When the framers drafted the Constitution over two centuries ago, they wanted to strike a precarious balance when it came to the federal government – especially the executive branch.
On one hand, they wanted to have a strong and decisive executive that would keep the nation from descending into the anarchy that ensued under the failed Articles of Confederation, which the Constitution sought to replace.
On the other hand, they wanted to make sure that the leader could gain so much power as to become a despot. Many of the framers were also among the nation’s Founding Fathers. They had already seen the tyranny of King George III – the spark that ignited the idea of an independent American nation with a government that was of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Therefore, it was obvious to the framers that they must insert into the great governing document they were drafting a provision that would hold not only the president but other high-ranking officials accountable for their actions, especially criminal actions.
And so we have Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, also known as the Impeachment Clause:
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.
Instructions on how officeholders can be impeached are outlined in two sections of Article I. Section 2 makes it clear that the House “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment,” while Section 3 gives the Senate “the sole Power to try all Impeachments” with “two-thirds of the Members present” necessary for conviction and removal from office.
Going back to Article II, it is worth noting that to remove an official from office, it is not sufficient to just impeach him. He also must be tried and convicted by a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Impeachment refers only to the process in which members of the House charge an official with offenses. It is merely the first step in a removal process that includes both houses of Congress.
According to USA.gov, the federal government’s official web portal, the impeachment and removal process is outlined in the Constitution as follows.
Despite having access to impeachment from the start of the First Congress in 1789, the House has largely reserved the use of this power for extreme situations. …Until recently.
Now there has been much debate over whether impeachment should be considered more frequently than it has traditionally been.
With the Democrats’ two impeachments of President Donald Trump in recent memory, Republican members of Congress this year have introduced resolutions calling for the impeachment of two cabinet officials in the Biden administration.
In May, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-GA, introduced H.R. 410, calling for the impeachment of Attorney General Merrick Garland for “facilitating the weaponization and politicization of the United States justice system against the American people.”
On June 6, Rep. Clay Higgins, R-LA introduced H.R. 470, which, if passed, would impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “for high crimes and misdemeanors.” The resolution claimed that Mayorkas, who has overseen the ongoing crisis at the nation’s southern border, failed to honor his office’s oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Then on Friday, August 11, 2023, Rep. Greg Steube, R-FL, filed articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden. “It’s long past time to impeach Joe Biden,” Steube stated:
He has undermined the integrity of his office, brought disrepute on the Presidency, betrayed his trust as President, and acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice at the expense of America’s citizens.
The three articles filed against the sitting president are based on allegations of abuse of power, bribery, extortion, and fraud. They cite Biden’s purported involvement in his son Hunter’s business dealings, for which the younger Biden has been under investigation for five years.
However, some Republican members of Congress have cautioned that impeachment may not be the correct course of action.
Rep. Mike Lawler, R-NY, who represents a district Biden won by double digits in 2020, said that impeachment “should not be political by any stretch. We’ve seen what happens when Congress acts in a political matter — it does not serve the interests of the American people in any way.”
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-PA, a moderate who also represents a “Biden seat,” agreed with Lawler. “We’ve got to get back to a point where impeachment is what it was intended to be,” Fitzpatrick said. “I feel like, you know, both in the last cycle and in this cycle, we’re converting into essentially a vote of no confidence in the British Parliament. And I don’t want to see our country go down that path.”
Also cautioning about the use of impeachment was Rep. Don Bacon, R-NE, who said, “We should have more confidence that actual high crimes and misdemeanors occurred before starting a formal impeachment inquiry.”
Bacon, like his two before-mentioned colleagues, saw his Omaha-based seat won by Biden in the 2020 election.
Notably, both Fitzpatrick and Bacon voted against both of former President Trump’s impeachments. Lawler was not yet in Congress at the time.
A common argument on the right is the view that while Democrats lowered the threshold of what constitutes an impeachable offense during the Trump years, Republicans should avoid stooping to their level and instead return to honoring the historically high threshold for impeachment.
Many others on the right have come to the opposite conclusion, holding that if the Democrats are going to play the “game” of lowering the threshold for impeachment, Republicans have every prerogative to do the same.
“The Democrats have, unfortunately, turned the Constitutional power of impeachment into a simple partisan tool,” said CatholicVote Director of Governmental Affairs Tom McClusky. “However, that does not mean when a civil officer of the United States commits a high crime or misdemeanor, we should be afraid to wield that tool.”
Referring to the pending impeachment resolutions of Secs. Garland and Mayorkas, McClusky said, “When it comes to Cabinet officers and their ilk, impeachment is a tool we do not use enough.”
Proponents of both views could cite the 1970 words of then-House Minority Leader and future President Gerald Ford: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
When did the practice of “impeachment” truly originate, and what does it really mean to “impeach” an officeholder?
While expulsion from public office dates back to the days of the Roman Republic, the modern concept of impeachment, like many other American political practices, is strongly believed to trace its origins directly back to the English Parliament.
The first public official known to have been impeached (in the modern sense) was Baron William Latimer in 1376. Parliament impeached Latimer, a high-profile advisor to English King Edward III and close friend of the king’s son John, for aiding and abetting the king’s enemies (including by selling a castle to one), accepting bribes, and extortion, among other things.
Latimer’s ouster began an English precedent of charging and often removing government officials from office who were found to have engaged in criminal behavior. Throughout the centuries, this practice eventually spread to other countries with elected legislatures.
