The Powers of the Senate Continued
From the New York Packet.
Friday, March 7, 1788.

Author: Alexander Hamilton

To the People of the State of New York:

THE remaining powers which the plan of the convention allots to the Senate, in a distinct capacity, are comprised in their participation with the executive in the appointment to offices, and in their judicial character as a court for the trial of impeachments. As in the business of appointments the executive will be the principal agent, the provisions relating to it will most properly be discussed in the examination of that department. We will, therefore, conclude this head with a view of the judicial character of the Senate.

A well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective. The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.

The delicacy and magnitude of a trust which so deeply concerns the political reputation and existence of every man engaged in the administration of public affairs, speak for themselves. The difficulty of placing it rightly, in a government resting entirely on the basis of periodical elections, will as readily be perceived, when it is considered that the most conspicuous characters in it will, from that circumstance, be too often the leaders or the tools of the most cunning or the most numerous faction, and on this account, can hardly be expected to possess the requisite neutrality towards those whose conduct may be the subject of scrutiny.

The convention, it appears, thought the Senate the most fit depositary of this important trust. Those who can best discern the intrinsic difficulty of the thing, will be least hasty in condemning that opinion, and will be most inclined to allow due weight to the arguments which may be supposed to have produced it.

What, it may be asked, is the true spirit of the institution itself? Is it not designed as a method of NATIONAL INQUEST into the conduct of public men? If this be the design of it, who can so properly be the inquisitors for the nation as the representatives of the nation themselves? It is not disputed that the power of originating the inquiry, or, in other words, of preferring the impeachment, ought to be lodged in the hands of one branch of the legislative body. Will not the reasons which indicate the propriety of this arrangement strongly plead for an admission of the other branch of that body to a share of the inquiry? The model from which the idea of this institution has been borrowed, pointed out that course to the convention. In Great Britain it is the province of the House of Commons to prefer the impeachment, and of the House of Lords to decide upon it. Several of the State constitutions have followed the example. As well the latter, as the former, seem to have regarded the practice of impeachments as a bridle in the hands of the legislative body upon the executive servants of the government. Is not this the true light in which it ought to be regarded?

Where else than in the Senate could have been found a tribunal sufficiently dignified, or sufficiently independent? What other body would be likely to feel CONFIDENCE ENOUGH IN ITS OWN SITUATION, to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality between an INDIVIDUAL accused, and the REPRESENTATIVES OF THE PEOPLE, HIS ACCUSERS?

Could the Supreme Court have been relied upon as answering this description? It is much to be doubted, whether the members of that tribunal would at all times be endowed with so eminent a portion of fortitude, as would be called for in the execution of so difficult a task; and it is still more to be doubted, whether they would possess the degree of credit and authority, which might, on certain occasions, be indispensable towards reconciling the people to a decision that should happen to clash with an accusation brought by their immediate representatives. A deficiency in the first, would be fatal to the accused; in the last, dangerous to the public tranquillity. The hazard in both these respects, could only be avoided, if at all, by rendering that tribunal more numerous than would consist with a reasonable attention to economy. The necessity of a numerous court for the trial of impeachments, is equally dictated by the nature of the proceeding. This can never be tied down by such strict rules, either in the delineation of the offense by the prosecutors, or in the construction of it by the judges, as in common cases serve to limit the discretion of courts in favor of personal security. There will be no jury to stand between the judges who are to pronounce the sentence of the law, and the party who is to receive or suffer it. The awful discretion which a court of impeachments must necessarily have, to doom to honor or to infamy the most confidential and the most distinguished characters of the community, forbids the commitment of the trust to a small number of persons.

These considerations seem alone sufficient to authorize a conclusion, that the Supreme Court would have been an improper substitute for the Senate, as a court of impeachments. There remains a further consideration, which will not a little strengthen this conclusion. It is this: The punishment which may be the consequence of conviction upon impeachment, is not to terminate the chastisement of the offender. After having been sentenced to a perpetual ostracism from the esteem and confidence, and honors and emoluments of his country, he will still be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law. Would it be proper that the persons who had disposed of his fame, and his most valuable rights as a citizen in one trial, should, in another trial, for the same offense, be also the disposers of his life and his fortune? Would there not be the greatest reason to apprehend, that error, in the first sentence, would be the parent of error in the second sentence? That the strong bias of one decision would be apt to overrule the influence of any new lights which might be brought to vary the complexion of another decision? Those who know anything of human nature, will not hesitate to answer these questions in the affirmative; and will be at no loss to perceive, that by making the same persons judges in both cases, those who might happen to be the objects of prosecution would, in a great measure, be deprived of the double security intended them by a double trial. The loss of life and estate would often be virtually included in a sentence which, in its terms, imported nothing more than dismission from a present, and disqualification for a future, office. It may be said, that the intervention of a jury, in the second instance, would obviate the danger. But juries are frequently influenced by the opinions of judges. They are sometimes induced to find special verdicts, which refer the main question to the decision of the court. Who would be willing to stake his life and his estate upon the verdict of a jury acting under the auspices of judges who had predetermined his guilt?

