We have now completed a survey of the structure and powers of the executive department … which combines, as far as republican principles will admit, all the requisites to energy. The remaining inquiry is: Does it also combine the requisites to safety, in a republican sense – a due dependence on the people, a due responsibility? …
A well constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective. The subject of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community… (Federalist #65).
As Providence would have it, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution were not working in an urgent storm of events. No instant communications, cable news reports, tweets, selfies and hacked computer files threatened to focus public passion on their every word and gesture. They had time to think. And though many had experienced firsthand the deadly urgency of war and battle, they were accustomed to thinking, under the discipline of reason, but also of frankly acknowledged faith. That discipline had not yet been corrupted by pseudo-ideologies that purport to find reason in things themselves, while falsely denying that it is a presumption of faith, in the rule of an orderly intelligence, which sustains our capacity to see it there.
Again, as Providence would have it, this honest appreciation for the cooperation of reason and faith was the common sense of America’s founding generation. Without it, there is no basis for assuming that the orderly patterns and relationships discovered by the empirical scientific method have any bearing on the moral rules human societies require to sustain themselves. The same self-conscious intelligence that allows us to stand, as it were, apart from material events, as we consider alternative explanations for their occurrence, puts us in a position to prefer this or that alternative outcome, and feel the desire to bring it about.
This sense of not being bound to accept the apparent course of events as our only alternative is the key to our freedom of thought. It may appear that the sun goes ’round the earth, but we are not bound to accept that. Real or self-willed anomalies in our perception of things may raise doubts. To the eyes of a child, the looming size and strength of adults may command obedience. But this can change once one sees a small snake paralyze adults with fear. This may be the effect of dangers a child has not yet experienced. What they have never seen affects their interpretation of what they see. But the notion that this empirical limitation will, in all cases, ultimately be overcome, cannot be empirically sustained. In a world where new advances in science require scientists to accept and take account of inescapable paradoxes, we have more reason than ever to doubt that it ever will be.
A powerful warrior may be slain by the weakest skillful poisoner. Since what we don’t know can hurt us, our fear of the unknown may nullify what otherwise appears to be a decisive advantage of power. Paradoxically, this means that the pretense of superior material power may be unreliable in its daunting effects. Unlike material events, human evens must include a variable that takes account of this. The rules that govern the behavior of material objects do not reliably govern the behavior of human beings. Their reliance on things unseen, even if mistaken, may give them the will to resist apparently superior material force. Expecting help from that quarter, they may faithfully endure all hardship, even after the calculations based on their actual experience confirm that doing so is futile.
Of course, if their expectations about the future mostly depend on such faith, present consequences that take no account of it may little affect their will. The fortitude that results, is what we call moral strength. It has often proven to be decisive, even in the brutally physical clinches of violent battle. The fact that outcomes depend on moral factors may be of particular importance in understanding political contests. Doesn’t every political election actually depend on the relative strength of moral wills?
When the Federalist says that the issue of impeachment involves matters peculiarly political, is this moral aspect of human activities especially in view? If so, once impeachable conduct is on the table, what becomes of the premise of objective service that is supposed to govern our nation’s permanent bureaucracy? For example, the FBI can maintain the stance of objective independence when clearly defined crimes are in view, requiring that objective facts be ascertained without political prejudice. But what does it mean to be “objective” when the nation’s moral will and premises are precisely what is at issue?
Those premises are matters of moral judgment, not objective material fact. They involve fundamental questions of what is good and bad, right and wrong. The key practical premise of our constitutional republican self-government is that those issues are a matter of “safety, in a republican sense,” requiring “a due dependence on the people, a due responsibility.” That is not the responsibility of “independent” bureaucrats. It is the responsibility to and of the people, acting in and through their representatives. Is the Federalist wrong to insist that presidents should be “at all times liable to impeachment”? Like the provision that makes a bare majority enough to pass a bill of impeachment, this implies a situation of routine vigilance, one that does not have to involve unusual events or circumstances.
Whenever questions are raised about possible malfeasance by officials subject to impeachment, a motion to impeach should be given due consideration in the House of Representatives. The committee responsible for scrutinizing such bills should be supported by a permanently organized investigative staff, producing results under the supervision of a Permanent Committee on Impeachments, or PCOI. With impeachment in view, the investigative activities of that committee should be encumbered by no general claims of “executive privilege,” except in having due for the proper handling of intelligence matters. The absurd expectation that members of the executive body of the president can be considered objectively “independent” of his command and responsibility would cease. If any impeachable officials refused to cooperate, their recalcitrance would, in and of itself, be treated as sufficient grounds for impeachment.
In effect, the PCOI’s hearings would become an American version of the “question period” high government officials routinely face in Great Britain’s Parliament. Public sentiment in reaction to its hearings should influence the political atmosphere a given House majority faces in the biennial general elections. In this sense, the handling of impeachment charges would admit their intrinsically political nature. Ironically, however, it would militate against the political domination of Congress by elitist cliques impervious to the decisive responsibility the voters are supposed to undertake for assuring our government’s “safety, in a republican sense.”
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