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An American History

By Jeffrey A. Engel, Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, Peter Baker
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Impeachment by Jeffrey A. Engel, Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, Peter Baker

Impeachment (2018) details how the Framers of the US Constitution envisioned the process of removing a president, and how the three impeachment proceedings prior to Trump’s have played out. Spanning the years right after the American Revolution to the late twentieth century, Impeachment looks at how the Framers imagined impeachment as a safety valve for democracy, as well as how Congress used impeachment to sanction Presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. 

Key idea 1 of 7

Despite their fear of monarchs, the Framers recognized that an executive branch was necessary to manage chaos. 

Remember how great it was when you finally moved out of your parents’ house and were free of their tyrannical rules? And then how scary it was when you realized you now had to be an adult? That was America right after it won the Revolutionary War against the British. For a while, the brand-new country was not doing great with all its independence.

Chaos ruled in the aftermath of the war. The makeshift political system that emerged wasn’t working for anyone. Governed mainly by legislatures, many post-revolution states descended toward mob rule. In order to keep their seats, legislators were forced to act in a way that would please, rather than benefit, the people. 

Even worse, Americans were now fighting each other over the same issues they’d just fought the British. Over the winter of 1786, there was a battle in Massachusetts between backcountry farmers and private militias funded by Boston elites over who had the right to impose and collect taxes. 

Concentrating power in just one person, as in a monarch or other executive, was also still a controversial idea in post-revolution America. Fourth president James Madison worried that “many individuals of weight,” desperate for stability, were advocating for a return to monarchy, an obviously flawed but familiar system. Other communities experimented with removing executive power altogether, such as the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 

Someone had to make some rules – and fast. The Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia in July 1787 to hammer out a system of government, in a meeting known as the Constitutional Congress.

Forced to reconsider their radically pro-legislature positions, and fearful of the softening public stance toward monarchy, the Founding Fathers realized they would need to develop an executive position after all. They needed to make the government more efficient, to whip the legislature into shape, and to represent the unified will of the people, rather than just one group of constituents. This position would become the presidency.

But there was also trepidation at the idea. Looking back at Europe’s long history of despotic, self-serving kings and emperors, they worried about whether putting so much power in one person’s hands would have a corrupting influence on the president. To avoid what seemed to them like an inevitability, the Framers came up with a way for the legislature to safeguard against corrupt executives in the future. This became the process we know as impeachment.

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