What You Need To Know About The History Of Impeachment

Amid the chaos and conflict that has developed in the aftermath of this election, one theme has started to pop up among those who oppose Trump: would an impeachment of the new president actually achieve anything? And is impeaching him even possible? The answers to those questions are pretty complicated, and a lot of that is due to the creation of the impeachment process itself, which dates back to the Constitution's formation in the 1780s. We can indeed hold the president to account, but it's not as simple as just throwing them out of the Oval Office and sitting them in a traditional courtroom; the decisions about what he or she has to do wrong to deserve their impeachment, and who can decide on the punishment, are labyrinthine and a bit vague. 

The history of impeachment is, frankly, a bit bizarre, and involves everything from drunken judges to deliberately lost boats. Our modern interpretation of the process is almost entirely taken from our memories of Clinton's impeachment, but it's been applied throughout U.S. history for a host of different abuses, from alleged bribery to sabotaging a bridge-building project — and impeachment isn't just for presidents. 

Though this presidency may end up as one of the impeached ones (it would be only the third in American history), impeachment is not the Horcrux you might think it is. The process itself also has, frankly, had some very odd moments. 


The People Who Created The Impeachment Process Thought The Senate Were More Virtuous Than The House 

U.S. impeachment was developed at the Constitutional Convention, back in 1787 in Philadelphia. It was a weird gathering anyway; it got so bogged down in deciding about electoral colleges that it had to put together 11 people to form a "committee on postponed matters" to get anything done. But the fundamentals of impeachment were hammered out on those tables, informed by the beliefs attendees held about senators, and how smart they'd likely be.

If you haven't been following all the chatter about impeachment, here's how it works: an impeachment resolution begins in the House of Representatives and then, if the House is in agreement about it, it goes onto the Senate to actually proceed to trial. This was part of the whole "separation of powers" thing, where all the bits of government hold the others accountable; but there was a reason that the Senate was held to be the place to do the actual dirty work. According to constitutional law expert Professor Michael J Gerhardt in his book, The Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis, the framers thought that the Senate should be in charge because it was "composed of well-educated, wealthier, more virtuous citizens, who would be capable of making sound judgements." They expected the Senate, he says, to "rely upon its own wisdom, information, stability and even temper." The House of Representatives wasn't full of dullards, but it wasn't regarded as smart or moral enough to make the right decisions. 

Figuring Out Which Crimes Merited Impeachment Led To A Massive Argument 

Before the Constitutional Convention got together, states had their own methods for defining a problematic politician and getting rid of them. But when the Convention tried to agree on what crimes were deserving of impeachment, it created an almighty argument.

Some thought that impeachment wasn't necessary because hey, term limits exist. Others fiddled with semantics. The final product in the Constitution, "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors," was the result of a lot of negotiation. It originally included "or Maladministration," but understandably, people thought that was incredibly vague and open to interpretation. (Treason and bribery are both broad categories, too: treason is defined elsewhere in the Constitution as "levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.") In the end, the "high crimes and misdemeanors" bit was taken from English parliamentary law, though, as we'll see, that doesn't really clear things up very well. 

Everything From Losing British Ships To Arresting Your Opponents Can Be Grounds For Impeachment

"High crimes and misdemeanors" is more than just the title of the political murder drama I'm definitely going to write; they're two of the main bases for impeachment. And they have a hilarious history. When the Constitution's framers nabbed them from English law, they were adopting a term that had been part of the British Parliament's method of dealing with errant politicians since the 1300s. The Constitutional Rights Foundation has a fascinating list of the things that the Parliament had impeached under the heading of "high crimes and misdemeanors":

"misappropriating government funds, appointing unfit subordinates, not prosecuting cases, not spending money allocated by Parliament, promoting themselves ahead of more deserving candidates, threatening a grand jury, disobeying an order from Parliament, arresting a man to keep him from running for Parliament, losing a ship by neglecting to moor it, helping 'suppress petitions to the King to call a Parliament,' granting warrants without cause, and bribery." 

These days, the actual definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors" is still debated, even though it's not really probable that we'd impeach a president for neglect of his ships. The Constitution Society points out that the term can be applied to stuff that isn't illegal for private citizens, but is seen as a dereliction of duty (or "offended the sense of justice of the people and the court") in a president or politician. And Slate, back in 1999, ran through an entire gamut of definitions, from the deliberately vague to abuse of the state or a demonstration that you were seriously thinking about becoming a dictator. It's a bit like choose your own adventure, except with politicians being offensive. 

The 16 U.S. Politicians Who've Been Impeached Are A Very Mixed Bag

Here's something to remember: the House Of Representatives has formally posed the idea of impeachment over 60 times in the nation's history. The rate of actual success, or even of taking the next step, is far lower. Only 16 people have successfully been impeached, and only two of them were presidents: Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson, both of whom were acquitted. So don't get over-excited about the idea of kicking Trump out via this mechanism, because it's never actually worked like that before. (Richard Nixon chose to resign rather than be impeached over Watergate: the impeachment articles, which accuse him of "obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress," ended with the blistering sentence, "Richard M. Nixon has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice, and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States." Impeachers don't f*ck around.)

The other officials who were impeached were all over the place. One was impeached successfully in 1804 because, as a judge on the New Hampshire Superior Court, he showed clear signs of mental illness and was constantly drunk. Another was removed from office because he'd allegedly received a holiday in Europe from litigants while judging at the Commerce Court; a third was kicked out of his job as Secretary of War because, among other things, he'd tried to sabotage the completion of a bridge by demanding more and more elaborate design additions. Some were impeached (and cleared) because of political leanings and disagreements, but in general, the people who've been impeached have been a collection of the mad, the innocent, the immoral, the on-the-make and the merely disagreeable — so the next chapter in the story of impeachment is likely to be just as bizarre as the previous ones.

Images: Joe Mabel, Junius Stearns, National Archives, Aditya Venkatraman, White House/Wikimedia Commons

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