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Presidents Can Be Impeached Because Benjamin Franklin Thought It Was Better Than Assassination

The founding fathers struggled with the idea of whether the top leader should be impeachable

A photo of Bill Clinton taken in 1993, the first year of his presidency. (Dirk Halstead)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached. The charge: lying under oath to a federal grand jury and obstructing justice. In the end, the Senate acquitted him and he finished his term.

The history of impeachment in the United States is important to understanding the Bill Clinton saga. The Founding Fathers wrote impeachment—originally a Roman political institution—into the constitution for the purpose of removing an official who had “rendered himself obnoxious,” in the words of Benjamin Franklin. Without impeachment, Franklin argued, citizens’ only recourse was assassination, which would leave the political official “not only deprived of his life but of the opportunity of vindicating his character.”

It would be best, Franklin argued, “to provide the Constitution for the regular punishment of the Executive when his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal when he should be justly accused.”

Impeachment was the subject of much debate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. It was this well of knowledge that the Senate drew from when deciding whether Clinton ought to be formally impeached and removed from office (which is, after all, a kind of political assassination) or acquitted and allowed to finish his term as sitting president.

Impeachment as an institution has its roots in ancient Rome, he writes, and it was Rome that the founding fathers were thinking about when it was written into the Constitution. Only senators could be impeached in ancient Rome—the emperor could not, leading to a number of chaos-making political assassinations. The idea of impeaching the leader was similarly a “decisive break with English practice,” wrote Josh Chafetz in the Minnesota Law Review. Franklin, and others like Alexander Hamilton, paid special attention to impeachment because British politics didn’t have a structure for impeaching the leader. The British crown—the king or queen—is literally unimpeachable. And the Founding Fathers didn’t think that impeachment should happen for just any reason. For example, Hamilton wrote in the Federalist papers that grounds for impeachment should be

Those offences 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 founders also debated on the criteria for impeachment, settling on treason, bribery and high crimes and misdemeanors against the state. “High crimes and misdemeanors” was another term that originated in British law, Chafetz writes. Ultimately, he writes, impeachment on these grounds was better for the country than than assassination. “The Constitution’s impeachment procedures make the removal of the chief magistrate less violent, less disruptive, and less error-prone than assassination.”

In the case of Bill Clinton, Chafetz argues that the founders’ thoughts about the relationship between impeachment and assassination made his impeachment impossible. “If we are to take the link between impeachment and assassination seriously,” he writes, “we should use assassinability as a benchmark for impeachability. On this view, it is precisely the fact that it was unimaginable to justify Clinton’s assassination, given his conduct, that made it unsuitable for impeachment.”

After reviewing the evidence, Chafetz writes, acclaimed legal scholar Richard Posner said he had concluded beyond reasonable doubt “that Clinton had committed federal crimes that would normally yield a sentence of thirty to thirty-seven months." But, of course, whether Clinton’s actions were impeachable was a different matter.

Editor's note: This article originally misspelled the name of Josh Chafetz. The error has been corrected.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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