A Brief History of Impeachment | Ella T. Lifset

A Brief History of Impeachment

Ella T. Lifset

“...A method of national inquest into the conduct of public men…” Alexander Hamilton on Impeachment, The Federalist No. 65.

On September 24, 2019, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared that a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump would be soon underway. But why now? Why have the Democrats decided to launch an inquiry into the conduct of the president after three years of deliberation? In order to completely understand the political action (and risks taken by the Democrat Party), it is important to recognize the historical complexity of impeachment in America. 

Although impeachment may seem like a relatively modern concept, the Founding Fathers were in fact well aware of impeachment. Between the years 1788 to 1795, British official Warren Hastings faced accusations of corruption and consequent impeachment. Ultimately, he was acquitted; nonetheless, during Hastings’ trial, it was decided in the new US Constitution that the Senate would serve as the forum for any presidential impeachment trial. According to the Constitution, evidence of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” must be discerned, and in order to convict the accused, a two-thirds majority in the Senate must be reached. 

Actual presidential impeachment process in the US did not occur until 1868, during the Johnson Administration. Andrew Johnson, the widely unpopular president at the time, attempted to violate the Tenure of Office Act. which Congress enacted a year earlier over his veto. The law stated that certain federal officials could not be removed by the president without Senate approval. Johnson disagreed with his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, and attempted to remove him from office without approval from the Senate; this prompted immediate impeachment inquiry. Eventually, Johnson was acquitted, but many historians argue that the failure of the impeachment was planned, as senators did not want to remove the president from office due to political disagreement. In fact, Iowa senator James Grimes stated that, “[he could] not agree to destroy the harmonious working of the Constitution for the sake of getting rid of an Unacceptable President.”

Talks of impeachment returned during 1973 when the Watergate scandal, the direct Republican attempt to sabotage the opposing Democrats and re-elect the president, occurred under the Nixon Administration. Of course, after months of citing “executive privilege” and the shady dismissals of high-profile officials, Richard Nixon’s preliminary proceedings and impending impeachment vote were aborted his announcement that he would be leaving office. To date, the impeachment process against Nixon is the sole example that led to departure from the position as president. 

Finally, President Bill Clinton, under specific charges of lying under oath and obstruction of justice after discovery of an affair between him and White House intern Monica Lewinsky, underwent impeachment inquiry in 1998. However, much like the impeachment process of Andrew Johnson, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate and served his full second term as president. 

In the political sense, impeachment is risky for the opposing party as well. Not only is it highly divisive in the Senate, but it tends to cause disagreement between the public as well. It also can cause a political resurgence for a candidate, and create a sympathetic or vindicated figure, as opposed to an inadequate one. When Clinton left office, he finished his term with a favorable foreign political climate, numerous approved domestic policies, and a booming economy. It seemed as if impeachment had done the opposite: rather than force the president out of office, it cemented Clinton as one of the most popular US leaders in history.

Ultimately, the Democrats are taking a considerable chance with their decision to impeach. For some, it may seem that the president is entirely innocent, but for others, it was an announcement long overdue.