and brightest politicians to come together for the Constitutional Convention. On any given day, there would be over forty representatives from twelve states—only Rhode Island bowed out—in Independence Hall. The men argued, debated, and ultimately compromised to prepare a draft of the United States Constitution. This document would form the basis of the new United States of America’s government. Leaders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton had railed against the weak and ineffectual Articles of Confederation that had been used to govern the fledgling nation since the Revolutionary War. All those gathered knew things had to change, but what form should this new government take? That was the question.
One of the topics discussed was how to remove a high government official, such as a president or federal judge, who was abusing his (or her) position. The final document, which was ratified by the states in 1789, contained language to oust or impeach a bad actor out of public office.
Throughout the next 230-plus years of American government, the power of impeachment has been used sparingly. Since 1805, the House of Representatives has only impeached sixteen officials: two presidents, one cabinet secretary, and thirteen federal judges. The two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, were both impeached by the House of Representatives but acquitted by the Senate and allowed to finish the balance of their terms in office. The first to be impeached was the U.S. Senator from Tennessee, William Blount, in 1797. In September 2019, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi announced that formal impeachment proceedings would begin against Republican President Donald Trump. With this, a new and brutal chapter in American partisan politics began.
Impeachment and the U.S. Constitution
The language in the Constitution is rather brief and a bit vague but has worked as a framework to remove those unworthy of their office for over two hundred years. Article II, section 4, of the U.S. Constitution provides that “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.”
The term “maladministration” was originally used during the drafting of the Constitution in addition to the crimes of bribery and treason as offenses worthy of impeachment. James Madison of Virginia objected to the term and his fellow Virginian, George Mason, substituted “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” in its place. This was a technical term borrowed from English legal practice that denoted crimes by public officials against the government.
Article I, section 2, gives the House of Representatives the “sole Power of Impeachment,” and once impeachment articles are brought by the House, per Article I, section 3,
“The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, there shall be an 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.”
The penalties for impeachment are given in Article I, section 3 of the Constitution:
“Judgement 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 the president has the power to grant pardons and reprieves, this power, according to Article II, section 2, is denied the president “in Cases of Impeachment.”
What Are the Grounds for Impeachment?
The Constitution isn’t clear on the grounds for impeachment and how the process is to proceed. Since much of American law had its origins in English law, impeachment as practiced in England carried with it criminal charges and could ultimately lead to death for the offender. In the United States, the framers of the Constitution intended impeachment to be a method to remove someone from office, though the conduct leading to impeachment can be used in a subsequent criminal trial.
The language in the Constitution represents a compromise between those who thought offending officeholders could be removed by the people’s representatives and those who believed that the president, vice president, and federal judges could not perform their jobs if they were constantly under threat of impeachment from the legislature. As spelled out in the Constitution, impeachable offenses are: “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
The offenses of treason and bribery are rather clear, but the term “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” is murkier and subject to much interpretation. At the time of the writing of the Constitution, the word “misdemeanors” meant only “misdeeds” rather than as it is viewed today as a minor crime. The term “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” has become a catch-all phrase and be reinterpreted at each impeachment.
The First Impeachment: William Blount
The first impeachment trail occurred in 1797 when U.S. Senator William Blount of Tennessee was accused of instigating an insurrection of American Indians in Florida to further British interests. Once President John Adams learned of Blount’s misdeeds, he petitioned the House of Representatives to impeach Blount.
The House drew up articles of impeachment and informed the Senate. The Senate voted to expel Blount and told him to attend his trial held over summer recess. The unrepentant Blount headed back to Tennessee and refused to return for the hearing. The Senate expelled Blount and eventually dropped the impeachment case, arguing that Blount was not subject to impeachment—whether because he was no longer a senator or because no senator could be impeached, the historical record isn’t clear. Whatever the reason, the House has not impeached a member of Congress since William Blount.
Federal Trial Judge John Pickering
By the time John Adams ended his second term as president in 1801, he had packed the federal courts with judges sympathetic to the Federalist Party. Adams’ successor, Thomas Jefferson, inherited a judiciary that was hostile to the more liberal Jeffersonian politicians. The federal trial judge from New Hampshire, John Pickering, set himself up as an easy target for impeachment by the Jeffersonians. By 1802 it had become clear to those who knew judge Pickering that things were not well with him. One of his court clerks reported he “exhibited every mark of intoxication: staggered and reeled, spoke in a thick way.”
