3-Minute Civics: The trial through the eyes of the Founders

For the Monitor
Published: 2/9/2020 7:00:17 AM

There’s‌ ‌no ‌question ‌that ‌the ‌issue‌ of ‌impeachment‌ has ‌been‌ ‌the ‌top ‌topic ‌in ‌civics today. People‌ ‌have‌ ‌witnessed‌ ‌House‌ managers‌ ‌and‌ ‌the‌ ‌president’s‌ ‌lawyers battling‌ ‌it‌ ‌out‌ ‌on‌ ‌every‌ ‌cable‌ ‌news‌ channel‌ ‌for‌ ‌the‌ ‌last‌ ‌couple‌ ‌of‌ ‌weeks, ‌including‌ a ‌crucial, nearly‌ ‌partisan‌ ‌vote‌ ‌to ‌not‌ ‌allow‌ ‌witnesses‌ ‌to ‌testify‌ ‌at‌ ‌the‌ ‌Senate‌ ‌trial.

Numerous‌ ‌senators‌ ‌pleaded‌ ‌either‌ ‌to‌ ‌bring‌ ‌forward‌ ‌witnesses‌ ‌or‌ ‌to‌ ‌end‌ ‌the‌ ‌trial‌ because‌ of‌ ‌a‌ ‌lack‌ ‌of‌ ‌evidence‌ ‌against‌ ‌the‌ president. ‌Many‌ ‌referenced‌ ‌the‌ Founders‌ ‌and‌ ‌how‌ ‌they‌ ‌would‌ ‌be‌ ‌rolling‌ ‌over‌ ‌in‌ ‌their‌ ‌graves‌ ‌because‌ ‌of‌ ‌all‌ ‌the‌ ‌contentious‌ issues‌ ‌that‌ were‌ ‌brought‌ ‌to‌ ‌the‌ ‌forefront. ‌Well, ‌what‌ ‌would‌ ‌some‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌Founders‌ have‌ ‌thought?‌

The‌ ‌presidency‌ ‌was‌ ‌what‌ ‌James‌ ‌Madison‌ ‌called‌ ‌an‌ ‌experiment‌ ‌in‌ ‌his‌ ‌“new‌ ‌science‌ of‌ ‌politics.” This‌ ‌new‌ ‌form‌ ‌of‌ ‌government‌ ‌would‌ ‌need‌ ‌to‌ ‌be‌ ‌tried‌ ‌out. If‌ ‌certain‌ institutions‌ ‌worked, then‌ ‌they‌ ‌would‌ ‌be‌ ‌valid. If‌ ‌they‌ ‌didn’t‌ ‌work, ‌remedies‌ ‌would‌ need‌ ‌to‌ ‌be‌ ‌developed‌ ‌to‌ ‌fix‌ ‌them.

‌As‌ ‌Madison‌ ‌wrote‌ ‌in‌ ‌Federalist‌ ‌No. ‌51: “In‌ framing‌ ‌a‌ ‌government‌ ‌which‌ ‌is‌ ‌to‌ ‌be‌ ‌administered‌ ‌by‌ ‌men‌ ‌over‌ ‌men, ‌the‌ ‌great‌ difficulty‌ ‌lies‌ ‌in‌ ‌this: you‌ ‌must‌ ‌first‌ ‌enable‌ ‌the‌ ‌government‌ ‌to‌ ‌control‌ ‌the‌ governed; and‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ ‌next‌ ‌place‌ ‌oblige‌ ‌it‌ ‌to‌ ‌control‌ ‌itself. A‌ ‌dependence‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌people‌ ‌is, no‌ doubt, the‌ ‌primary‌ control‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌government; ‌but‌ ‌experience‌ ‌has‌ ‌taught‌ ‌mankind‌ the‌ ‌necessity‌ ‌of‌ ‌auxiliary‌ ‌precautions.”

