Our nation has a history of failing to hold its leaders accountable for their actions, but we must keep trying to live up to the expectations established in the Constitution.
In the summer of 1787, the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia to craft a new government knew that if america ratified the Constitution, George Washington would become the first president. They trusted him to guide with honor and virtue. However they worried about his successors-a subject awkward to go over, with Washington attending every session because the president of the convention.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to acknowledge the elephant within the room. He stated that he was confident the first officeholders would be upstanding, but it was essential \”to provide within the Constitution for the regular punishment from the Executive when his misconduct should deserve it, as well as for his honorable acquittal when he ought to be unjustly accused.\” As the convention's elder statesman-Franklin would be a decade and a half older than the next-oldest delegate, and perhaps more famous than any American apart from Washington-his words carried great weight. After considerable debate, the Framers explained a process for presidential impeachment in the third and fourth articles of the Constitution.
As a result, the Constitution emphasized the importance of presidential accountability from day one. However for many reasons-political calculations, behind-the-scenes dealings, and death-Congress has rarely held presidents accountable through impeachment. To be certain, the threat of impeachment has often weighed on past presidents, but impeachment has never been effectively used to oust a president, not to mention bar one from holding office in the future.
In 1868, the House of Representatives voted to approve articles of impeachment against a president for the first time. Republicans in Congress used President Andrew Johnson's violation of the Tenure of Office Act as the pretext for impeachment, but they were actually furious with him for undermining Reconstruction and the civil rights of newly enfranchised African Americans. Johnson had welcomed former Confederate officers into the government a bit too warmly; vetoed funding for that Freedman's Bureau to provide training, education, and housing assistance to recently emancipated black Southerners; and opposed the Fifteenth Amendment.
A majority of senators voted in favor of impeachment, but they didn't meet the two-thirds majority by one vote. Historians now think that a series of bribes and shady dealings might have secured Johnson's acquittal.
Ultimately, Johnson left office after both the Democratic and Republican parties rejected him as their candidate in the 1868 election. Ulysses S. Grant, Johnson's successor, remained to clean up the mess the previous president had made of Reconstruction. Six years later, Johnson was elected to represent Tennessee within the U.S. Senate. While history remembers him poorly, he faced few consequences for his actions during his lifetime.
When Warren G. Harding died unexpectedly in August 1923, his administration was mired in a number of corruption scandals. In 1922, the Senate had started to investigate Department of Interior leases for Teapot Dome oil fields. After Harding died, the Senate uncovered evidence that Interior Secretary Albert Fall had accepted bribes to acquire distributing the contracts to friends inside a secret deal. Fall was eventually convicted and have become the first cabinet secretary to serve a prison sentence.
Around the same time, scandal engulfed the Veterans' Bureau, which Congress had made in August 1921. Harding had appointed certainly one of his old buddies, Charles Forbes, to run the bureau. Less than a year later, Harding received reports that Forbes was using the position to enrich himself while leaving a large number of veterans without the proper care. Harding confronted Forbes, but then allowed him to remain in office for another nine months and spend several weeks touring the cities of Europe. Forbes finally resigned early in the year of 1923 and Congress opened an investigation into the misuse of federal funds.
When Harding died, he had not yet been implicated in either of these scandals, but his questionable selections for cabinet secretaries reflected poorly on his leadership. The subsequent investigations showed little curiosity about dragging Harding's reputation through the mud after his death. Harding's name continues to be associated with corruption and scandal within the presidency, but the extent of his connection with these scandals remains unknown.
No president more spectacularly avoided accountability than Richard Nixon. In July 1974, the home Judiciary Committee recommended three articles of impeachment against the president. On August 7, several key Republican senators privately visited Nixon at the White House and warned him that after the House of Representatives, which then were built with a Democratic majority, inevitably voted to impeach him, enough Republicans would join the Democratic majority in the Senate to remove him from office. The next day this private meeting, Nixon resigned as president before the House could take the vote. One month after his resignation, President Gerald Ford issued a complete and unconditional pardon for all crimes Nixon \”committed or may have committed or taken part in\” as president.
While Ford going to pardon Nixon to help the nation heal and move past the Watergate scandal, his decision effectively ended all possibility of holding the former president accountable for his actions.
Since Watergate, there have been three presidential impeachments: Bill Clinton's in 1998, Donald Trump's in 2021, and Donald Trump's last month. The first two resulted in acquittals. Only one senator from the opposite party has ever voted in favor of conviction-Mitt Romney in Trump's first impeachment. It remains seen how the Senate will vote on Trump's second impeachment. When the Senate doesn't find Trump's behavior reason for conviction, it's hard to imagine what would count as reason for conviction.
The nation has often didn't live up to the lofty standards articulated by Benjamin Franklin and the other Framers of the Constitution. There is however still time-we can and must fare better.