President Johnson’s Impeachment trial began #OnThisDay March 13, 1868. On May 16 the U.S. Senate failed to convict him by one vote. They voted again on May 26, 1868, with the same result. I don’t want to dwell on the details of President Johnson’s trial, but on the Constitutional Provision itself.
Article 2, Section 4 says:
“The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
The Constitutional provision of impeachment for public officers was copied from an English practice. The House of Commons used that power against King’s ministers. By the 1700s, a law was enacted which denied royal pardon in cases of impeachment. This assured that the King’s ministers would be held accountable for their actions. However, none of this legal accountability applied to the King himself, he couldn’t be impeached. If you wanted the king gone, your only option was violence, revolution!
James Iredell gives the background of this provision when speaking to the North Carolina Ratifying Convention in 1788.
“In that country, that is England, the executive authority is vested in a magistrate who holds it by birthright. He has great powers and prerogatives, and it is a constitutional maxim, that he can do no wrong. We have experienced that he can do wrong, yet no man can say so in his own country. There are no courts to try him for any high crimes; nor is there any constitutional method of depriving him of his throne. If he loses it, it must be by a general resistance of his people…Under our Constitution we are much happier. No man has an authority to injure another with impunity. No man is better than his fellow-citizens, nor can pretend to any superiority over the meanest man in the country. If the President does a single act by which the people are prejudiced, he is punishable himself, and no other man merely to screen him. If he commits any misdemeanor in office, he is impeachable, removable from office, and incapacitated to hold any office of honor, trust, or profit. If he commits any crime, he is punishable by the laws of his country, and in capital cases may be deprived of his life.”
History is full of examples of unjust rulers. But the only recourse for the people was violent overthrow or assassination. But the American Constitution provides for peaceful means to hold leaders accountable. Impeachment powers are given to the House of Representatives. The Constitution reads:
“The House of Representatives shall…have the sole power of impeachment.”
This provision assures that the President and other officers are responsible to the House of Representatives, that is, to the people. Instead of violent overthrow, the people, through their reps, can hold their President accountable for his actions.
The Senate, which in the original Constitution represented state governments, tries impeachment proceedings, and when the President is tried, the Chief Justice presides. The Constitution reads:
“The Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments. When sitting for that purpose, they shall be on oath or affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside; and no person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of the members present.”
Two-thirds vote is required to convict. The two-thirds requirement protects the accused from a mere party motivated indictment. For instance, history seems to prove that Andrew Johnson was impeached on solely party lines, and though most voted to convict, they were still one vote shy. So the provision appears to have worked in that case.
If convicted, the President is removed from office and is barred from holding offices in the national Government. But that’s not all. The convicted President can still be tried in a normal court of law and punished if found guilty. The Constitution reads:
“Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States; but the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment, and punishment, according to law.”
America is a Government of laws and not of men. The American tradition teaches that nobody is above the law. We have every right to be proud of our system of government which set an example for the world.
Our leaders are accountable to the people and we enjoy peaceful transfers of power.
That’s a portion of our heritage to be proud of!