James Madison, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Constitution, viewed impeachment as a vital instrument: “for defending … ag[ain]st the incapacity, negligence, or perfidy of the Chief Magistrate.” Simply limiting his term of office, Madison argued, “was not a sufficient security.” The president, he imagined, might “lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme … or …. betray his trust to foreign powers.” Madison’s colleague at the Constitutional Convention, Charles Pinckney, saw it differently. He “did not see the necessity of impeachments.” And in any case, impeachments ought not “to issue from the Legislature” because Congress could “hold them as a rod over the Executive” and “effectually destroy his independence.”
Given this sort of disagreement in 1787, it’s no surprise that as the House has debated impeaching President Trump — culminating in Wednesday’s vote — the discussions have produced reams of commentary and analysis. As we plumb the historical record to understand what misdeeds impeachment was intended to address, we also should consider why and how we know it. The texts that describe impeachment, essential to our debate, are accessible because of a collective commitment to accountable and transparent government — and the work of archivists, librarians, documentary editors and historians, to preserve its records. Like impeachment itself, the preservation of and access to historical records is a key check on power.
One source is obvious: The Constitution of the United States lays out the responsibilities and role of each branch of the federal government in a presidential impeachment. In Article 1, Section 2, the House of Representatives “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.” In Article 1, Section 3, the Senate “shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments.” In Article 2, Section 2, the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” In Article 2, Section 4, “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.” The Constitution is housed at the National Archives, which not only preserves the document and makes it available for visitors but also hosts transcription and images for download online.