Why Impeachment? Because …

Ron-Chernow.pngRon Chernow is a presidential historian and biographer who has written excellent biographies of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and Ulysses S. Grant.  On Friday, Chernow wrote a piece for The Washington Post that gives some background and insight into the thought process behind the inclusion of impeachment in the U.S. Constitution.  I think you will be stunned by the prescience with which Alexander Hamilton predicted that Donald Trump would one day arrive on the scene.

Hamilton pushed for impeachment powers. Trump is what he had in mind.

He wanted a strong president — and a way to get rid of the demagogic ones.

By Ron Chernow

OCTOBER 18, 2019

Hamilton.jpgPresident Trump has described the impeachment proceedings as a “coup,” and his White House counsel has termed them “unconstitutional.” This would come as a surprise to Alexander Hamilton, who wrote not only the 11 essays in “The Federalist” outlining and defending the powers of the presidency, but also the two essays devoted to impeachment.

There seems little doubt, given his writings on the presidency, that Hamilton would have been aghast at Trump’s behavior and appalled by his invitation to foreign actors to meddle in our elections. As a result, he would most certainly have endorsed the current impeachment inquiry. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Trump embodies Hamilton’s worst fears about the kind of person who might someday head the government.

Among our founders, Hamilton’s views count heavily because he was the foremost proponent of a robust presidency, yet he also harbored an abiding fear that a brazen demagogue could seize the office. That worry helps to explain why he analyzed impeachment in such detail: He viewed it as a crucial instrument to curb possible abuses arising from the enlarged powers he otherwise championed.

Unlike Thomas Jefferson, with his sunny faith in the common sense of the people, Hamilton emphasized their “turbulent and changing” nature and worried about a “restless” and “daring usurper” who would excite the “jealousies and apprehensions” of his followers. He thought the country should be governed by wise and illustrious figures who would counter the fickle views of the electorate with reasoned judgments. He hoped that members of the electoral college, then expected to exercise independent judgment, would select “characters preeminent for ability and virtue.”

From the outset, Hamilton feared an unholy trinity of traits in a future president — ambition, avarice and vanity. “When avarice takes the lead in a State, it is commonly the forerunner of its fall,” he wrote as early as the Revolutionary War. He dreaded most the advent of a populist demagogue who would profess friendship for the people and pander to their prejudices while secretly betraying them. Such a false prophet would foment political frenzy and try to feed off the confusion.

So haunted was Hamilton by this specter that he conjured it up in “The Federalist” No. 1, warning that “a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that . . . of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Throughout history, despots have tended to be silent, crafty and secretive. Hamilton was more concerned with noisy, flamboyant figures, who would throw dust in voters’ eyes and veil their sinister designs behind it. These connoisseurs of chaos would employ a constant barrage of verbiage to cloud issues and blur moral lines. Such hobgoblins of Hamilton’s imagination bear an eerie resemblance to the current occupant of the White House, with his tweets, double talk and inflammatory rhetoric at rallies.

While under siege from opponents as treasury secretary, Hamilton sketched out the type of charlatan who would most threaten the republic: “When a man unprincipled in private life[,] desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper . . . despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’ ” Given the way Trump has broadcast suspicions about the CIA, the FBI, the diplomatic corps, senior civil servants and the “deep state,” Hamilton’s warning about those who would seek to discredit the government as prelude to a possible autocracy seems prophetic.

At the time of the Constitutional Convention, foreign powers, notably Britain and Spain, still hovered on America’s borders, generating fear of foreign interventions in our elections. Hamilton supported the electoral college as a way to forestall these nations from seeking “to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?” He prophesied that competing countries would try to clip the wings by which America “might soar to a dangerous greatness.” That Trump was so cavalier about Russian meddling in the 2016 election and then invited Ukraine to furnish defamatory material about his political rival Joe Biden would have shocked Hamilton and the other founders, all of whom were wary of “the insidious wiles of foreign influence,” as George Washington phrased it in his farewell address.

In defending impeachment in two “Federalist” essays, one might have expected Hamilton to engage in close textual analysis, parsing the exact meaning of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Instead he couched his defense in broad political language, stating that impeachment should “proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” In short, the president didn’t need to commit a crime per se. “If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers,” the people must “take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify.” Trump’s telephone call with the Ukrainian president would seem to suggest a clear abuse of power and possibly a campaign finance violation, although we will need a fair and impartial inquiry to confirm this. As Hamilton wrote, “Caution and investigation are a necessary armor against error and imposition.”

