"The Confidence of His Country": James Monroe on Impeachment

By Scherr, Arthur | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

"The Confidence of His Country": James Monroe on Impeachment


Scherr, Arthur, The Midwest Quarterly


IN THE AFTERMATH of the impeachment crisis of 1998 and 1999 revolving around President Bill Clinton's sexual indiscretions, we are reminded that the "Founders," those who publicly advocated the Constitution in the Great Convention's debates in the spring and summer of 1787 and during the ratification controversy for over a year afterward, were ambivalent and surprisingly reticent on the matter of presidential dismissal. Perhaps the Federalists feared that taking notice of the issue would lend increased impetus to the anti-constitutional arguments of their opponents, who might decry the impeachment mechanism's clumsiness and more wildly vent their suspicions of the national government's extensive new powers. The Federalist Papers lack a substantive discussion or definition of the "high crimes and misdemeanors" that, along with treason and bribery, constitute the necessary and sufficient causes for the impeachment of "the President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States" (Article 2, Section 4). Even the usually lucid Founding Father James Madison eschewed the issue, briefly comparing the provisions for the impeachment of the national chief executive with those for dismissing the state governors. Pointing out that several state constitutions had made no arrangements for deposing their executives, and that "in Delaware and Virginia, he is not impeachable till out of office," Madison cautiously observed: "The President of the United States is impeachable at any time during his continuance in office" (Federalist #39, Cooke, 252).

By contrast, James Monroe, the only Antifederalist (i.e., an opponent of immediate ratification of the unamended Constitution, which originally lacked provisions like a Bill of Rights to protect civil liberties) who both participated in the Founding as Spotsylvania County's delegate to the Virginia state ratifying convention in June 1788 and served as president of the United States (1817-1825), was more articulate about the impeachment process than Madison and many other contemporaries. Because of Monroe's unique political career, his ideas about presidential impeachment are worth examining in greater detail than has hitherto been done. Monroe's forceful views on impeachment flowed from his exalted conception of the presidency's unique fusion of power and responsibility.

Despite an undeserved historical reputation for mediocrity, Monroe's opinions on the presidency and its Damoclean "sword" of impeachment are interesting and original. Perhaps because scholars regard Monroe more as a practical politician than a political theorist, general surveys of the Constitution-making period often ignore his ideas. Few historians, including Monroe specialists, have focused on Monroe's opinions about impeachment during this critical period. Of the two extensive available biographies of Monroe, the examination of his views on the Constitution in William Penn Cresson's James Monroe is superficial and sometimes unreliable. The best biography, Harry Ammon's James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity, makes no mention of Monroe's views on impeachment or the possible link between the proposals concerning the presidency in his unpublished pamphlet, "Some Observations on the Constitution," and the positions he later adopted at the Virginia ratifying convention. An outstanding study of impeachment's early history, Peter Charles Hoffer and N. E. H. Hull's Impeachment in America, 1635-1805, briefly quotes from one of Monroe's speeches at the convention, as does Forrest McDonald's The American Presidency: An Intellectual History.

Monroe receives even less attention in such standard histories as Jackson Turner Main's The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788. Indeed, Jack N. Rakove's Pulitzer Prize-winning Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution and Irving Brant's Impeachment: Trials and Errors are so enamored of James Madison's moderate constitutionalism that they concentrate virtually exclusively on his opinions and role, ignoring Monroe, whose general views (e. …

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