Today, as the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence and Judicial Committees debate possible Articles of Impeachment for Donald J. Trump, there needs to be a short review of our Framer’s views on impeachment as a check on executive authority.
What is interesting to me is the current lack of knowledge regarding our Framers’ insistence on impeachment as a check on presidential power. Kentucky, like many states, has moved away from requiring rigorous history, government and economics classes for graduation from high school and college.
This quote is true: “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going”(Maya Angelou)
On Sept. 8, 1787, George Mason, the author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, stood up to ask his fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, “Why were treason and bribery the only grounds in the draft Constitution for impeaching the president?” Could the president become a tyrant as oppressive as George III?
He warned that there should be a provision for “attempts to subvert the Constitution”.
I like to call these delegates, The Three Cavaliers of Virginia, who were the most outspoken on impeachment during these discussions at the Constitutional Convention. They were George Mason, James Madison and Edmund Randolph.
Their debates on impeachment resulted in an agreement – that a president should be impeached for abuses of power that subvert the Constitution, the integrity of government, and/or the rule of law.
These Three Cavaliers of Virginia took on leading roles at the Convention. Edmund Randolph, Governor of Virginia, introduced the Virginia plan, written by James Madison, which became the template for our new national government.
George Mason was the first delegate to argue that the new government needed a check on the executive’s power. “Shall any man be above justice?” “Shall that man who has practiced corruption, and by that means procured his (office) in the first (place), be suffered to escape punishment by repeating his guilt?”
(Let’s see … using corruption to procure your office in 2016 and again in 2020…Hmm. George Mason was very clairvoyant, wasn’t he?)
James Madison continued the discussion by arguing that the Constitution needed a provision “for defending the community against the incapacity, negligence, or (deceitfulness)”.
Charles Pinckney of South Carolina rebuffed that argument by saying, “if the president should be re-elected that will be sufficient proof of his innocence.” Does that sound familiar?
But James Madison pushed back by arguing, “Waiting to vote him out of office in a general election wasn’t good enough. He might (corrupt) his administration into a scheme of embezzlement or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers.”
Additionally Edmund Randolph agreed with both Mason and Madison, “The Executive will have great opportunities to abuse power during time of war, when the military force, and the public money, will be in his hands.”
But the Three Cavaliers of Virginia had not really resolved the toughest question, “What exactly is an impeachable offense?” George Mason had warned that the adopted phrase of just Treason and bribery was not broad enough to cover other dangerous offenses.
But James Madison feared that if broad, vague terms like “Maladministration” were added that the Senate would use that to remove a president for whatever it wanted.
So George Mason offered “other high crimes and misdemeanors against the State.” The English Parliament had used a similar phrase in its articles of impeachment since 1450. The Framers were using the English Common Law models.
The delegates were also highly concerned that a foreign power might influence the outcome of an election. Alexander Hamilton called “the desire in foreign powers to gain improper (influence) in our councils”.
Edmund Randolph connected impeachment to foreign money or “receiving emoluments (help) from foreign powers.” And in George Washington’s Farewell address he warned of” the insidious wiles of foreign influence.” (devious strategies used in manipulating or persuading someone to do what you want) Sound familiar?
If a president can invite a foreign power to influence the outcome of an election, there’s no limit to how far they might go to curry favor by taking down an incumbent’s rival.
If that isn’t impeachable, nothing is!
“We’re better than that,” rebuked the late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md).
Marshall Ward is a Murray resident who is a member of the Democratic Party. He may be reached at email@example.com.