Despite the fact that the practice was birthed in England, the Library of Congress noted that “The British abandoned the use of impeachment proceedings shortly after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution,” although “Parliament has retained the power to impeach.”
While the Framers of the Constitution agreed to adopt the then 400-year-old procedure, there was much debate over the extent to which it ought to be used – not too different from the debates that surround impeachment today.
In Federalist No. 69, one of the Federalist Papers titled “The Real Character of the Executive,” framer and Founding Father Alexander Hamilton wrote of the importance of including impeachment in the Constitution:
The President of the United States would be liable to be impeached, tried, and, upon conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors, removed from office; and would afterwards be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law.
The person of the king of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution.
In this delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility, the President of Confederated America would stand upon no better ground than a governor of New York, and upon worse ground than the governors of Maryland and Delaware.
Hamilton saw the ability of Congress to impeach the president and other officials as a key check the Legislative Branch had on the Executive.
In another one of the March 1788 Federalist Papers, titled “The Powers of the Senate Continued,” Hamilton cautioned against impeachment becoming split over “factions,” something we routinely see in the heavily partisan debates over the procedure today. To many his words might seem almost prophetic:
A well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective. The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.
In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.
Four years later, in a letter to President George Washington, Hamilton, now the Secretary of the Treasury, warned about officeholders who might abuse their power, alluding to but not specifically mentioning impeachment:
When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits—despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”
No popular Government was ever without its Catalines & its Cæsars. These are its true enemies.
Another point of contention among the Consitution’s framers was what specific offenses warranted impeachment. Should the new country go with a high bar, such as the chock-full criminal portfolio of Baron Latimer, a substantially lower one, or one in between?
Interestingly, it was this debate that gave rise to the phrase that has become synonymous with the criteria to impeach a federal official.
As Smithsonian Magazine explained:
The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was winding down, the draft of the United States’ supreme law almost finished, and George Mason, the author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, was becoming alarmed. Over the course of the convention, the 61-year-old had come to fear the powerful new government his colleagues were creating. Mason thought the president could become a tyrant as oppressive as George III.
So on September 8, 1787, he rose to ask his fellow delegates a question of historic importance. Why, Mason asked, were treason and bribery the only grounds in the draft Constitution for impeaching the president? Treason, he warned, wouldn’t include “attempts to subvert the Constitution.”
Following a period of banter with future president James Madison, Mason, in a history-defining moment, coined what Smithsonian calls the “decidedly open-ended” phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
In the 234 years the Constitution has been the law of the land, only a handful of American federal officials have been successfully impeached, showing just how sparingly Congress has historically used this power.
The first person to be impeached by the House was William Blount, a U.S. Senator from Tennessee. In 1797, Blount was revealed to have attempted to conspire with Britain, who was then very much considered to be an enemy of the brand-new American nation.
However, right after the House voted to impeach Blount, the Senate on the same day took matters into their own hands and simply expelled him, rendering the process moot.
Therefore, the first officeholder to be convicted by the Senate was John Pickering, a federal judge from New Hampshire whose primary offense was being drunk on the job. His impeachment and removal hearings took place between 1803 and 1804 at the behest of President Jefferson.
The other federal judges to have been impeached were:
Samuel Chase (1804 – acquitted)
James H. Peck (1830 – acquitted)
West Hughes Humphreys (1862 – convicted and removed)
Mark Delahay (1873 – resigned before his Senate trial)
Charles Swayne (1904 – acquitted)
Robert Archbald (1912 – convicted and removed)
George English (1926 – resigned during his Senate trial)
Harold Louderback (1933 – acquitted)
Halsted Ritter (1986 – convicted and removed)
Harry Claiborne (1986 – convicted and removed)
Alcee Hastings (1988 – convicted and removed)
Walter Nixon (1989 – convicted and removed)
Samuel B. Kent (2009 – resigned during his Senate trial)
G. Thomas Porteous, Jr. (2010 – convicted and removed)
Interestingly, Hastings, who was impeached for perjury and bribery, was elected to U.S. Congress as a Democrat from Florida in 1992, just four years after his conviction and removal from office, and served until his death in 2021.
To date, three presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson (1868), Bill Clinton (1998), and Donald Trump (2019 and 2021). All were subsequently acquitted by the Senate and were permitted to stay in office until the completion of their terms.
Trump is the only federal officeholder in American history to have been impeached – and acquitted – twice.
In 1973, impeachment proceedings began against Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate Scandal. However, he was never actually impeached, as he resigned the next year before the House could hold a vote. His successor was Ford, who had, four years earlier, quipped that the House could impeach someone on any offense they want.
Other than Blount, the only person to have been impeached by the House who was not a president or judge was William Belknap, the Secretary of War (the position now analogous to the Secretary of Defense) under the Grant administration.
Belknap was impeached in 1876 for “criminal disregard for his office and accepting payments in exchange for making official appointments,” making him the first and to this date only Executive Branch Cabinet official to be impeached. His story is significant as the House currently debates the fate of Garland and Mayorkas. Belknap was subsequently acquitted.
However, this longstanding practice is no longer a uniquely Anglo-American or even Western one.
According to Politico, “American-style presidential impeachment exists in countries including India, Brazil, Russia, France, Germany, South Korea, Philippines, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Ireland.”
Examples of world leaders who were successfully impeached and removed from office include former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and former South Korean President Park Guen-hye in 2017, both on corruption charges.