As is often the case in today's America, most Americans fail to see through the facade of things to the substance of things. For instance, most Americans will view today's beginning of public impeachment hearings through the prism of their political partisanship. Their opinion of the proceedings will be based on their political persuasion and whether they adore or abhor President Trump. Yet, the weightier matter, which poses the potential to imperil our representative republic, is not even being weighed on the scales of today’s public opinion polls.
At the close of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Well, with the beginning of today’s public impeachment hearings we’re definitely in danger of losing our republic, though few Americans, I fear, have the foggiest idea of how these proceedings have our republic teetering on the precipice.
The 55 delegates who gathered in Philadelphia to write our Constitution hesitated to include impeachment powers within it. Some argued that the electorate’s power to oust a president from office was not only sufficient, but should not be superseded by Congress’ power to impeach. Benjamin Franklin, however, jokingly suggested that even elected presidents “should support an impeachment clause,” since “the alternative” may prove to be “assassination.”
The fear of our Founding Fathers in including an impeachment clause in our Constitution was that it would be politically weaponized; that is, used by the opposing party of a president to oust him from office for purely political reasons. According to Alexander Hamilton, such an abuse of impeachment powers would pose the greatest of dangers to our representative republic and its democratic elections. For this reason, our Founding Fathers carefully crafted the impeachment clause to include procedural protections and substantive allegations of either high crimes or misdemeanors—serious nonindictable offenses.
When it came to the procedural protection, our Founders put a check on Congress’ impeachment powers by requiring a two-thirds majority for conviction in the Senate. In their eyes, this would necessitate broad support for removal from office and prevent duly elected presidents from being impeached by political partisans alone.
When it came to determining justifiable grounds for a president’s impeachment, delegates of the Constitutional Convention rejected the initial proposal, borrowed from English law, of “maladministration,” which simply meant doing a lousy job. According to James Madison and others, a president’s incompetence and ineffectualness would always be in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, as a mere matter of opinion, “maladministration” was roundly rejected as an appropriate bases for impeachment. Instead, our Founders settled on far more serious malfeasance—“treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” This way, as Alexander Hamilton argued, impeachment would involve “real demonstrations of innocence or guilt,” not just personal opinions and political partisanship.
Today, in Washington D.C., 232 years after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, our Founding Fathers’ fears are being realized and their forebodings ignored. A president is being impeached by political partisans for purely political purposes on the bases of nothing more than people’s personal opinions. If successful, the power of the electorate—the votes and voices of the American people—will be henceforth subject to usurpation by Congress’ power to impeach—partisan politicians’ ability to nullify our votes and to oust from office a duly elected president. Our Founding Fathers must be turning over in their graves as our representative republic presently teeters on the precipice.