Heated Trials Shaped Impeachment History

By Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 5, 1999 | Go to article overview

Heated Trials Shaped Impeachment History


Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Impeachment isn't a pretty business. America's Founding Fathers knew that it could deeply divide the new country, but was an essential protection against corruption and abuse of office. For parents and teachers trying to help kids make sense of it all, there are helpful lessons to be gleaned from past impeachment trials.

For much of history, the way to get rid of unwanted leaders was just to assassinate them. Rome's Praetorian Guard dispatched many of its emperors that way, both the best and the worst of them.

The idea of impeachment as a legal way to get rid of unfit public officials was pioneered in medieval England and used extensively during the political upheavals of the 17th century. As the framers of the Constitution were meeting in Philadelphia in 1787, proceedings for one of the most dramatic impeachment cases in British history were starting in London. Warren Hastings, a top colonial official in India, was charged with extortion and bribery. His trial would last seven years and end in acquittal, but it made a deep impression on American lawmakers, who cited the case when they added the phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors" to the impeachment clause of the Constitution. "They used the Hastings case to show the need to include more than treason as a basis for impeachment," says Buckner Melton, a constitutional historian at the University of North Carolina Law School in Chapel Hill. But subsequent lawmakers found that it is easier to define treason than to say exactly what conduct amounts to a high crime or misdemeanor. "Nothing can be more alarming than the vagueness with which political offenses ... are described in the laws of America," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the great commentators on American democracy. Impeachment is "the most formidable weapon that has ever been placed in the grasp of a majority," he added. The two great impeachment trials in American history - that of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1804 and President Andrew Johnson in 1868 - signaled the danger that impeachment could be misused. Both men made no secret of their opposition to the policies of strong majorities in the Congress. Chase, a Federalist, used to rail against acts of the Republican Congress from the bench; and Johnson, a Democrat, vetoed one Republican Reconstruction measure after another after the Civil War. They were both impeached on strong party-line votes in the House of Representatives, but were unexpectedly acquitted in the Senate. At issue in both trials was whether the Senate would become "a partisan tribunal, which would be willing to undermine the fundamental principles of the Constitution in order to remove a political enemy from office," writes William Rehnquist in his 1992 book, "Grand Inquests." As chief justice of the United States, Mr. Rehnquist will preside over the impeachment trial of President Clinton if there is one. Had Chase and Johnson been convicted, the verdicts would have set a precedent that officials can be impeached just because Congress disagrees with their political views. "These two cases ... surely contributed as much to the maintenance of our tripartite federal system of government as any case decided by any court," Rehnquist concludes. Impeachment is not meant to be easy. The Republican senators who broke party ranks to vote to acquit Johnson made it clear that not every misdeed was a basis for impeachment. Sen. James Dixon (R) of Connecticut wrote that he voted for acquittal because he did not want to see impeachment become an ordinary means of changing the policy of the government. …

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