Impeachments and Final Form

George Washington, delegate from Virginia
James Peale, 1787-1790

Independence National Historical Park

Impeachments and Final Form

"The reflecting lamp, with which you have been so obliging as to present me, I shall highly esteem….Neat simplicity is among [its] most desirable properties… but that which stamps the highest value thereon, is the hand from which it comes."

- George Washington to Mrs. Elizabeth Powel

The Convention took up the clause providing that the Senate conduct the trial of impeachments for treason and bribery. Mason asked why impeachment was so limited, and the provision was amended. The Convention decided, without debate, that "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" would be grounds for impeaching and convicting all civil officers of the United States.

What they did not decide, and what is still undetermined, is what "other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" are and who decides what they are. Bribery has specific legal meaning, and treason is defined in the Constitution itself. "High Crimes and Misdemeanors," on the other hand, lifted verbatim from British laws for removing executive and judicial officers, is vague. In the minds of Randolph, Madison, Franklin, Morris and Mason an officer could be impeached for actions which were not in violation of a law, as based in English precedent. The Convention debate, English precedent, and American experience together indicate that "high crimes and Misdemeanors" are any action which leads Congress to a determination that the officer is unfit to hold public trust.

A committee was created to revise the style of and arrange articles which had been agreed to by the Convention: W.S. Johnson, Madison; Hamilton; King and G. Morris. Their report would be the final form of the proposed constitution.

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Sunday, September 9, 1787
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Last updated: February 26, 2015

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