With impeachment in the news, W&M News sat down with Karin Wulf, William & Mary professor of history and executive director of the Omohundro Institute, to discuss the origin of the impeachment process outlined in the U.S. Constitution. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. – Ed.
First off, how can we know what the framers were thinking when they decided to include impeachment in the Constitution? What sources do we have?
Anybody who wants to talk about impeachment is going to go to two sources. The first is going to be the text of the Constitution itself, the Federal Constitution, specifically what it says in Article Two about the Executive and removal of the Executive by impeachment.
The second source is contemporary writing of what happened during the Constitutional Convention, how the framers came to that precise text. Most of what we know about the Convention comes from James Madison’s full notes, which were kept not necessarily to be an official record, actually, but for his own private use. Some scholars have thought that maybe Madison really wrote them to inform Thomas Jefferson, who was in France at the time. And, of course, there are other sources from after the Convention, when they’re aiming at ratification. We can go to those sources to see what people are saying after the text is actually adopted.
What model did the framers have for impeachment?
The only impeachment that they refer to directly at the time, or at least what we have in the records, is when Benjamin Franklin makes a clear reference to the removal of the king in the 17th century in England. That was Charles I, who was removed and executed. Franklin says we need a better process, because you don’t want to go that route.
It’s also important to remember that at this time, they’ve lived through a revolution, which was extraordinary. In France and elsewhere, they’ll be thinking about what it means for republics overthrow monarchies. They’re also thinking they do not want to recreate a monarchy. They wanted something different. The Articles of Confederation, the first framework of government that we adopted, is not working and that’s a pretty disquieting thought for them. So when they think about models, what’s paramount is that they’re thinking there actually isn’t a model. This is an experiment. They were going to try something new.
Were there camps for and against impeachment at the time?
Absolutely, there were a lot of different views. It’s no different than today. It is hardly the case that we got a unified frame of government from a unified group of founders. I think what’s important, though, is that the Constitution has, for all these years, given us a framework within which to debate. That all of our disagreements, our political views, will be carried out and conducted within that framework of the Constitution. That’s what’s really remarkable about the government they shaped there in Philadelphia in 1787.
Why does the House of Representatives have the sole power of initiating impeachment?
Article One of the Constitution is about the legislature. If there’s anything that the framers agreed on, it’s that the people’s representatives are the core of the government. That is absolutely the heart and soul of an American form of government. It’s self-governance. That is what they fought for and that is why they are fighting to create a new form of government in the Constitution. They determined that the people’s representatives should be invested with the utmost authority — and that is why it’s Article One. That explains why it is the House that undertakes these articles of impeachment, because the House is the best reflection of the people’s interest.
What were the framers concerned about when they were drafting the impeachment process?
They were concerned about a variety of things. In particular, they spend quite a bit of time talking about foreign influence and that’s not surprising. To us, it might seem particularly resonant with our own moment, where foreign influence of the President is a major subject of impeachment inquiry. But in 1787, they are thinking about the influences of France and Britain and there’s discussion about how members of government could be persuaded by different parties. The United States is a young and vulnerable government, and it’s absolutely vulnerable to foreign interference. So, for them, interference, foreign influence, bribery, these are the things that can threaten the stability of this fragile experiment that they’ve just set up.
What lessons from 1787 still resonate today?
It’s important that we understand that you can’t look back to 1787, or any other moment, and say, “Here’s what we need to know. Here is the real, true basis of our government and here is the moment when we all agreed,” because it’s not there. What’s there is the framework for debate and disagreement, and for accepting the will of the people once they have made a choice. That’s what’s there and that’s what’s really important.