The Constitution as a Political Tool
To free the Colonies from the tyranny of a King living in a faraway land, the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Their proclamation is premised on the notion of political and religious freedom and the right to speak our minds without fear of reprisal. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Under these audacious principles, the authors listed more than 25 grievances the Colonists had with the Crown. Those grievances were the foundation of why we fought the Revolutionary War. They are equally among the building blocks that in 1788 became the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights–the first set of ten amendments to our Constitution–ratified December 15, 1791, equally reflect protection from the abuses suffered under the King. In that span of fifteen years from war to ratification, these three documents, comprising less than 7,000 words, became the most enduring principles of free government in the history of the world.
Today I cannot help but wonder how many people, particularly those lucky enough to be born in this country or elected to federal office, have ever read the cornerstone documents that define our nation. It is not as if any one of them are that long. Indeed, each is a model of brevity. Yet, like the plays of Shakespeare, pundits have interpreted them in countless ways that may or may not have been what the Founding Fathers had in mind. We call that politics.
One part of the Constitution, just 31 words, is now the nation’s center of attention.
Article II, Section 4 provides: “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 process of Impeachment has two steps outlined in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution. Paragraph 5 propounds, “The House of Representatives shall…have the sole Power of Impeachment.” Paragraph 6 adds further “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments…And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.” While there is no provision on what the vote needs to be in the House to impeach, it is accepted that it is a mere majority.
In our 240-year history, only two of the 44 men elected president have been impeached – Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. The Senate acquitted both. Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment. Thus, we have never constitutionally removed a President from his elected office.
Politicians and media are now engrossed in defining what constitutes an impeachable offense, straining to construe “treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors.” Nowhere in the Constitution are these terms defined. For some guidance, however, one can look to the Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 essays written by three of the men who signed the Constitution; Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.
Federalist Paper No. 65 speaks to the idea of impeaching a President. Hamilton writes that the basis for an impeachable offense is political and “relates chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” He opines that impeachable conduct includes “behavior that violates an official’s duty to the country, even if such conduct is not necessarily a prosecutable offense.” Hamilton further notes that “in the past both houses of Congress have given the phrase high Crimes and Misdemeanors a broad reading, finding that impeachable offenses need not be limited to criminal conduct.”
Describing the role of the House in impeachment proceedings, Hamilton admits that deliberations center on “pre-existing factions” who will “enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other.” In such cases he notes, “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.” Hamilton saw impeachment for what it is. A purely political maneuver.
In contrast, Hamilton described the Senate’s role quite differently. He wrote, “Where else than in the Senate could have been found a tribunal sufficiently dignified, or sufficiently independent? What other body would be likely to feel confidence enough in its own situation, to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality between an individual accused, and the representatives of the people, his accusers?”
Thus, Hamilton considered the Senate’s duty as far more profound. The Senate is charged with a duty of impartiality, the same protection our Constitution provides to citizens accused of crimes. Hamilton saw the House as the political circus it has become. The Senate is the last bastion of due process, devoid of partisan and political prejudice.
So here we are. Engrossed in another partisan led effort to impeach the President for political reasons, just as Hamilton envisioned in 1778. We should all take these events at face value. It is pure politics, accompanied by all the partisan, self-serving and emotional hysteria of the members of the House – on both sides of the aisle. Hamilton observed in Federalist No. 65 that the Founding Fathers understood such bias and prejudice would be the rule for the House. Partisan grist for the mill of media. But Hamilton also put to the Senate its obligation to be devoid of such influences and to be entirely impartial.
Someone needs to remind those Senators, unable to avoid spouting opinions about the merits of the charges, one very important point: The House is deliberating to remember their Constitutional obligation. The role of the Senate is to keep politics out of the impeachment process, and to refrain from expressing any opinions on the merits until the House votes to ask the Senate to put the President of the United States on trial.