If you visit our country’s most hallowed military institution at West Point you will find America’s most infamous traitor, Benedict Arnold, is as reviled today as he was in 1780. Arnold had been one of General George Washington’s closest colleagues and was in command of Fort West Point when he plotted with British Major John André to surrender West Point to the British.
André was caught and hanged but Arnold escaped to England where he joined the British Army as a general and then engaged in battles against America. Such treachery is not easily forgiven. When you enter the venerable old Cadet Chapel at West Point you will find there is no mention of Arnold; his name has been removed from where others are displayed with honor.
If even now America has not forgotten what treason truly is you can imagine how the Framers of our Constitution felt when they wrote our Constitution only seven years after Arnold’s betrayal. When Article II, section 4 of the Constitution was drafted treason was the first reason given for impeachment:
“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.”
Article I, section 5 gives the House of Representatives the sole power of impeachment and Article I, section 3, subsection 6 gives the Senate the power to try the charge of impeachment with a conviction, and subsequent removal from office, requiring a two-thirds vote.
We have had forty-five Presidents of which three have been impeached: Andrew Johnson (1865-1869); Richard Nixon (1969-1974); William Clinton (1993-2001); and now perhaps, Donald Trump (2017-?). Andrew Johnson and William Clinton were not convicted. Richard Nixon resigned. And Donald Trump’s situation is yet to be determined.
I do not know the significance of why America went from George Washington (1789-1797) to 1973 with only one presidential impeachment then has had two, and perhaps three, since then. My speculation is the bar for impeachment has been lowered from the behavior of a Benedict Arnold to a standard based on personality. Have we transitioned from treason to Tricky Dicky, Slick Willy, and, perhaps, Dodgy Donnie? If so, the cautionary statements of then Representative Gerald Ford and the Founding Father and main architect of the Constitution James Madison may be worth considering. “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the Members of the House of Representatives says it is” (Ford); and we should be aware “Maladministration” [or its kin] is, “so vague a term [as] will be equivalent to a tenure during pleasure of the Senate.” (Madison).
A short-hand interpretation of these admonitions is that America should not allow itself to become a nation based on the fluctuating opinions of those in Congress but only upon a system of law as sought by those who crafted our Constitution.