On Dec. 18, the U.S. House of Representatives carried out its constitutional right to impeach a president for the third time in American history.
On Wednesday, the Senate acquitted President Donald Trump. This was the third time in U.S. history that the Senate chose not to convict an impeached president.
The Founding Fathers understood impeachment as a political process. As presidential historian Jeffrey Engel recently explained on my podcast, senators had to decide whether the nation would be best served by allowing the president to continue in office.
Engel added, “You could have senators who believe in their hearts that Donald Trump committed every single act that the House managers said he did” and if they believed “the nation is better off with him as president,” they had an “obligation to vote to retain him in office.”
Senators do not have to explain their votes in an impeachment trial, but many of them — in this media-saturated age with elections on the line — chose to defend their votes in public.
Democratic senators — and, alone among Republicans, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney — believed that the House managers, led by California Congressman Adam Schiff, made a strong case for Trump’s removal. And they voted to remove him from office.
Some GOP senators seemed to believe that Donald Trump did nothing wrong when he withheld military aid to Ukraine in exchange for the investigation of a political opponent. They probably thought the president made, as he put it, a “perfect call.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said he assumed “all the allegations made are true,” but removing the president would “inflict extraordinary and potentially irreparable damage to our already divided nation.”
Other Republican senators, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Pennsylvania’s own Pat Toomey, argued that Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president was “inappropriate,” but did not rise to the level of impeachment.
This last group of senators justified their acquittal votes in two ways.
First, some of them argued that the Founding Fathers would have opposed a partisan impeachment. (No House Republicans supported impeachment.)
This is not true.
In Federalist Paper No. 65, Alexander Hamilton, one of the most prolific defenders of the Constitution during the ratification debates of 1787-1788, predicted that impeachments would always be political. As a result, the Senate should always proceed with caution, prudence and wisdom.
Moreover, the framers of the Constitution would never have referred to an impeachment trial as “bipartisan,” since at the time of its writing there were no political parties in the United States.
The second way that this cohort of Republican senators justified their acquittal vote was by claiming that “the people” should decide whether Trump should be removed from office and this should be done when they cast their ballots during the November presidential election.
The Founding Fathers would not have recognized such an argument.
As James Madison made very clear in Federalist Paper No. 39: “The President of the United States is impeachable at any time during his continuance in office.” In other words, the president can be impeached during an election year.
The framers also were skeptical about trusting the people to make decisions about important matters such as impeachment. The Constitution — as it was written in 1787 and ratified by the last of the original 13 states in 1790 — made it clear that senators were not directly elected by the people.
The popular election of senators would not happen until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913; senators originally were appointed by state legislatures.
This is precisely why the framers believed that the Senate, and not the people, was best suited to serve as judges in an impeachment trial. As Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 10, the passions of the people needed to be filtered through a “medium of a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
The framers of the Constitution had such a mistrust of the people that they did not allow them to vote directly for the president. They decided it would be the Electoral College, not the people, that elected the president. Electors were appointed by each state. It was not until 1824 that what today we call the “popular vote” was recorded.
Alexander, Collins, Murkowski, Sasse, Toomey and the like-minded senators who agree with them could have opposed the removal of Trump for all kinds of reasons. But they shouldn’t appeal to the Founding Fathers. The founders lived in a political world that was very different from our own.
John Fea is a professor of American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg. He is the author, most recently, of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” His podcast and blog both are called “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” Twitter: @JohnFea1.