Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


A quaint, almost calming take on how impeachment got into the Constitution

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, 1778
Wikimedia Commons
Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, 1778
Writing for “The Conversation,” and saying absolutely nothing about the case for and against Donald Trump, Professor Clark Cunningham, who holds an endowed chair in Law and Ethics at Georgia State University Law School, sheds some quaint, almost calming light on the matter of how impeachment got into the Constitution, and specifies that removing an unfit office holder is not the only purpose.

The other main purpose of allowing for impeachment and potentially a trial of a sitting president who has fallen under suspicion of abusing his office is that it provides a mechanism by which a president can disprove the charges against him and thus be restored to the public confidence.

If a president has done nothing wrong, but has fallen under suspicion of wrongdoing, he (and in 1787-89 it was presumed that all presidents would be a he) would welcome the opportunity to clear his name. Impeachment proceedings in the House and, if necessary, a trial in the Senate would grant him that name-clearing opportunity.

I said it was quaint. But it has a lovely logic, from a time and place long ago and far away when it was assumed that most members of Congress would be fair-minded honorable folks (and when it was not assumed that national political parties — and the partisan loyalties and logic they produce — would substantially change the question from, “Is he guilty of crimes or misdemeanors?” to “What party am I in?”)

From Madison’s notes on the debate at the Constitutional Convention, Cunningham quotes Ben Franklin, who favored the impeachment and trial provisions because they provided a process for “the regular punishment of the Executive when his misconduct should deserve it and for his honorable acquittal when he should be unjustly accused.” (Franklin also noted that, historically, when no such mechanism existed, the only recourses for a leader suspected of wrongdoing was to kill him or to let him get away with the wrongdoing.)

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 10/02/2019 - 11:10 am.

    I’m 100% confident that Trump will be using this opportunity to not only clear his name, but drag those of his tormentors through the briars and brambles.

    If you saw the Lewandowski hearing, you got a bit of a preview of what the upcoming impeachment trial is going to look like.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/02/2019 - 11:39 am.

      Yes, the proper role of a President is to “drag those of his tormentors through the briars and brambles.” That’s the way to show he is the President of ALL Americans, not just of his supporters.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 10/02/2019 - 02:39 pm.

      I’m 100% confident that the captain of the Titanic was sure that it was just a small leak.

    • Submitted by Mike Chrun on 10/02/2019 - 03:43 pm.

      Well, dragging them through the briars and brambles is a step up from wanting them executed because they are spies or committing treason like your great leader had proposed. He’s not going to “clear his name.” He already has established himself as one of the most deceitful and corrupt people to ever lead this country. If you mean that he just might win by making this a fight where he drags everyone down to his level, then I might agree with you.

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/02/2019 - 11:17 am.

    Seems like after 200-some years, we oughta give it a run, eh? Make sure it works the way it’s supposed to?

    I suppose one could argue we did, for Clinton, in that he was convicted & censered, but the offense did not mandate removal from office.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/02/2019 - 11:56 am.

    That is a quaint thought. As if providing due process of law like standing trial or any sort of questioning was equivalent to being punished. The impeachment process will reveal the sort of stuff Trump, and those of his supporters are made of.

    Trump’s “tormentors” and the country will be lucky if having their names dragged through the mud, or the briars and brambles is all that comes of doing their jobs. The PiPress this morning carried an article about Trump’s “defiant stance” with Mike Pompeo sanctimoniously complaining about the “bullying” tactics of the House Democrats who are proceeding with this impeachment inquiry. Note that Trump has even not been “impeached” but only being investigated for his conduct. In the same article, the lawyer for the whistleblower has asked for increased protection for his client’s safety in light of Trump’s demand that the identity of the whistleblower be revealed to him for a meeting of some sort. It seems that some “public spirited” Trump supporters have offered a $50,000 “bounty” for information leading to this whistleblower’s identity. I’m sure that’s just so Trump can have a friendly little chat with this person.

    I just hope and pray this impeachment investigation or, if it comes to that, impeachment process can be handled without anyone getting hurt or killed.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/02/2019 - 01:01 pm.

    If a president has done nothing wrong, but has fallen under suspicion of wrongdoing, he (and in 1787-89 it was presumed that all presidents would be a he) would welcome the opportunity to clear his name. Impeachment proceedings in the House and, if necessary, a trial in the Senate would grant him that name-clearing opportunity.

    So, Trump and company have the opportunity to pull all that information off the Top Secret server, and lay it out in front of the American people, to prove his innocence on the “perfect call”, Instead we see a massive disinformation war against congress, as well as calling standing congressmen, treasonous with zero evidence, because they are doing what the constitution requires them to do. I am confident he is trying to cover up and misdirect the American people to cover up his treachery. Guess from here on out we should also be calling, CIA, FBI, Intelligence groups, police prosecutors, judges, witness’s etc. “tormentors” and not law enforcers, investigators or folks devoted to establishing justice for all.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/03/2019 - 08:06 am.

    In a less rigidly-partisan world, Franklin’s reasoning would seem quite sensible – almost a no-brainer. Alas, that world is no longer with us.

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/03/2019 - 08:15 am.

    No way will Trump will be able to clear his name. Why do I say that? Because he can’t shut up. He is his own worst enemy with the mental battle he has going on in the inside. He makes it very easy to follow him, for some, because he is continually telling his supporters how to act and what to say, no thinking required. What Trump does is all to make himself look strong, when in fact he is extremely weak. That is what narcissism does to a person. If it gets to the impeachment trial in the senate it may fail and the GOP in the senate will have to live with their failure to do the right thing. A senate trial will remove the cloak of secrecy the senators now enjoy because they will have public votes along the way. Nothing clear out politicians like a transparent vote. After the senate trial the public, that can do critical thinking, will do the right thing and vote for a President not encumbered with narcissism.

  7. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/03/2019 - 10:32 am.

    Reading the original debates and commentaries on constitutional impeachment leaves me with the impression that the Founders expected it would be employed more often than it has been. In the 232 years since the ratification of the Constitution, there have been only two actual presidential impeachments, and two inchoate efforts. Either the judgment of the people in deciding whom to elect has been remarkably sound, or successive Congresses have been leery of invoking what has come to be viewed as a drastic remedy.

Leave a Reply