A "National Inquest"

In the Federalist Papers #65, Alexander Hamilton articulates the “true spirit” of the institution of impeachment written into the constitution. Article II, section 4 of the United States Constitution, puts the question of impeachment in stark and striking terms:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The precise meaning of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” remains vague enough to allow each generation to decide for itself its precise meaning. Hamilton, however, gives us a sense of what the framers thought of the institution of impeachment. He writes:

The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses 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 question of impeachment is couched in terms of violated trust, of misconduct and of injuries done to society itself. The offense is not criminal, but political: it concerns the well-being of the community of citizens. Hamilton writes that the “true spirit” of the institution of impeachment is to for it to be “a method of NATIONAL INQUEST into the conduct of public men.” The impeachment process seems to have been seen as vital to the long-term health of the Republic.

The institution itself appears to have been based on a deep belief in our capacity for self-examination, in our willingness to face up to the ramifications of our own decisions and inquire into the conduct and performance of those we have elected. Impeachment does not imply constitutional crisis, rather, it is one of the ways the constitution itself seeks to safe-guard the society against its own poor judgment.

Thus, it is to that branch of government allegedly most alive to the interests and will of the citizenry (the House of Representatives) that the founders gave the “the sole power of impeachment” (Article I, sec. 2, clause 5).

Of course, Hamilton recognized that undertaking such a serious, but necessary because palliative, endeavor would be difficult and take courage, for, as he writes, the prosecution of impeachments “will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.” A concern for the seriousness of the question of impeachment and for the dangers endemic to the passions it agitates led the framers to consider the Senate as the proper place for a tribunal that would be “sufficiently dignified” and “sufficiently independent.” As Hamilton puts it:

What other body would be likely to feel CONFIDENCE ENOUGH IN ITS OWN SITUATION, to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality between an INDIVIDUAL accused, and the REPRESENTATIVES OF THE PEOPLE, HIS ACCUSERS?

Today it is unclear whether the House of Representatives has the courage to adopt articles of impeachment against Vice-president Cheney and President Bush, nor if the Senate has the confidence, maturity and integrity to prosecute an impeachment trial with impartiality between the individuals accused and we, the people.

Hamilton and his colleagues trusted that posterity would somehow find the courage to apply the medicine, however bitter, that would preserve the health of the Republic when its chief executive officers abuse and violate the public trust.

The question of impeachment is a political question in a larger sense than the so-called “politics” that reigns in Washington. It concerns the well-being of a community that finds some of its core values – individual rights, the just treatment of others, the balance of powers in government – threatened by the very ones who pledged “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The decision as to whether to pursue the question of impeachment ought to be made with sober seriousness, not with an eye to the short term political expediency of a single party or a specific candidate, but with the long-term prosperity of the community as the sole and guiding consideration.

In this light, it is difficult to argue against the urgent need for such a “national inquest.”

Below you will find some articles on the issue that will be updated over the course of the next few months as the national discussion of impeachment continues.

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