‌Madison‌ ‌knew‌ ‌men‌ ‌weren’t‌ ‌angels, but‌ ‌as‌ long‌ ‌as‌ ‌there‌ ‌were‌ ‌ways‌ ‌to‌ ‌correct‌ ‌problems, ‌Madison‌ ‌believed‌ ‌government‌ ‌should‌ have‌ ‌a‌ ‌certain‌ ‌level‌ ‌of‌ ‌stability, which‌ ‌combined‌ ‌with‌ ‌energy, ‌was‌ ‌what‌ ‌made‌ ‌good‌ government. He‌ ‌believed‌ ‌these‌ ‌auxiliary‌ precautions‌ ‌would‌ ‌be‌ ‌the‌ ‌system‌ ‌of‌ checks‌ ‌and‌ ‌balances‌ ‌layered‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ ‌Constitution‌ ‌to‌ ‌prevent‌ ‌the‌ ‌misuse‌ ‌of‌ ‌power.

The‌ ‌way‌ ‌President‌ ‌Trump’s‌ ‌impeachment‌ ‌evolved‌ ‌would‌ ‌have‌ ‌shocked‌ ‌Madison. He‌ ‌would‌ never‌ ‌have‌ ‌anticipated‌ ‌the‌ ‌Senate‌ ‌vote‌ ‌would‌ ‌have‌ ‌been‌ ‌so‌ ‌closely‌ aligned‌ ‌with‌ ‌senators’‌ political‌ ‌parties, even‌ ‌as‌ ‌he‌ ‌recognized‌ ‌the‌ ‌danger‌ ‌of‌ factions.

He‌ ‌wrote‌ ‌in‌ ‌Federalist‌ No. 10: ‌“Yet‌ ‌the‌ ‌parties‌ ‌are, ‌and‌ ‌must‌ ‌be, ‌themselves‌ the‌ ‌judges; and‌ ‌the‌ ‌most‌ ‌numerous‌ ‌party, or, ‌in‌ ‌other‌ words, ‌the‌ ‌most‌ ‌powerful‌ faction‌ ‌must‌ ‌be‌ ‌expected‌ ‌to‌ ‌prevail.” However, ‌he‌ ‌believed‌ ‌elected‌ officials’‌ ‌better‌ virtues‌ ‌would‌ ‌prevail‌ ‌over‌ ‌their‌ ‌factionalism.

He‌ ‌further‌ ‌wrote‌ ‌in‌ ‌Federalist No. 10: “... by‌ passing‌ ‌them‌ ‌through‌ ‌the‌ ‌medium‌ ‌of‌ ‌a‌ ‌chosen‌ ‌body‌ ‌of‌ ‌citizens, ‌whose‌ ‌wisdom‌ may‌ ‌best‌ ‌discern‌ ‌the‌ ‌true‌ ‌interest‌ ‌of‌ ‌their‌ ‌country, ‌and‌ ‌whose‌ ‌patriotism‌ ‌and‌ ‌love‌ ‌of‌ justice‌ ‌will‌ ‌be‌ ‌least‌ ‌likely‌ ‌to‌ ‌sacrifice‌ ‌it‌ ‌to‌ ‌temporary‌ ‌or‌ ‌partial‌ ‌considerations.”‌

What‌ ‌he‌ ‌meant‌ ‌was‌ ‌people‌ ‌would‌ ‌put‌ ‌what‌ ‌is‌ ‌best‌ ‌for‌ ‌the‌ ‌country‌ ‌ahead‌ ‌of‌ ‌partisan‌ politics. These‌ ‌partial‌ ‌or‌ ‌temporary‌ ‌considerations‌ ‌would‌ ‌be‌ ‌party‌ ‌and‌ ‌party‌ loyalty; ‌however, ‌he‌ ‌believed,‌ ‌as‌ ‌an‌ ‌elected‌ ‌official what‌ ‌is‌ ‌right‌ ‌for‌ ‌the‌ country‌ would‌ ‌be‌ ‌most‌ ‌prevalent.‌

Alexander‌ ‌Hamilton‌ ‌always‌ ‌recognized‌ ‌the‌ ‌inherent‌ ‌evil‌ ‌of‌ ‌man‌ ‌and, like‌ ‌Aristotle, saw‌ ‌man‌ ‌as‌ ‌a‌ ‌political‌ ‌creature. He‌ ‌believed‌ ‌a‌ ‌president‌ ‌had‌ ‌to‌ ‌have‌ ‌“energy‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ executive, ‌which‌ ‌was‌ ‌a‌ ‌leading‌ ‌character‌ ‌in‌ ‌good‌ ‌government.”

