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History of Impeachment
Nixon releasing White House tape transcripts
July 13, 2007

Bill Moyers guests' Bruce Fein and John Nichols view impeachment as an essential component to our constitutional checks and balances on power. Fein wrote the first article of impeachment against President Clinton because perjury is a legal crime and Fein believed no one is above the law. John Nichols has just published a history of the process in the U.S.: THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: THE FOUNDERS' CURE FOR ROYALISM.

The process of impeachment can be traced back as far as 1376, when the First Speaker of the English House of Commons, Peter de la Mare, initiated impeachment and removal proceedings against Lord William Latimer, for raiding the public treasury for personal enrichment.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 65, "borrowed" the process of impeachment from the British, noting it to be a "method of national inquest into the conduct of public men." However, the founding fathers were not about to completely copy the British; they needed to adapt impeachment proceedings to the American governing system.

After much debate, it was finally agreed that the Senate would act as the court of impeachment, as some feared that the Supreme Court and other courts are two small to handle such a trial and could be susceptible to corruption; it was also agreed that impeachable offenses must fall under "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

The process of impeachment was set in stone in the Constitution in two separate amendments by the First Congress. Article I establishes "the House of Representatives...shall have the sole Power of Impeachment," and "the Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments." Article I further establishes the parameters of punishment, as well as the proceedings specific to an impeachment proceeding against the President of the United States. Article II specifically outlines the parameters for impeachment against executive branch officials, including the President and Vice President.

The first test of federal impeachment did not occur until 1797, when Senator William Blount, of Tennessee, was expelled from the Senate for conspiring with the British to instigate an attack by the Cherokee and Creek Indians on the Spanish colonies of Louisiana and West Florida. The British hoped to take control of these colonies, and Blount would have profited greatly. However, Blount was expelled from the Senate before impeachment proceedings began, and since he was no longer a public official, the Senate was forced to drop the proceedings.

In 1804 John Pickering, Judge for the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire was the first official removed from office through impeachment. After erratic behavior and random disappearances, Pickering was accused of drunkenness and unlawful rulings by President Thomas Jefferson.

The first impeachment proceedings against a President resulted from a conflict over the role the federal government would play in post-Civil War South. President Andrew Johnson came into conflict with the House, controlled by 'Radical Republicans' over the Reconstruction Acts — laws that provided suffrage to freed slaves and prevented former Southern rebels from regaining control of the state governments. Johnson repeatedly blocked enforcement of the Acts. The final straw for the House came when Johnson after he suspended his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, which violated the Tenure of Office Act. When the proceedings moved to the Senate, the voting fell one vote short of conviction — Johnson argued that the Act itself was unconstitutional.

The threat of impeachment has been used more than once in recent history — in 1974 the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration was meeting on August 8, when President Nixon announced that he would resign the next day. In a lesser-known case, in April of 1952, President Harry S. Truman announced that he had ordered Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to seize steel mills from their owners in order to avert a strike and keep the mills open. America was at war with Korea and Truman believed a steel strike would severely threaten the U.S. military.

The seizures immediately prompted the steel owners and lawmakers to question Truman's exertion of presidential power. "Congress seethed with rancorous argument over the President's highhanded seizure of steel. Ohio's Republican Representative George H. Bender asked for a bipartisan committee to consider impeachment of Harry Truman," according to TIME magazine. The Supreme Court declared the seizures unconstitutional in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer.

Former President William J. Clinton's impeachment proceedings are the most recent in memory. After apparently lying under oath about relations with an intern, the House voted to impeach Clinton, citing the President had "willfully corrupted and manipulated the judicial process." However, once again the Senate had trouble finding an impeachable offense under "high crimes and misdemeanors," and Clinton was found not guilty.

Impeachment proceedings have been initiated in the House a total of 62 times since 1789. In total, sixteen cases of impeachment have reached the Senate. Of those officials, thirteen have been federal judges, one senator, one cabinet officer, and two Presidents. Of these cases, two were dropped because the individuals had left office, seven ended in acquittal, and seven in conviction. All seven convictions have involved a federal judge.

References and Reading:
Online NEWSHOUR: The Impeachment Trial
Read Online NEWSHOUR's coverage of the Clinton Impeachment, including guides and a timeline history of impeachment in America.

United States Senate: Impeachment
The United States Senate breaks down the history and the process of impeachment

HARPWEEK: The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
HARPWEEK, a digital history project of the long-lived HARPERS WEEKLY has created an extensive Web site of primary sources and analysis. Materials include political cartoons, news articles, 90 editorials, and impeachment simulation game.

"Deadlock in Steel," TIME, Apr. 28, 1952
Read TIME magazine's original coverage of the Truman steel crisis.

Published July 12, 2007

Also This Week:

BILL MOYERS JOURNAL explores the talk of impeachment with Constitutional scholar Bruce Fein, who wrote the first article of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, and THE NATION's John Nichols, author of THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT


> More on the history of impeachment

> More on signing statements

> More on civil liberties in wartime

A Bill Moyers essay that highlights comments from the Senate floor on the war in Iraq.
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