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
"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
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
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. …