The 1787 Constitutional Convention – The President May Be Impeached

a570af34_optJuly 20, 1787 (Click to read Madison’s notes on the day)


The delegates continued to discuss details of the executive role. They agreed to allocate 1 to 3 electors per state based on the population of the state, agreed that the executive should be paid from the treasury, and made impeachment an option.

Influences on the Delegates

Ben Franklin refers to history but was not specific when he argued in favor of impeachment for a bad behaving executive. If he was alive today and made this statement, he would have trended on Twitter — “Franklin calls for assassination!”

Doctor FRANKLIN was for retaining the clause as favorable to the Executive. History furnishes one example only of a First Magistrate being formally brought to public justice. Every body cried out against this as unconstitutional. What was the practice before this, in cases where the Chief Magistrate rendered himself obnoxious? Why, recourse was had to assassination, in which he was not only deprived of his life, but of the opportunity of vindicating his character. It would be the best way, therefore, to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the Executive, where his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal, where he should be unjustly accused.

Franklin later referred to Holland as a negative example (in other words, let’s don’t do what they’ve done).

Doctor FRANKLIN mentioned the case of the Prince of Orange, during the late war. An arrangement was made between France and Holland, by which their two fleets were to unite at a certain time and place. The Dutch fleet did not appear. Every body began to wonder at it. At length it was suspected that the Stadtholder was at the bottom of the matter. This suspicion prevailed more and more. Yet as he could not be impeached, and no regular examination took place, he remained in his office; and strengthening his own party, as the party opposed to him became formidable, he gave birth to the most violent animosities and contentions. Had he been impeachable, a regular and peaceable inquiry would have taken place, and he would, if guilty, have been duly punished, — if innocent, restored to the confidence of the public.
Mr. KING remarked, that the case of the Stadtholder was not applicable. He held his place for life, and was not periodically elected. In the former case, impeachments are proper to secure good behaviour. In the latter, they are unnecessary; the periodical responsibility to Electors being an equivalent security.

Morris spoke in favor of impeachment having changed his view. He referred to the history of monarchies.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS’S opinion had been changed by the arguments used in the discussion. He was now sensible of the necessity of impeachments, if the Executive was to continue for any length of time in office. Our Executive was not like a magistrate having a life interest, much less like one having an hereditary interest, in his office. He may be bribed by a greater interest to betray his trust; and no one would say that we ought to expose ourselves to the danger of seeing the First Magistrate in foreign pay, without being able to guard against it by displacing him. One would think the King of England well secured against bribery. He has, as it were, a fee simple in the whole Kingdom. Yet Charles II. was bribed by Louis XIV. The Executive ought, therefore, to be impeachable for treachery. Corrupting his Electors, and incapacity, were other causes of impeachment. For the latter he should be punished, not as a man, but as an officer, and punished only by degradation from his office. This Magistrate is not the King, but the prime minister. The people are the King. When we make him amenable to justice, however, we should take care to provide some mode that will not make him dependent on the Legislature.

Should Impeachment Be Considered?

Madison laid out the justification for impeachment.

Mr. MADISON thought it indispensable that some provision should be made for defending the community against the incapacity, negligence, or perfidy of the Chief Magistrate. The limitation of the period of his service was not a sufficient security. He might lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers. The case of the Executive magistracy was very distinguishable from that of the Legislature, or any other public body, holding offices of limited duration. It could not be presumed that all, or even the majority, of the members of an Assembly would either lose their capacity for discharging, or be bribed to betray, their trust. Besides, the restraints of their personal integrity and honor, the difficulty of acting in concert for purposes of corruption was a security to the public. And if one or a few members only should be seduced, the soundness of the remaining members would maintain the integrity and fidelity of the body. In the case of the Executive magistracy, which was to be administered by a single man, loss of capacity or corruption was more within the compass of probable events, and either of them might be fatal to the Republic.

George Mason waxed prophetic in his address supporting impeachment.

Colonel MASON. No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued. Shall any man be above justice? Above all, shall that man be above it who can commit the most extensive injustice? When great crimes were committed, he was for punishing the principal as well as the coadjutors. There had been much debate and difficulty as to the mode of choosing the Executive. He approved of that which had been adopted at first, namely, of referring the appointment to the National Legislature. One objection against Electors was the danger of their being corrupted by the candidates, and this furnished a peculiar reason in favor of impeachments whilst in office. Shall the man who has practised corruption, and by that means procured his appointment in the first instance, be suffered to escape punishment by repeating his guilt? (emphasis mine)

If the current investigation of President Trump yields additional evidence of collusion with our adversary Russia and/or if he fires Robert Mueller, then I think Mason’s question has to be answered “no” in this case.

1787 Constitutional Convention Series

To read my series examining the proceedings of the Constitution Convention, click here.  In this series, I am writing about any obvious influences on the development of the Constitution which were mentioned by the delegates to the Convention. Specifically, I am testing David Barton’s claim that “every clause” of the Constitution is based on biblical principles. Thus far, I have found nothing supporting the claim. However, stay tuned, the series will run until mid-September.
Constitutional Convention Series (click the link)
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