The case in question involved alleged customs violations by the owners of the ship the Eliza. The owner of the ship was a prominent Federalist and Pickering released the ship from quarantine back to the owner. The sham trial on the failure to pay the customs duties and Pickering’s clearly partisan and belligerent conduct during the trial prompted the prosecutor to send documentation of the wrongdoing to President Jefferson. In the letter of transmittal of the documents to the House, Jefferson wrote Pickering’s removal was “not within Executive cognizance” but that the House has “the power of instituting proceedings of redress.”
The House of Representatives voted to impeach Pickering and sent the matter onto the Senate. The articles of impeachment accused Pickering of illegally returning the Eliza to its owner and conducting the trial “in a state of total intoxication.” Pickering was too ill to attend his own trial in the Senate and did not appear. The trial, held in absentia, for the 66-year-old jurist resulted in a conviction in March 1804. Thus, Pickering became the first American official to lose his position through impeachment.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase
Shortly after the removal of Pickering, the House began impeachment proceedings against Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. He was no stranger to politics, having served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. He was known to have “an oversized ego” and his irascible personality won him many enemies. Rather than holding court in Washington, D.C., as the Supreme Court does today, justices rode the legal circuit, overseeing matters in the lower federal courts.
Chase was caught up on the wrong side of politics. He had supported John Adams in the election of 1800, and when Thomas Jefferson won the election, he became an outspoken critic of Jefferson’s administration. Chase was also sympathetic to the prosecution of pro-Jefferson newspaper editors for sedition libel under the Alien and Sedition Acts. The House of Representatives voted articles of impeachment against him in 1804 and the trial before the Senate commenced the next year.
The trial became a major political and social event of the season. The impeachment of Chase had been brought on by his harsh criticism of the Jeffersonians. However, he had committed no crime; rather, the charges centered around his arbitrary and oppressive conduct in trials. Chase was acquitted in the Senate as the required two-thirds majority votes failed to materialize. The Senators feared that removing a sitting justice of the Supreme Court for political reasons would violate the independence of the judicial branch of government from the legislative.
Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson
With the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth just weeks after the end of the Civil War, Vice President Andrew Johnson was sworn into the presidency. America was in a state of upheaval with the death of the president and the end of the Civil War. Many questions and opinions on the best way to stitch the torn fabric of the nation back together arose.
Johnson found himself embroiled in the controversy over the reconstruction of the United States. Many Republicans suspected that Johnson, the former governor of Tennessee, harbored Southern sympathies, and they attempted to curb his authority regarding Reconstruction. Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act in 1867, over Johnson’s veto, which was a statute restricting the president from removing any cabinet members until the Senate had confirmed the new cabinet member. The constitutionality of the new act was questionable since the president had previously had the authority to hire and fire his own cabinet. Congress had carefully crafted the Tenure of Office Act so that failure to follow the act was considered a “high misdemeanor,” which in short order would become very relevant.
There were some who believed that the president’s authority to remove cabinet members was limited and could not take place without the concurrence of the same Senate that confirmed such appointments. Johnson challenged the new law when he dismissed his secretary of war Edwin Stanton, whose sympathies were with Congress and not the president. Stanton was outraged with Johnson’s move and barricaded himself in his office for two weeks, refusing to leave. Congress brought an article of impeachment against Johnson, but he was acquitted by one vote in the Senate.
Johnson finished out his term as a lame duck president and accomplished little during his term in office. Many historians rank Johnson as one of the poorest presidents in the nation’s history. Though his impeachment was during very turbulent times, it seemed to imply that ignoring congressional sentiment or abuse of office might constitute “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
President Richard M. Nixon
It would take over a century to pass before the next president would face the perils of being impeached. President Richard Nixon was caught up in a scandal that would be his undoing. The Watergate was an apartment complex in Washington, D.C., that was home to the offices of the Democratic National Committee. During the presidential campaign of 1972, which pitted the incumbent Nixon against his Democratic rival George S. McGovern, burglars attempted to break into the Democratic offices within The Watergate to steal sensitive information. The five burglars were caught, arrested, and during the investigation were found linked to the Nixon administration.
The White House sought to cover up its involvement with the break-in. The administration provided misleading information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Supreme Court ruled that the White House had to provide tapes of the president’s conversations that proved he used the FBI and CIA for political damage control. Investigations in the Senate revealed that official misconduct had occurred, and the criminal trials of the Watergate burglars also showed a direct link with officials at the White House.
The House Judiciary Committee completed hearings on the president’s actions and recommended impeachment to the full House. Nixon, with his political base crumbling, realized he could be impeached and became the first president to resign in United States history. Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 allowed him to avoid the dubious distinction of being the first president to be removed from office through impeachment.
