Impeachment is the first of several steps required to remove a government official from office. The impeachment process has been used infrequently in the United States—at either the federal or state level—and even less so in Britain, where the legal concept was first created and used. Nonetheless, impeaching a sitting president or government official is hardly new, and has happened several times in U.S. history.
Article 2 of the Constitution
After much debate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the attendees—among them George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin—approved the concept behind the impeachment of government officials.
Adapted from British law, the impeachment process was included in Article 2, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, the document that serves as the foundation of the American system of government.
Some framers of the Constitution were opposed to the impeachment clause, because having the legislative branch sit in judgement over the executive might compromise the separation of powers they sought to establish between the three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial.
However, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who would later serve in the House of Representatives and as Vice President under James Madison, noted, “A good magistrate will not fear [impeachments]. A bad one ought to be kept in fear of them.”
Specifically, Article 2, Section 4 states that the “President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
The impeachment process involving the President of the United States, or any elected official at the federal level, requires both houses of Congress, each serving different functions.
It’s important to note that impeachment doesn’t refer to the removal of an elected official from office, but rather the initial step in removing that official.
The process includes the filing of formal charges, which at the federal level is performed by the U.S. House of Representatives, and the resulting trial, which is conducted by the U.S. Senate.
In the House of Representatives, an individual representative can initiate impeachment by introducing a bill, or the House can begin proceedings by passing a resolution. A simple majority of votes is enough to pass one or more articles of impeachment on to the Senate for trial.
The Senate then acts as courtroom, jury and judge, except in presidential impeachment trials, during which the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court acts as judge.
A two-thirds majority of the Senate is required to convict, and the penalty is usually removal from office, and sometimes disqualification from holding any future offices.
Eight U.S. presidents have faced impeachment, but with very different results.
John Tyler was the first impeached president. On January 10, 1843, Representative John M. Botts of Virginia proposed a resolution that would call for the formation of a committee to investigate charges of misconduct against Tyler for the purposes of possible impeachment.
Botts took issue with Tyler’s handling of the U.S. Treasury and what he described as the president’s “arbitrary, despotic, and corrupt abuse of veto power.” After a short debate, however, the House of Representatives voted down Botts’ resolution.
Andrew Johnson Impeachment
Andrew Johnson wasn’t so lucky. Johnson, who rose from vice president to president following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was impeached in March, 1868, over his decision to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
Congress argued that Stanton’s termination violated the Tenure of Office Act, which had been voted into law the year before and prohibited the president from removing officials confirmed by the Senate without the legislative body’s approval.
On May 26, 1868, the impeachment trial in the Senate ended with Johnson’s opponents failing to get sufficient votes to remove him from office, and he finished the rest of his term.
Richard Nixon Impeachment
All of these former commanders-in-chief had articles of impeachment filed against them in the House of Representatives; however, none of them were actually impeached, meaning those articles of impeachment failed to garner the necessary votes to move them to the Senate for a hearing.
President Richard M. Nixon faced impeachment over his involvement in the Watergate scandal and its fallout. In fact, the House of Representatives approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon, making him the second U.S. president (after Johnson) to face a potential hearing before the Senate.
However, Nixon resigned in 1974 before Congress could begin the proceedings.
Was Bill Clinton Impeached?
Although the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved two articles of impeachment against President Clinton, he was ultimately acquitted by the Senate the next year and finished his second four-year term in office in 2000.
As these cases indicate, impeachment is considered a power to be used only in extreme cases, and as such, it has been used relatively infrequently. In all, the House of Representatives has impeached only 19 federal officials, and the Senate has conducted formal impeachment trials with seven acquittals, eight convictions, three dismissals and one resignation (Nixon’s) with no further action.
It’s also important to note that the power of Congress to impeach is not limited to the president or vice president. Indeed, throughout history, senators and federal judges have also been impeached.
For example, U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous of Louisiana was found guilty of corruption and perjury during impeachment hearings by the Senate in December, 2010, and was subsequently removed from office and barred from holding future office.
Impeachment at the State Level
In addition to federal impeachment, state legislatures are also granted the power to impeach elected officials in 49 of the 50 states, with Oregon being the lone exception.
At the state level, the process of impeachment is essentially the same as at the national level: typically, the lower state legislative chamber (the state assembly) is charged with levying and investigating formal accusations before ultimately voting on articles of impeachment should there be evidence of possible misconduct.
If the lower body approves any article(s) of impeachment, the upper chamber (the state senate) conducts a hearing or trial on the charges, during which both the legislators and the accused may call witnesses and present evidence.
Once the evidence and testimony has been presented, the upper chamber of the state legislature—much like the U.S. Senate at the federal level—must vote on whether the charged official is guilty or innocent.
Usually, a supermajority (two-thirds majority or greater) is required for conviction and removal from office.
And just like at the federal level, impeachment at the state level is extremely rare. For example, the state of Illinois has impeached only two officials in its entire history—a judge in 1832-33 and a governor (Rod Blagojevich) in 2008-09.
Impeachment in Britain
Ironically, given its origins in British law, the process of impeachment has been used even less frequently in the United Kingdom.
Originally, impeachment was developed as a means by which the British Parliament could prosecute and try holders of public office for high treason or other crimes. However, it was created prior to the evolution of political parties in Britain and the establishment of collective and individual ministerial responsibility within the government.
When the process was used in Britain, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries, Parliament and the courts had very limited oversight of government power. Although efforts to remove the power to impeach from Parliament via legislation have failed to pass, the process is considered obsolete in the U.K., and hasn’t been used since 1806.
Impeachment. U.S. House of Representatives.
Impeachment. U.S. Senate.
The Senate Acquits President Clinton. Washington Post.
Separation of Powers—Impeachment. National Conference of State Legislatures.
Impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been removed from office. Chicago Tribune.
Impeachment. Parliament (U.K.).