What did the Founders most fear about impeachment?

What did the Founders most fear about impeachment?
© Greg Nash

The Founders feared the crime of treason and a specific danger in the impeachment process: political polarization.

They didn't hide it. It's right there in the Constitution. The Founders most feared treason above all else. "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 Founders' worst fear was that a president would rise to power and  hand the United States over to the authority of another country, specifically England or France. It's hard today to understand the danger treason posed to the nation's early existence. Even George Washington — who was unanimously elected president — was not immune from accusations of treason by his detractors, especially in the press.

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The whole continental army is at this time in the actual service of his most Christian Majesty, (France's) Louis XVI, and are paid with French money, which has been for that purpose remitted to Mr. Washington,” New York's Royal Gazette published on November 7, 1781. "So that every American soldier of this alliance is now become in every sense a Frenchman.” 

This partisan publisher was worried that America's alliance with France during the Revolutionary War would lead to France ruling America. 

“They lately felt the humiliating mortification of perceiving General Washington alone entrusted with the cash received from France to pay the army,” he suggested. “The people of America, since their revolt from Great Britain, will have no other choice to make a ruler . . . in the Frenchified Mr. Washington alone.” 

To those who knew Washington, this was propaganda, hyperbole, and mischaracterization or — to use a modern phrase — fake news.  

During Washington's presidency, the New Hampshire Gazette's editor accused him of treason on May 25, 1796. “Has the president of the United States after twenty years of patriotism become a traitor? Or has a majority of our Senate, been corrupted with British gold? If these are facts, then I confess our fairest hopes are extinguished. If these are facts, then sound the alarm.”

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This was a false alarm. The American  people did not want to impeach President Washington over his neutrality policy to keep America out of the war between France and England. The somewhere unhappy with Washington, impeaching him was ridiculous 

Another founder warned of a great danger in the impeachment process. He feared that if the process became too political, the outcome could be unjust.

Alexander Hamilton wrote an editorial, known as The Federalist 65 for a New York newspaper to explain the impeachment process envisioned by the Constitutional Convention. As if he could predict the future, he said that impeachment would "agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused."

Hamilton feared "the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt." Not ensuring due process for a president because of strong political polarization was "the greatest danger" in the impeachment process. 

Until the past 47 years, trying to impeach  a president was rare. In the first 197 years of the United States, only one president, Andrew Johnson faced impeachment, and not for treason but for refusing to follow a law that Congress had just passed. Since 1973, three presidents have faced similar impeachment attempts — Richard Nixon, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBill Clinton advises Trump to ignore impeachment: 'You got hired to do a job' GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Harris lead Trump in Georgia: Poll MORE and now Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE.

Today's impeachment process is even more worrisome because it is taking place in the context of rising political polarization over the past decade — the very danger Hamilton worried about.

Pew Research revealed in July 2019 that "more than eight-in-ten U.S. adults (85 percent) say that political debate in the country has become more negative and less respectful." The Partisan Conflict index shows an increase in the past decade. 

"The Partisan Conflict Index tracks the degree of political disagreement among U.S. politicians at the federal level by measuring the frequency of newspaper articles reporting disagreement (in political parties, Congress, and the President) in a given month," as the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia explains. 

From 1981 to 2009, the Partisan Conflict Index ranged from a low number of 59 to a high of 147, averaging 103 over 30 years. Starting in 2010 until today, the entire range shifted upward with 106 as the new low number (not the average) and 247 as the highest number.  

The more political polarization and not due process guides the impeachment process, the more a desire for revenge will lead to impeaching the next president when the opposite political party holds the House of Representatives. 

The current impeachment process in the House of Representatives is not following same rules as the Nixon and Clinton impeachment proceedings. The House has not taken a full vote on the floor to start the impeachment inquiry. This has denied the minority party the power to call and cross examine witnesses and has prevented the president the right to have his legal counsel present. 

The frequency of impeachment and the rise of political polarization is driving  the United States toward a pattern of revenge impeachment or serial impeachment. This is not what Alexander Hamilton and the other founders had in mind when they began the American experiment.

Instead of relying on impeachment, the founders expected Americans to hold their presidents accountable every four years.  The best place for showing the strength of a political party is not by trying to impeach a president but by respecting voters at the ballot box.

Jane Hampton Cook is the author of “America’s Star-Spangled Story” and “The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812.” She is a former White House webmaster for President George W. Bush.