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A look at the Founding Fathers’ motivation for impeachment and how it could be done today

Benjamin Franklin cited a person called the Prince of Orange as an example of when impeachment might be necessary

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Anti-Trump street art in Pittsburgh - CP PHOTO BY LUKE THOR TRAVIS
  • CP photo by Luke Thor Travis
  • Anti-Trump street art in Pittsburgh

In accounts of discussion between the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin cites a person called the Prince of Orange as an example of why the articles of impeachment in the Constitution are necessary. 

According to the notes of James Madison, taken at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, “Doctor. Franklin mentioned the case of the Prince of Orange during the late war [the Eighty Years’ War]. An agreement was made between France & Holland; by which their two fleets were to unite at a certain time & place. The Dutch fleet did not appear. Everybody began to wonder at it. At length it was suspected that the [Prince of Orange] was at the bottom of the matter. This suspicion prevailed more & more. Yet as he could not be impeached and no regular examination took place, he remained in his office, and strengthening his own party, as the party opposed to him became formidable, he gave birth to the most violent animosities & contentions. Had he been impeachable, a regular & peaceable enquiry would have taken place and he would if guilty have been duly punished, if innocent restored to the confidence of the public.”

This amusing coincidence should be lost on no one amidst calls for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. We all know that Trump is often the butt of jokes regarding the orange tint of his skin. Also common knowledge is that as Trump continues to court more and more controversy, the calls for his impeachment grow louder and louder. However, many folks are in the dark about the grounds for impeachment and the steps necessary to get it done. 

According to Wilson Huhn, a visiting professor at the Duquesne University School of Law, Franklin and the Founding Fathers included the articles of impeachment in the Constitution to protect against criminal offenses like treason and bribery. But they also included provisions for “other high crimes and misdemeanors” to guard against corruption.  

“Then, we were not the most powerful nation in the world,” Huhn says. “We were one of the weakest — a new country with 13 little states along the Atlantic border. Spain wanted to eat them up, France wanted to eat them up, and Britain wanted them back. They just couldn’t risk having a president who was in some way under the influence of another country. 

“They were really trying to protect the country. They were worried about someone who is under the pay or under the influence of a foreign power. They thought, ‘We have to have one last safety valve of removing someone who is working against the interest of the United States who could undermine this country.’”

Huhn says the impeachment process is simpler than some might think. Like most actions taken by the U.S. Congress, it starts with a representative in the House proposing legislation.

“The House has the power to impeach by a majority vote,” Huhn says. “They can set their own rules.”

If the House approves a bill to impeach the president, the legislation then goes to the Senate.

“The Senate was given the power by the Constitution to try all impeachments. The Senate also gets to decide what its procedure will be,” says Huhn. “The House impeaches and the Senate convicts, and conviction is not conviction of a crime. The only consequence of this is removal from office.”


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