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.