Here is Jeffrey Engel, director of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History:
This willingness to put country before self is why Washington’s presence lent legitimacy to the controversial convention, why delegates immediately voted him the presiding chair and why they ultimately designed the presidency with him in mind. Put simply, they trusted him and knew he would put America first.
Not every president would. “The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin assured the convention, probably nodding in Washington’s direction as he spoke. “Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.”
So delegates designed a mechanism for removing a dangerous president, one who did what Washington never would: impeachment for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
That pesky phrase, “high crimes and misdemeanors” has befuddled Americans ever since. It shouldn’t. The Constitution’s authors understood that impeachable treachery need not, in fact, be a literal crime at all, but rather a demonstration that a president’s presence harmed the body politic, the people, either through maliciousness or selfishness.
For example, any president “who has practiced corruption” to win election, a Pennsylvania delegate argued, should be impeached. So, too, in the eyes of Virginia’s James Madison, should any president who “might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression,” or any who “betray[ed] his trust to foreign powers.”
And what of a president who used his immense pardon power to conceal his guilt, perhaps by promising a pardon to subordinates he ordered to break the law? They thought of that, too. “If the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person,” who schemed against the republic, Madison argued during ratification debates, “and there be grounds to believe he [the president] will shelter him,” impeachment should follow. No one debated the point.
Read the entire piece here.
The original phrase “who has practiced corruption” is worthy of discussion. None of us would come to an agreement on it even if the discussion were headed by Dr. Engel.
Maybe I am naive but I like to think the founders had a sense of honor and proprietary which is scarce in most candidates of all parties today. If these founding gentleman could observe the electoral gymnastics and financial contortions required now to get noticed as a serious presidential contender, they might well throw up their arms, mount their horses and head back to their local farms, offices, and dwellings.
RM Green says
Dr. Engel sum up the reasons I didn’t vote and don’t like Trump. Trump’s failure to release his tax returns while on the campaign trail, the hundreds of lawsuits and mechanics liens filed against the Trump Organization, and failure to place his personal assets in a blind trust one he assumed the office told me that Trump fundamentally misunderstood the job. The presidency is a temp job and the White House is just government housing. The president’s decision making should be governed by what’s best for the country and not what’s best for the president personally. Two and a half years in and I don’t think Trump has figured that out yet.
John Haas (@haas1235) says
I’m not so sure the framers were as innocent of all that. George Washington himself, eg, is on record practicing intentional deception. (The topic was a slave he had brought to Philadelphia with him. PA law forbid keeping slaves in the state for more than six months–if I recall correctly–and Washington wanted him sent back to Mt. Vernon before that, but expressed his desire that it be done in such a way that the slave and the public would be deceived about the reason.) Washington was also quite calculating about his wanting a second term: He wrote to a colleague seeking advice about projecting just the right tone: Expressing a certain indifference on the topic, but not so much indifference as to arouse suspicions among the public that he actually did want a second term–which he earnestly did, however.
Tell me it ain’t so, John! Next you will cast doubt on the cherry tree story and the Delaware River crossing. Ha ha. Can we handle that much disillusionment? ?
Washington did do that. It was wrong in my eyes. But not corruption that injured the public.
I don’t think the founders expected perfection because they knew themselves.
These are difficult lines to draw.
But let’s face it, Trump isn’t close. He is well over the line.
Harry Brooks says
I’m just curious about the historicity of his throwing a dollar across the Rappahannock. The silver dollar question: Did the coin have his image on it??