On the second day of July 1776, Samuel P. Chase pledged his life, fortune and sacred honor, and signed the Declaration of Independence. On the 12th day in March 1804, he was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives.
President George Washington had appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court as a justice, and he had made some decisions that the Congressional majority didn’t like.
As background we should remember that the election campaign of 1800 was characterized by levels of rabid partisanship, calumny, and lies that would shame even a veteran of our own behavior during 2016. In the end, Thomas Jefferson was elected president by a narrow margin over incumbent John Adams, and he brought a new majority to the House of Representatives.
The election in 1800 was also our first in which political parties played a major role — and we might reasonably conclude that their dominant role is linked to the scurrilous activity of the campaign.
The Jeffersonian Republicans and the Federalists had very different opinions of what the best form of government for America should be. The Federalists believed that only a strong central government could withstand the hazards of either foreign encroachment or domestic mob rule. The Republicans believed that a loose federation of states was the only form of government that would not decay into despotism.
A raw display of partisan politics, the impeachment of Samuel P. Chase ultimately failed when he was acquitted of the charges in the Senate.
Despite the sour taste that the impeachment had left, some good did come of it. To start with, it produced a general agreement that impeachment of a federal judge would comply with the same “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard as applied to a president.
At the same time, however, it also produced an understanding within the judiciary that judges would minimize their political activities, statements and writings. Justice Chase, for example, had campaigned very publicly for John Adams during the 1800 election, and that, while not a high crime, certainly drew the enmity of the Jefferson supporters and raised obvious questions about his impartiality in some federal cases.
Our current presidential impeachment proceedings have launched an intensive search for parallels in our history. The search has been largely unsuccessful, though, probably because of the paucity of examples. In the 232 years since our constitution was ratified, there have been just two previous impeachments of a U.S. president: Andrew Johnson, who had become president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated; and Bill Clinton. Both Johnson and Clinton were acquitted after trials in the Senate.
The scarcity of exact historical parallels or precedents reflects a good thing about our country. Impeachments are truly rare and generally reflect runaway politicization as much as anything else. In these situations, members of Congress stop listening to each other, a malignant hearing impairment that spreads to the general public.
The economic effects of this malignancy are yet to be felt. Anecdotally, though, people entering the world of business are well advised to avoid disrupting the workplace by initiating or jumping into discussions of politics.
Polarized politics, though, will eventually eat at the foundations of our economic system. If we don’t amp down the rhetoric and raise the profile of the national interest, we will end up with “conservative shops” and “liberal shops”—just as we see taking root in our universities. This will interfere with the free market flows of labor and will reduce our overall productivity.
In the final stages of the present impeachment proceedings, there was Rudolph-like talk of going down in history. It is probably true that this impeachment will go down in history, but it may not be in a chapter that anyone will enjoy reading. As historically and currently practiced, politically driven impeachments of presidents are systemic failures, not victories, of our democracy.
The wisdom embedded in the Constitution is that a country dedicated to our values of liberty and democracy has its best chance of surviving in a system of checks and balances. It therefore established three branches of government — executive, judicial, and legislative — each of which acts as a limiting factor, a check, on the other two.
Presidents who serve only at the pleasure of the majority political party of the House of Representatives cannot function as intended in the Constitution, and we will pay the price for it.
No matter which side you believe is right, this impeachment is a lump of coal in America’s stocking.
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