Presidential Impeachment: The Original Misunderstanding

By Orth, John V. | Constitutional Commentary, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Presidential Impeachment: The Original Misunderstanding


Orth, John V., Constitutional Commentary


We must never forget that it is a[n eighteenth-century] constitution we are expounding.

John Marshall

Presidential impeachment and removal from office undoes the result of the last presidential election. So much is indubitably true. What is not true is that the Framers of the Constitution necessarily understood this to mean a rejection of the people's choice. The Constitution's Executive Article, Article II, proceeds in logical order: Section 1 concerns the election of the President, Section 2 the President's powers, Section 3 the President's relations with Congress, and Section 4 the President's impeachment and removal from office. Section 4 is, in other words, the negative analog of Section 1; the election of the President and the President's removal from office are the brackets that enclose the substance of the Executive Article. The architecture of the Constitution, therefore, suggests that something about the original understanding of presidential impeachment and removal may be learned from an examination of the process of presidential election.

The American President has never, of course, been directly elected by the people. Rather, the President is elected by "electors" chosen by the states: "Each state shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress...."(1) The electors meet in their respective states and vote for two persons, one of whom at least must not be an inhabitant of the same state.(2) According to the original plan, the person with the greatest number of votes, assuming it was a majority of the electoral votes, would become President and the runner-up Vice President.(3) As it turned out, the choice of the President went according to plan only three times: in 1789 and 1793, when George Washington and John Adams were chosen, and in 1797, when the ill-assorted team of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson prevailed. The experience of the 1801 election, when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received the same number of electoral votes, led to the prompt proposal and adoption of the Twelfth Amendment, which created the present system of distinct electoral ballots for President and Vice-President.(4)

It is a commonplace of American constitutional history that the Framers did not foresee the development of a system of durable nationwide political parties. In the words of a distinguished historian: "the [Constitutional] Convention, not anticipating the rise of a two-party system, expected each state to vote for a `favorite son,' so that seldom would one candidate obtain a majority of electoral votes.... Madison thought this would happen `nineteen times out of twenty'...."(5) Careful provision was therefore made for the election of the President in case no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes. The House of Representatives, then the only directly elected element of the federal government, was designated by the Constitution to make the choice: "[F]rom the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President."6 The deadlocked electors would, therefore, be replaced by a new set of electors, the Representatives. In recognition of their new role the Representatives would vote in an extraordinary manner, not by individual Yeas and Nays but by ballot as delegates from the several states: "[I]n choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote."(7)

The drafters, both of the original Constitution and of the Twelfth Amendment, expected the House of Representatives to play a major role in presidential elections, as indeed it would have, had a party system not developed to operate the constitutional machinery. National parties focused attention on a limited number of candidates and organized the electors behind the party's choice.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Presidential Impeachment: The Original Misunderstanding
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.