I like to think that all eyes were on Benjamin Franklin when he rose to speak as the Constitutional Convention debated impeachment. He had the aura of a wise old man and was famed for reducing complex issues to simple terms leavened with a bit of humor. And the thought of removing a president from office was as bitterly divisive in the summer of 1787 as it is now, with the House of Representatives considering the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
Some of Franklin’s fellow delegates considered a constitutional provision for impeachment a necessary check on a president riding roughshod over the law. Others thought it would make presidents overly beholden to Congress.
Franklin argued that impeachment could solve both of those problems: It would get rid of an abusive president while according him due process. Consider the historical alternative, he told delegates assembled in Philadelphia. What remedy has been available to subjects of a tyrannical ruler?
“Why, recourse was had to assassination in which he was not only deprived of his life but of the opportunity of vindicating his character,” Franklin said.
That must have provoked gales of laughter. Knowing history, the Founding Fathers would have delighted in the ironic suggestion that Brutus and Cassius should have held back their knives while Julius Caesar pleaded his innocence.
Franklin’s joke depended on the delegates sensing they were in uncharted waters. There was no precedent for establishing a formula to deal with a ruler who behaved like an absolute monarch.
This isn’t monarchy
Nations were ruled by kings, and kings weren’t constrained by law. They were the source of law. Anointed as well as crowned, they held heaven’s mandate.
The 17th century French King Louis XIV put it succinctly: “L’etat c’est moi,” he said. “I am the state.”
American colonists drew a bead on that idea at the battles of Lexington and Concord. Their Declaration of Independence enumerated the offenses that forfeit their allegiance to the English King George III, including: “He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”
Having won the War of Independence, the Americans chose to govern themselves by a system that minimized the chances for one-man rule. Under the Articles of Confederation the U.S. was a league of states, similar to the European Union – but without the euro. Each state had the right to print money.
The manifest deficiency of that decentralization of power led to the summoning of a Constitutional Convention that, with a prod from Franklin, established a strong executive. To keep him honest, the delegates borrowed an English legislative gambit.
Though they beheaded Charles I, the English preferred to mount an indirect attack against an obstinate monarch. So when Parliament felt its powers were being encroached upon by a king, it would impeach a royal minister and remove him from office. That would rob an aggressive-minded king of a valued co-conspirator.
That method was enlarged by delegates to our Constitutional Convention who provided for the impeachment of the president and vice president, as well as other officials.
Similarly borrowed was the famous criterion for impeachment: “High crimes and misdemeanors.” In the 230 years since that standard was adopted, no president has been impeached and removed from office.
Still, Richard Nixon resigned after Republican leaders of Congress told him that impeachment was inevitable. That accorded nicely with the sense of the Constitutional Convention that the provision for impeachment would remind presidents that they are not above the law.
Price of democracy
Now impeachment faces a challenge: a president who seemingly thinks he is above the law. Faced with bipartisan criticism of his plan to host a meeting of the G-7 organization at one of his golf resorts, Trump railed against “the phony emoluments” prohibition.
Phony? It’s written into the Constitution he swore to uphold.
Even some of his supporters must recognize Trump is not an admirable person. He called a Republican senator, “Truly weird Senator Paul Rand.” He dubbed Ted Cruz, another Republican senator, “Lyin’ Ted,” and intimated that Cruz’s father was involved in the murder of President John F. Kennedy.
He disparaged the late Sen. John McCain, a former POW, saying he preferred heroes who didn’t get captured.
I’d guess that Republican members of Congress will be tempted to write off Trump’s deficits against the necessity of keeping him in the White House as a bulwark against liberalism.
Democrats will be tempted to pile on the accusations. Like Trump’s calling San Francisco, Chicago and New York rat-infested, crime-ridden hellholes. Or saying our Kurdish allies are worse than ISIS.
But if they’re serious about using this constitutional weapon, they must keep the case focused. Saying stupid things isn’t an impeachable offense. Involving a foreign country in an American election potentially is one.
Wrestling with those issues is the price of a viable democracy. It’s like Ben Franklin said when asked, after delegates signed the Constitution, what kind of government would Americans have? A monarchy or a republic?
“A republic,” Franklin replied. “If you can keep it.”