Knowing that impeachment would be divisive, arousing violent party agitation, Hamilton never wanted it used lightly or capriciously, but neither did he want it relegated to mere window-dressing. It was a tool intended for use as conditions warranted. “If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation,” he wrote. For Hamilton, each branch of government required a mechanism to check encroachment by the others. He discerned a perfect symmetry between the president’s veto over legislation, constraining congressional overreach, and presidential impeachment, curbing executive excess. In his notes for the New York state convention to ratify the Constitution, he jotted down: “Legislative in the Congress, yet checked by negative of the Executive. Executive in the President, yet checked by impeachment of Congress.”

Throughout his “Federalist” essays, Hamilton foresaw impeachment as a possible two-step process and noted multiple times that after removal from office, an impeached president would “be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law.” He was adamant that the Senate should hold a trial, with the chief justice presiding, and pointed out that other Supreme Court justices should be excluded in case the ousted president then became a defendant for his misdeeds in the regular court system.

Our constitutional system, with its separation of powers, is an exquisitely calibrated mechanism. James Madison, one of Hamilton’s “Federalist” co-authors, noted that no single branch of government “can pretend to an exclusive or superior right of settling the boundaries between their respective powers.” But that is exactly what the president is doing by trying to shut down Congress’s powers of executive oversight.

In the last analysis, democracy isn’t just a set of institutions or shared principles, but a culture of mutual respect and civility. People must be willing to play by the rules or the best-crafted system becomes null and void, a travesty of its former self. We are now seeing on a daily basis presidential behavior that would have been unimaginable during more than two centuries of the American experiment. Not only is Trump himself on trial, but he is also testing our constitutional system to the breaking point. In his worst imaginings, however, Hamilton anticipated — at least in its general outline — the chaos and demagoguery now on display in Washington. He also helped design and defend the remedy: impeachment.

31 thoughts on “Why Impeachment? Because …

  1. I don’t know much about Hamilton, but he seems to have been spot on with his thoughts about impeachment. He wanted to protect our nation from a leader like Trump; let’s hope that our leaders today are as wise as Hamilton was over 200 years ago.

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  2. Jill, Chernow has a grear take on what Hamilton, but with social media leveraging the voice of the most untruthful and egotistical president in my lifetime, I don’t think Hamilton could have emvisioned the clear and present danger that is Trump. Of the many poor attributes of the president, it is truly hard to select just one. The one I keep coming back to is Trump does not think he does anything wrong. Take the G7 summit decision – that was dumb the second it was announced. The same with the betrayal of the Kurds on a phone call and the quid pro quo with Ukraine. The latter was so obvious, the White House staff tried to bury it. Keith

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    • No, Hamilton did, I think, hit the nail on the head in his vision of what a demagogue might do if elected to the presidency … seems to me he nailed Trump. But, there was no way he could envision the state of the nation, or the world for that matter, in the 21st century. Heck, ten years ago, none of us could have envisioned the blatant abuses of power that Trump would commit, such as those you’ve noted and more. What is most worrisome, I think, is that I don’t see Trump’s eventual removal from office either by impeachment, the vote, or death, as the end of this era of corruption. Sigh.

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      • Jill, one of the best things George Washington did was step down after two terms to be an exemplar. I could not fathom the incumbent doing something so magnanimous. It is my strong advice to Republican leaders to save their country not their president. Trump must be made to leave and may have to be dragged out of the building. He will not leave easily, even if he loses the election. If the GOP gives Trump another hall pass, they may unleash a monster they cannot control. Keith

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        • I agree … but, I think the monster is already out of the control of the GOP and that they are trying to keep a grip on the leash, hoping that he will eventually run into a brick wall before he destroys them all. I look back on the Constitutional Law courses I have taken throughout the years, and it’s almost like it was all a big joke … the Constitution was supposed to keep a demagogue like Trump from ever getting a leg up, but … here we are, and every day is a new atrocity.