‌According‌ to‌ Hamilton, “A ‌feeble‌ ‌executive‌ ‌implies‌ ‌a‌ feeble‌ ‌execution‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌government.” However, ‌he‌ ‌also‌ ‌knew‌ ‌that‌ ‌factions‌ ‌would‌ ‌be‌ ‌part‌ ‌of‌ government. He‌ ‌felt‌ ‌that‌ ‌if‌ there‌ ‌were‌ ‌a‌ ‌powerful‌ ‌leader, ‌who‌ ‌had‌ ‌the‌ ‌support‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌majority, anything‌ ‌would‌ be‌ ‌possible. Regardless‌ ‌of‌ ‌what‌ ‌checks‌ ‌there‌ ‌ought‌ ‌to‌ ‌be‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ president, Hamilton‌ ‌understood‌ ‌the‌ ‌real‌ ‌nature‌ ‌of‌ ‌man.

Writing‌ ‌in‌ ‌Federalist‌ No. 65, ‌he‌ ‌said‌ impeachment‌ ‌would‌ ‌“agitate‌ ‌the‌ ‌passions‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌whole‌ ‌community, and‌ ‌divide‌ ‌it‌ into‌ ‌parties‌ ‌more‌ ‌or‌ ‌less‌ ‌friendly ... ‌to‌ ‌the‌ ‌accused.”

‌He‌ ‌recognized‌ ‌this‌ ‌to‌ ‌be‌ ‌the‌ greatest‌ ‌danger‌ ‌because‌ ‌the‌ ‌“decision‌ ‌will‌ ‌be‌ ‌regulated‌ ‌more‌ ‌by‌ ‌the‌ ‌comparative‌ strength‌ ‌of‌ ‌parties, ‌than‌ ‌by‌ ‌the‌ ‌real‌ ‌demonstrations‌ ‌of‌ ‌innocence‌ ‌or‌ ‌guilt.”

Hamilton‌ ‌foresaw‌ ‌that‌ ‌regardless‌ ‌of‌ ‌a‌ ‌person’s‌ ‌innocence‌ ‌or‌ ‌guilt, if‌ ‌the‌ ‌accused‌ were‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ ‌majority‌ ‌party, ‌he‌ ‌could‌ ‌do‌ ‌whatever‌ ‌he‌ ‌liked, as‌ ‌long‌ ‌as‌ ‌he‌ ‌had‌ ‌party‌ support.‌

Sadly, Hamilton’s‌ ‌argument‌ ‌seems‌ ‌to‌ ‌create‌ ‌a‌ ‌quandary‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌concept‌ ‌of‌ ‌rule‌ ‌of‌ law‌ ‌in‌ ‌our‌ ‌country, where‌ ‌no‌ ‌person‌ ‌is‌ ‌supposed‌ ‌to‌ ‌be‌ ‌above‌ ‌the‌ ‌law.

On‌ ‌one‌ ‌hand, what‌ ‌Madison‌ ‌thought‌ ‌would‌ ‌be‌ ‌auxiliary‌ ‌precautions‌ ‌to‌ ‌prevent‌ ‌abuse‌ ‌is‌ juxtaposed‌ ‌with‌ ‌Hamilton’s‌ ‌belief‌ ‌that‌ ‌“might‌ ‌makes‌ ‌right.”

Regardless‌ ‌of‌ ‌one’s‌ political‌ ‌party, ‌it’s‌ ‌clear‌ ‌that‌ ‌the‌ ‌Senate’s‌ ‌51-49‌ ‌vote‌ ‌to‌ ‌not‌ ‌call‌ ‌witnesses‌ ‌creates‌ uncertainty‌ ‌in‌ ‌this‌ ‌new, ‌uncharted‌ ‌constitutional‌ ‌territory.

(Dave Alcox is a civics teacher at Milford High School.)

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