In 1809, Jefferson was himself the target of a politically motivated impeachment, led by the Federalist Josiah Quincy. The effort, which ultimately fizzled on the House floor, only strengthened Jefferson’s sense that impeachment was of little use in rectifying corruption in the American constitutional system. He wrote in 1820 that “impeachment is an impracticable thing, a mere scare-crow.”
Jefferson was wrong about the utility of impeachment as a check upon corrupt members of the judiciary, especially in the modern era. Since 1980, five federal judges have been removed, either through conviction in the Senate or resignation after impeachment. But the record is very different regarding presidents. The Senate has tried a president four times, but never produced a conviction. The second acquittal of President Donald Trump—supported by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, despite his acknowledgement of Trump’s guilt—raises the possibility that Jefferson has been proved right about the impracticality of impeachment as a constitutional tool to hold presidents accountable. Is one of Trump’s lasting legacies that impeachment isn’t even a scarecrow anymore?
Our Founders created a remarkably effective framework for a diverse, democratic, postindustrial, global superpower despite the fact that they were the products of a slaveholding, authoritarian, largely agrarian, isolated 18th-century European colony. The Founders’ key insight was that power corrupts, and that a conglomeration of power corrupts even more. As a result, inspired by the French enlightenment figure Montesquieu—“the oracle who is always consulted,” as James Madison called him in “Federalist No. 47”—the Founders designed a system of three coequal branches of government, each checking and balancing the others. The president could veto bills, but Congress could overrule those vetoes. Initially, both the president and the Supreme Court served as checks on the constitutionality of congressional laws. The president held the pardon power as a check on the judicial system. And impeachment was Congress’s check on executive authoritarianism and crimes against the state.
The Framers, though, had two notable blind spots. First, they failed to anticipate the emergence of political parties. They understood, and accounted for, sectional and state interests. The unelected Senate—its members initially appointed by state legislatures—was intended to protect the interests of the states, particularly the less populous ones. The House gave more power to the more populous states, and by including a proportion of enslaved people in the census count, padded the influence of the slaveholding states.
But there was no allowance for the possibility that the three branches would be shaped by a loyalty beyond state, section, or country. Partisanship weakens the checks and balances of the entire system; it also increases the power of the presidency. To the constitutional responsibilities of the president—head of state, head of government, and commander in chief—was added the informal role of partisan leader. With the emergence of parties in the 1790s, a president’s party, as it were, arose in Congress to dilute the institutional loyalty of each individual member, a trend reinforced by the emergence of the modern two-party system after the Civil War.
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