President Bill Clinton's Impeachment
Bill Clinton entered the White House under a cloud of controversy. During his 1992 campaign, he was accused of financial misdeeds and extramarital affairs. Clinton and his wife Hillary were charged by their opponents with misuse of White House facilities and staff positions for the benefit of themselves and their associates.
To investigate the alleged indiscretions, a special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, was appointed. After a lengthy investigation that cost taxpayers $50 million dollars, Starr submitted to Congress his report, which found no clear evidence of any financial wrongdoing with regard to the misuse of government property or personnel. Starr did report evidence he had discovered in connection with a private sexual misconduct lawsuit brought against Clinton. There was evidence that the president lied under oath in a deposition, sought to get others to file false affidavits, concealed evidence, lied to a grand jury investigating these events, and had sought to “obstruct justice.” Though Clinton denied any wrongdoing, the evidence was strong enough for a civil trial court judge to fine him for contempt. As a result, Clinton lost his license to practice law in Arkansas for five years.
During 1998, the House of Representatives held numerous hearings regarding the allegations against Clinton. In December 1998, the Judiciary Committee voted articles of impeachment against the president for his perjury and obstruction of justice. The House was controlled by the Republican Party and they all voted for impeachment. Since only a simple majority is needed for the House to impeach a president, the articles of impeachment passed. The Senate trial ended with a vote in February 1999. Though Democratic Senators criticized the president’s actions, none voted for impeachment. The Republicans fell far short of the necessary two-thirds vote required to remove the president from office. Just as Bill Clinton had entered the office of the president, he was allowed to serve out his second term under a cloud of controversy.
The Impeachment of President Donald Trump
Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman, having never held a political office, entered the White House as the 45th president of the United States of America in January 2017. President Trump was a radical change from his predecessor, the Democrat Barack Obama. Replacing Obama’s smooth and polished style of delivery was Trump’s caustic way of dealing with adversaries—which ruffled many feathers on both sides of the political aisle.
Virtually since his first day in office, activist Democrats have been working to impeach President Trump. The speaker of the House of Representatives, the Democrat from California, Nancy Pelosi, has restrained the more aggressive members of her party to hold off on impeachment. During a March 2019 interview, she told the Washington Post, “I’m not for impeachment…Unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan…I don’t think we should go down that path.”
Pelosi’s fellow Californian, Representative Adam Schiff, expressed his more ardent opinion on impeachment, stating: “We have already seen deeply concerning evidence of the President’s lack of fitness for office, the degree to which profound conflict of interest may be guiding his foreign policy, as well as evidence of criminality on the part of the President.”
Things came to a head in late September 2019 when President Trump was accused of attempting to manipulate the 2020 elections. During a phone call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump asked the leader to investigate his political opponent Joe Biden and his son Hunter for their alleged shady business dealings with the country while Biden was vice president. Trump was accused of threatening to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine in an attempt to spur the investigation by Zelensky of Hunter Biden’s dealings within the country.
Both Trump and Zelensky have claimed no wrongdoing. In an interview on the morning of September 24 as Trump arrived at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, he told reporters, “That call was perfect. It couldn’t have been nicer.” Seizing upon the opportunity, that same day, Speaker Pelosi announced she was moving forward with a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. “The actions of the Trump presidency reveled the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security, and betrayal of the integrity of our elections,” said Pelosi. “Therefore, today I’m announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry.” The next chapter of this national tragedy is to be written.
- Ball, Molly. “The Path to Impeachment,” Time, March 25, 2019, pages 26-32.
- Gordon-Reed, Annette. Andrew Johnson. Times Books. 2011.
- Kutler, Stanley I. (editor in Chief) Dictionary of American History, Third Edition. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 2003.
- Malone, Dumas. (editor) Dictionary of American Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1934.
- Matuz, Roger, Bill Harris, and Thomas J. Craughwell. The Presidents Fact Book: The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President From George Washington to Barack Obama. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2009.
- Siegel, Benjamin and Allison Pecorin. “Pelosi announces formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump” ABC News. Accessed September 29, 2019.
- West, Doug. Bill Clinton: A Short Biography: 42nd President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2017.
- West, Doug. Donald Trump: A Short Biography: 45th President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2018.
- West, Doug. Richard Nixon: A Short Biography: 37th President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2017.
Timothy Arends from Chicago Region on February 19, 2020:
"Virtually since his first day in office, activist Democrats have been working to impeach President Trump"
That's absolutely right, and that's one reason it failed. It cheapened the whole process of impeachment.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on October 07, 2019:
Interesting historical perspective on impeachment, Doug. Very informative. I don't know how things will work out for President Trump. He is in trouble, but borrowing from Bill Clinton's vernacular, it depends on what the meaning of "is" is for this president. Enjoyable read.