When the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787 to frame the American government, they were operating with one big assumption: Gen. George Washington, present as a delegate, would be the first chief magistrate (“president” only came later).
As Jeffrey Engel explains in his chapter on the framing in “Impeachment: An American History,” published last year, Washington was the obvious and preemptive choice. He was not a perfect general, or writer, philosopher or orator; but he was something more. He had personally sacrificed so much for the colonists’ victory over Britain, and then he was dragged out of retirement to go to this Philadelphia confab, realizing it could culminate in his being pressed into arduous, indefinite service for his country a third time – and consented without too much complaint.
“We probably have had too good an opinion of human nature,” Washington wrote to John Jay. “Experience has taught us men will not adopt and carry into execution measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power. I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union.”
So the presidency was modeled on Washington. Impeachment was conceived for his successors.
What could the fifth or tenth president be like? the delegates asked themselves. To even imagine someone of low character was embarrassing to them with Washington in the room.
Impeachment was meant to be a rare and extraordinary remedy; if it were to become common somehow, the future was hopeless. Still, it had to be discussed.
They had worked it so the people could turn out the chief executive every four years, which is still a powerful argument for any president’s legitimacy. But what if, between elections, a president traduced the republic’s interests by placing his own above them – what then? It would be a cry in the night. Something would have to be done.
Oh, really? said Gouverneur Morris from New York, one of the youngest delegates (dubbed “The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution” by historian Richard Brookhiser, not least because Morris once shared a mistress with the French diplomat Talleyrand). A landowner, an opponent of slavery and an advocate of a strong central government, Morris believed common people, unlike himself, were incapable of self-government, as already could be seen in their state legislatures. A president, he argued, should be “a guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, against Legislative tyranny.”
But what if, delegate George Mason of Virginia asked, a president “who has practiced corruption and by that means procured his (election) ... be suffered to escape punishment, by repeating his guilt?”
That was a stumper.
“What was the practice before this,” Benjamin Franklin asked, “where the chief magistrate rendered himself obnoxious? Why, recourse was had to assassination.”
That would spell the end of the republic. So the alternative was worse. Even Morris was now convinced, conceding a president should face impeachment for “corruption and some few other offenses ... that ought to be enumerated and defined.”
The convention agreed that a president should be impeached if found guilty of personally profiting from his office or conspiring with foreign foes. These were high crimes and misdemeanors – the “high” applying to both – because, unlike common crimes, they injured the state and the entire people.
They signed their names to the document trusting posterity would have no confusion on these points. It was just so clear.
There is much today that would astonish them.