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  3. Chernow certainly knows Hamilton about as well as anyone. I read the biography and it’s excellent. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about our Constitution because Hamilton’s fingerprints are all over it. Hamilton was brilliant and flawed, as were most of our Founders. I agree with Chernow: He would be appalled at this president. Impeachment would be too good for him. And a trial in the courts would surely be warranted, if Hamilton had his way.

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    • I have read all three of Chernow’s presidential biographies, but none of his other works, and they are all excellent, well-researched books. Another recommendation for you … while working on my Ph.D. I took two courses under Professor Akhil Reed Amar, who has written several excellent books on the Constitution. “America’s Constitution” and “America’s Unwritten Constitution” are two must-reads, and his most recent, “The Constitution Today: Timeless Lessons for the Issues of Our Era”, present in language for the layman, everything anybody could ever want to know about the foundations of our government. My fave is the one about the unwritten Constitution, that outlines how the framers intended the document to live, grow, and breath with the changing times. A year or so, I started writing a book … a work of fiction … about some of the Founding Fathers accidentally returning to earth in this, the 21st century, and their horror at what the nation they founded had become. Someday, perhaps I will finish it. Sigh. Only 24 hours in a day.

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      • Thanks so much for those recommendations Jill. I think I’d really get into them, especially the “Unwritten Constitution.” I’m going to put it on my list. Like you say, 24 hours just isn’t enough anymore.
        I like the outline of the idea for your book. I have no doubt that it would be awesome. And, I think you WILL finish it. Hey, I’d buy it in a New York minute! All I’ll say is…always keep it in the back of your mind. Never forget about it. Because some day, you’ll start writing, get on a roll, and it will be done. How’s that? Coach Jeff at your service!! LOL……
        I’m very serious though. An extra 8-10 hours per day would be nice wouldn’t it?

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        • I think you’ll like them a lot! Indeed, an extra 8-10 hours a day would be fabulous! I’ve come to even resent the 15 minutes or so I spend showering each evening, for there is so much else I need to be doing! The book idea hasn’t entirely left me yet, and Roger keeps trying to motivate and encourage me. Perhaps someday. And no, dear Jeff, you will NOT buy it if it is ever published … you will receive a free signed copy for being such a wonderful friend!

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    • No, the systems were designed back when times were simpler, when people elected to office took their oaths seriously and wanted to “do the right thing”. We’ve traded those values for power and wealth, but only for the few. The rest of us are the damned who will work ’til our dying day to support their hedonistic lifestyle. Sigh. Don’t mind me … I’m just exhausted and discouraged tonight. Hugs, my friend.

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  4. Hamilton surely had a good imagination, but he was missing the deviousness and downright stubbornnesss to refuse to honor the laws of the nation. You need a narcissist to predict a narcissist.

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  5. America’s forefathers obviously didn’t ikmagine the kind of partisanship that could befall one of the arms of justice via the impeachment, The house are going about things as was intended, with care and providing proof of the malfeasance of Trump while it still appears that the Senate could close it down despite first hand knowledge of his guilt purely because he’s the leader of the majority party and they’re all scared to cross him. I’m sure they all imagined a bipartisan action of thorough disgust at a demagogue in action.

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    • ‘Tis true that back in 1787 they could not possibly have imagined what the nation, the world, would become some 230 years later. AND … perhaps most importantly, back then, the people who went into public service did so out of a genuine desire to serve the nation. It was a new nation, people wanted to be a part of sculpting it into a model for future democracies. And then, somewhere along the line, we lost those values. We allowed the love of “things”, the desire for wealth, and the competitiveness of the “whoever has the most toys wins” mentality shape our future. We fell for such schemes as “trickle down economics” and slavishly played & danced to the tune of the wealthy, the powerful. And we handed the keys to the kingdom to those who claimed to be acting in our best interest. No, Alexander Hamilton could not have foreseen that, but he did peg the demagogue that would personify itself in Trump, for such persons existed even back then. And he saw how people could be led and misled by such creatures. What he didn’t foresee was that a majority of those elected to govern would also indulge in their own self-interest to the exclusion of the interests of the people. Sigh. Frankly, I don’t see where this ends. It doesn’t end with Trump’s impeachment or defeat at the polls, for there are many others to carry that ugly torch. Perhaps it only ends when We the People say, “ENOUGH!”, and take to the streets, when blood is shed in those streets, when there is, once again, revolution. Sigh.

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