I don’t understand why it’s so hard for some people to understand the logic of the U.S. Constitution’s provisions for the impeachment and removal of civil officers of the U.S. government, particularly the president and vice president of the United States. Some say that they fear for the Constitution, and then suggest that the U.S. military’s leadership, or some other vaguely described forces, should intervene to force Obama from office. Yet such action would be a gross violation of the U.S. Constitution, tantamount to treason, and an occasion for civil war.
In this respect the individual charged with carrying out the office of president enjoys privileges and immunities similar to those of the British monarch at the time the Constitution was framed. By way of the pardoning power (among other things), he can extend their effect to those who act on his authority. The use of force against the monarch was lèse majesté, “an offense against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or against a state.” Of course, in the U.S. the reigning sovereign is “we, the people of the United States” by whose word and will (as promulgated in the U.S. Constitution) the individual in question personally embodies the executive force of their sovereign power.
Now comes the crux of the matter. Just as a monarch can make known the formal and symbolic actions that signify the instatement or removal of the chief minister of the royal government, or the supreme commander of the police or military forces of the realm, so the people of the United States have made known the formal procedures that, pursuant to the U.S. Constitution, effectively remove such officials. Once these procedures are enacted, the privileges and immunities connected with the constitutional sovereignty of the people are removed from the individual previously vested with its executive power and passed to another individual, as designated by law.
Thereupon, the former president returns to the status of a private citizen, subject to the force of law like any other. But any use of force against that individual while he or she formally retains the office of president is a breach of constitutional law. If successful, it represents the formal abrogation of the Constitution. If opposed, thwarted and resisted by other forces, demanding that the formal requirements of the Constitution be respected, the contest that results is civil war.
In an oft-quoted observation (made in a letter to William Stephens Smith in November 1787), Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“… what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
These days, Jefferson’s words understandably resonate with patriotic Americans disgruntled by Obama’s repeated and tyrannical derelictions and abuses of power. But is the patriotic reaction against them rooted in respect for the merits of the Constitution, reasonably thought through and understood? Or does it result from an unreasoning, blindly habitual attachment which, on that account, violates the logic of the Constitution, as well as that of the Revolution in political thought from which it emerged?
If our patriotic concern results from appreciating the Constitution’s reasonable merits, we can simply look for their fruits, especially when it comes to dealing with such abuses of power as were a chief preoccupation of the framers. Doing so we find that, in terms both of principle and practicality, the Constitution provides a lawful way for people to resist such abuses. It gives representatives of the people the power to notice, investigate, adjudge and penalize (by removal from office) civil officers of the U.S. government, including the president and vice president, whom they find guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Such offenses include violations of ordinary law not adequately justified by some public emergency. But they also include the very particular abuses of power made possible by the executive positions they occupy, in which, because they themselves constitute the arms of the law, they might otherwise be beyond its ordinary reach.
Assuming that Jefferson’s above quoted words are true, we realize that, under certain circumstances, the particular provisions for impeaching and removing the president and vice president may end up being the prelude for armed conflict. This may occur if and when a sufficient minority in the U.S. Senate stubbornly shields the perpetrators of executive abuses, even when, to a large majority of the people, their abuse have become insufferable. The language of the American Declaration of Independence marks this as the point at which the people’s right to resist tyranny becomes a natural obligation. It was the standard the founders of the United States articulated and upheld when they revolted against the tyranny initiated by certain enactments of King George III, which they enumerated in the Declaration.
The U.S. Constitution provides for the people, to investigate and indict intolerable abuses in a peaceful, orderly fashion, through their representatives in the House of Representatives, and with just reasoning and due process, to impeach high officials for their unlawful conduct. It also respects the practical lesson that can be drawn from the history of representative government in Great Britain. That history was known to many in the founding generation. They knew that it was the English House of Commons that provided the institutional rallying point and focus for resistance to tyranny. So, under the U.S. Constitution, the governmental body most immediately dependent on the people’s suffrage is charged with the systematic investigation and articulation of tyrannical injustices.
But by giving a somewhat more independent body, the U.S. Senate, responsibility for delivering the first verdict on any such offenses, the founders aimed to provide a safeguard against distempers occasioned by frivolous or tolerably transient complaints. But in any case, the Constitution’s provisions for public impeachment and trial involve the development of a permanent record of the reasonable deliberations of the people, like the record of deliberate remonstration laid down by the American colonists in the season before they declared their independence from Great Britain.
The impeachment provisions of the U.S. Constitution give people the means and opportunity to substantiate the morally reasonable basis for their stand in defense of liberty. It allows and requires them to justify, before God and the decent opinion of humankind, why they are conscientiously determined to stand even despite the vicissitudes of war, rather than submit to tyranny.
Clearly, therefore, even if a stubbornly tyrannical Senate minority prevents conviction, as a matter of practical fact the process of impeachment makes an indispensable contribution to the moral cause of liberty. In light of this, have you joined the Pledge to Impeach mobilization? If so, are you doing everything you can to encourage others you can influence to do likewise? In these last weeks before the November elections, the duty involved grows more imperative with every passing day.
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