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Tools for Understanding Impeachment

With all the talk about whether or not to impeach Trump, it is helpful to get some historical context about impeachment and what the founding fathers meant by “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Last December, I read an article in The New York Times by Sarah Vowell, in which she described two books on the subject. Inspired by her article, I ordered and read both books. I came away from that reading with a sense that I now understood why impeachment was included in the Constitution, why the description of impeachable offenses is so vague, and how to evaluate whether conduct meets the standard intended by the framers.


The first book I read is “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide,” by Cass R. Sunstein, a Professor at Harvard University Law School. He writes a very readable account of the historical record of debates about impeachment during the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. He follows that analysis of debate with a brief history of impeachments in American history, after which he provides 21 case studies of varying degrees of difficulty. These case studies help us apply what we learned from analyzing historical debate to judge whether hypothetical conduct of government officials qualifies as “high crimes and misdemeanors” for the purposes of impeachment.


The second book, “Impeachment: An American History,” is a collection of Essays covering the three historical Presidential impeachment proceedings in the United States, written by Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, and Peter Baker. Jeffrey A. Engel provides an introduction about impeachment in the Constitution and a conclusion about impeachment in the current political environment (before release of the redacted Mueller report). This book analyzes each historical impeachment with focus on the politics—the political climate, motives, and risks specific to each case.


These two books helped me develop a framework for considering the current debate in the Democratic party about whether to begin impeachment proceedings or not. I recommend them to anyone looking for tools to help understand the present in light of the past.

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