Impeachment | Jeffrey A. Engel

Summary of: Impeachment: An American History
By: Jeffrey A. Engel


Dive into the world of impeachment and explore its complex history in the United States through Jeffrey A. Engel’s ‘Impeachment: An American History’. This book summary will take you through the struggles that the Founding Fathers faced while creating a system of government, as they attempted to strike a balance between executive power and the possibility of corruption. Discover how the Framers came up with the process of impeachment as a safeguard and explore its impact in American history with in-depth looks into the impeachment crises of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton.

Building America’s Government

Following America’s victory in the Revolutionary War, chaos and disunity plagued the newly independent country as makeshift political systems failed. The Founding Fathers realized the need for a more efficient and unified system of government and gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to form the Constitutional Congress. Despite trepidation at concentrating power in one person’s hands, the presidency was created to represent the unified will of the people. To safeguard against corrupt executives in the future, the process of impeachment was established.

Impeachment: The Art of Walking a Fine Line

The impeachment process outlined in the Constitution was carefully crafted to balance the removal of a corrupt president with the will of the people who elected them. The phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” was coined by George Mason to justify impeachment, but its vague definition has left scholars debating its meaning for centuries. Ultimately, a president does not need to commit a crime to be impeached, but only to pave the way for one to be committed. The impeachment process involves both the House of Representatives and the Senate, with the Supreme Court Chief Justice presiding over a trial. However, the Constitution leaves many details of the process up to future congressional leaders to navigate in times of political crisis.

Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

In 1868, the US House of Representatives impeached President Andrew Johnson, not for breaking the law but for being detestable and irritating. Johnson, a racist and a jerk, consistently opposed congressional efforts to promote racial equality and was vehemently unpopular with the Republican-controlled Congress. The House tried to impeach him three times on flimsy grounds before finding a justification based on the Tenure of Office Act. The Senate, however, couldn’t take the charges seriously, and Johnson was ultimately acquitted, leading to the delicate balance of power envisioned by the Framers being threatened.

Nixon’s Impeachment Crisis

After the Watergate scandal and the Johnson debacle, Nixon’s behavior brought impeachment from obscurity to the forefront. His brazen behavior included cover-ups, hush payments, and the Saturday Night Massacre. However, it was only a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that compelled Nixon to release tapes of incriminating conversations that he himself had recorded. Once his public and congressional support faded, Nixon fell fast, and he resigned before Congress could impeach him. The Nixon crisis forced Congress to create new rules for the impeachment process, and among other achievements, further defined “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Importantly, members of the committee found a way to work across party lines, ensuring justice was carried out properly.

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