How Impeachment Works

By: Oisin Curran  | 

The Roots of Impeachment

Signing of US constitution
Benjamin Franklin and the other Founding Fathers included a provisions in the U.S. Constitution to remove a president or other federal officials from office for engaging in treason, bribery or something called "high crimes and misdemeanors." Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

The French word "empecher" means "to prevent," and is related to the English word, "impede." Both have origins in the Latin term, "impedicare," which means "to fetter." Impeachment, then, has roots in the idea of putting a stop to movement [source: Merriam-Webster].

In his study of "The Origin of Impeachment," British legal historian T.F.T. Plucknett agrees with the general consensus that the procedure makes its first appearance in the English Parliament of the 14th century. During that era, Plucknett writes that impeachment evolved from a series of high profile criminal proceedings. In particular, he notes a shift from the trial of Roger Mortimer, 1st earl of March, in 1330 to the case of Chief Justice Willoughby in 1341. In the first, "notorious facts" as voiced by "the clamor of the people," concerning Mortimer were enough to condemn him to death for arranging the murder of King Edward II. In the latter, "notorious facts" were required to put Willoughby on trial, but they did not result in his immediate conviction [source: Plucknett].


By the 19th century, the Westminster parliamentary system had evolved to the point where impeachment was a largely redundant process. If a high official, say a prime minister, for instance, was so terrible that nobody could stand him anymore, his party colleagues in Parliament could simply vote no-confidence and effectively remove him from power without resorting to a lengthy trial [source: Plucknett].

But in Philadelphia in 1787, as the framers of the U.S. Constitution scribbled away at the new nation's founding document, they decided they should probably stick in a few words about how to get rid of egregiously bad federal officials, presidents in particular. That old medieval invention seemed as good as any. As Ben Franklin famously pointed out at the time, without recourse to impeachment, the only alternative way of dropping a bad president was assassination [source: Stewart]. This, it went without saying, was a method to be strenuously avoided.

So, Franklin and his colleagues sketched out a few lines about how a president or other federal official who engaged in treason, bribery or something called "high crimes and misdemeanors," was just begging to be removed. In such cases, says the constitution, Congress has the power to dump the chief executive and turn things over to the vice president.

Franklin and the founders wrote the entire process up in just a few sentences. As the constitutional scholar, David O. Stewart has pointed out, the framers had a lot of ground to cover when they wrote the Constitution, so their brevity about impeachment is understandable. Still, it has come back to bedevil every subsequent impeachment trial. And that maddeningly imprecise phrase, "high crimes and misdemeanors" has caused particular angst.