What does it take to remove a head of state? This question concerns situations in which a nation finds cause to remove a leader before the established time. A survey of history informs us that such circumstances usually involve war and upheaval. The incumbent, whether a king or a prime minister, is not inclined to surrender power, and therefore must be compelled to give it up, often on pain of death. In consideration of this state of human affairs, the Founding Fathers of the United States established a procedure by which presidents might be impeached, or removed from office. The product of their deliberations appears in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution:
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
And that is all they have to say on the matter – which is why jurists for nearly 230 years have debated exactly what they meant.
The Founders certainly understood the seriousness of the question. They had just gone through a lengthy and painful process of removing King George III as head of state over the American colonies by the extreme measure of extricating the colonies from the king’s domain and establishing a separate sovereign nation. Their attempts at less drastic measures had not sufficed, leaving them no option but the usual method of war and upheaval. That is why they sought to limit the power of the president, providing a method of removal by legislative and judicial means. The grounds for removal would have to be well established, which is why the Constitution specifies the obvious transgressions of treason and bribery. But what exactly are “high crimes and misdemeanors”? This is where it gets interesting, and frustrating to those who desire to remove an incompetent, unpopular, or abusive president.
The Founders sought not only to prevent abuse of power in the Office of the President, but also to protect the dignity of the office and ensure continuity of government. Succeeding generations have understood this, which is why only three presidents have been the subject of impeachment proceedings. President Richard Nixon resigned before Congress could vote on articles of impeachment for his abuse of power. Had he not done so, it is likely he would have been the only president ever removed from office. Congress did impeach Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton on charges stemming from their obstruction of Congress and abuse of power, but acquitted both men – not because the charges were unfounded, but because of the political motivations behind the impeachment proceedings. Under such circumstances, their removal would have brought immense harm to the Office of the President and its foundation in the organic law of the United States.
One might wish that the Founding Fathers had been more specific in the standards they expected of people holding high office. Then again, how much more specific did they need to be in a Christian culture based on the rule of law derived from the Bible? Their understanding of God’s requirements for public leaders shaped their creation of the Government of the United States, leading them to do as YHVH did: provide just enough detail to establish wise government under the principles of justice and mercy.
מַּטּוֹת / מַסְעֵי
William Shakespeare has such as way with murder. With so many characters meeting violent death in his plays it would seem that he regarded murder as an essential part of good drama. Richard III is an excellent example. When my daughter studied the play in school, she and her fellow students kept a “body count” of the many characters who died over the course of Richard’s rise to power. Shakespeare’s preoccupation with murder may have been the product of the violent world in which he lived, and indeed England in the 16th century was a violent place, yet we need only look at the headlines of events in our own cities to realize that our world is no less violent than Shakespeare’s. If the Bard had no qualms about employing murder as a plot device, it was because his art imitated life. Richard III was a historical play based on events that shook the British Isles just one hundred years earlier. The play’s popularity derived in part from the horrendous nature of Richard’s quest for power, extending even to allegations that in 1483 he ordered the deaths of his two nephews, the 12-year-old King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York. Their uncles’ guilt has never been proven, but it is plausible that he removed them so they would not stand in the way of his quest to seize the throne of their father, the late Edward IV.
Richard III is not the only Shakespearian villain to usurp a throne and seize the inheritance of a rightful heir. Two others that come to mind are MacBeth of Scotland and Claudius of Denmark. Although not historical plays, MacBeth and Hamlet have roots in actual events. The central action of MacBeth occurs when the warrior of that name murders King Duncan of Scotland. Duncan’s sons, fearing they will be blamed for the murder, flee the country, allowing Macbeth to take the throne. In Hamlet, we do not see the murder of Denmark’s king; when the play opens his brother Claudius has already seized the throne by killing him and marrying his queen. The plot follows Prince Hamlet as he learns the truth of his father’s death and his uncle’s guilt.
As was necessary for Richard III, MacBeth and Claudius must deal with the heirs to the murdered kings. MacBeth prepares to defend Scotland against the exiled princes Malcolm and Donalbain, and Claudius concocts a plot to have Hamlet killed in a duel by an opponent wielding a poisoned blade. In the end all three villains meet violent deaths. Richard and MacBeth fall in battle as their own countrymen rise in revolt against them, and Claudius is slain by Hamlet himself just before the young prince dies.
Shakespeare’s works have remained popular for over 400 years because they really do imitate life, even to a disturbing degree. In these plays we see that an inheritance is not secure even if there are sons ready to claim their fathers’ legacy. What worse things might the villains have done had there been no sons and heirs? Who would ensure that the bereaved family retained their place in the nation? That very question prompted the tribe of Manasseh to ask Moses for guarantees not only for their brethren who had no sons, but for the entire tribe’s legacy in the Promised Land.