Would it have been an improvement of the plan, to have united the Supreme Court with the Senate, in the formation of the court of impeachments? This union would certainly have been attended with several advantages; but would they not have been overbalanced by the signal disadvantage, already stated, arising from the agency of the same judges in the double prosecution to which the offender would be liable? To a certain extent, the benefits of that union will be obtained from making the chief justice of the Supreme Court the president of the court of impeachments, as is proposed to be done in the plan of the convention; while the inconveniences of an entire incorporation of the former into the latter will be substantially avoided. This was perhaps the prudent mean. I forbear to remark upon the additional pretext for clamor against the judiciary, which so considerable an augmentation of its authority would have afforded.

Would it have been desirable to have composed the court for the trial of impeachments, of persons wholly distinct from the other departments of the government? There are weighty arguments, as well against, as in favor of, such a plan. To some minds it will not appear a trivial objection, that it could tend to increase the complexity of the political machine, and to add a new spring to the government, the utility of which would at best be questionable. But an objection which will not be thought by any unworthy of attention, is this: a court formed upon such a plan, would either be attended with a heavy expense, or might in practice be subject to a variety of casualties and inconveniences. It must either consist of permanent officers, stationary at the seat of government, and of course entitled to fixed and regular stipends, or of certain officers of the State governments to be called upon whenever an impeachment was actually depending. It will not be easy to imagine any third mode materially different, which could rationally be proposed. As the court, for reasons already given, ought to be numerous, the first scheme will be reprobated by every man who can compare the extent of the public wants with the means of supplying them. The second will be espoused with caution by those who will seriously consider the difficulty of collecting men dispersed over the whole Union; the injury to the innocent, from the procrastinated determination of the charges which might be brought against them; the advantage to the guilty, from the opportunities which delay would afford to intrigue and corruption; and in some cases the detriment to the State, from the prolonged inaction of men whose firm and faithful execution of their duty might have exposed them to the persecution of an intemperate or designing majority in the House of Representatives. Though this latter supposition may seem harsh, and might not be likely often to be verified, yet it ought not to be forgotten that the demon of faction will, at certain seasons, extend his sceptre over all numerous bodies of men.

But though one or the other of the substitutes which have been examined, or some other that might be devised, should be thought preferable to the plan in this respect, reported by the convention, it will not follow that the Constitution ought for this reason to be rejected. If mankind were to resolve to agree in no institution of government, until every part of it had been adjusted to the most exact standard of perfection, society would soon become a general scene of anarchy, and the world a desert. Where is the standard of perfection to be found? Who will undertake to unite the discordant opinions of a whole community, in the same judgment of it; and to prevail upon one conceited projector to renounce his INFALLIBLE criterion for the FALLIBLE criterion of his more CONCEITED NEIGHBOR? To answer the purpose of the adversaries of the Constitution, they ought to prove, not merely that particular provisions in it are not the best which might have been imagined, but that the plan upon the whole is bad and pernicious.


Howdy from Texas.

“Where is the standard of perfection to be found?”

Alexander Hamilton pragmatically points to the fact in his Federalist Paper No. 65, that no man, no country, no government, no Constitution is perfect.

“Who will undertake to unite the discordant opinions of a whole community, in the same judgment of it; and to prevail upon one conceited projector to renounce his INFALLIBLE criterion for the FALLIBLE criterion of his more CONCEITED NEIGHBOR?”

Is this premise not the kindling that lights the fire of faction and prejudice in not only our government but the people of our country?

Yes, James Madison wrote, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire.” However, faction may be overzealously utilized to the point of destruction.

Alexander Hamilton states,

“Yet it ought not to be forgotten that the demon of faction will, at certain seasons, extend his sceptre over all numerous bodies of men.”

Where are we in our country today? To determine that our country be perfect is to beset upon her an unattainable projector and thus a disillusionment. Are not our dogged factions a determination from one conceited party to derail the other conceited party? This conceit becomes a prejudice. Prejudice is the vice of evil. Evil seeks to destroy all good.

And America is good. America may not be perfect but she is good. America may not be without blemish but she is exceptional.

All parties should lay their swords upon the battlefield of propriety and pray for wisdom to unite. A unity based on the foundations of principles lain in our Constitution, principles that give free reign to faction but yield for reflection upon the broader purpose – A Republic that imbues her people with integrity, freedom to speak and seek, rise and fall, succeed and fail at one’s own determination. A call of the wild protected by civilized citation.

Diversity is to freedom what unity is to foundation.

Perfection renders failure. Virtue renders victory.

God Bless,

Janine Turner

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Federalist No. 65 defends the role of the Senate as the court of trial for impeachments.  It is fascinating that this intuitively judicial function would be delegated to the legislative branch – another example of the intricate checks and balances built into the Constitution, perfectly calibrated to preserve our liberty!

In the impeachment process, there are “checks” even within this check, as the U.S. House “has the sole power of impeachment,” (Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the United States Constitution).  In other words, the branch of the legislature closest to the people, the U.S. House, has the power to decide if there is sufficient cause to bring charges of impeachment.  Our founders believed the people should decide (through their U.S. Representatives), if there is sufficient cause for trial to determine if “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” (Article II, Section 4) have possibly taken place.

The power to convict rests with the Senate, however, as the founders believed the great responsibility of impeachment should be shared between the legislative bodies.  The Senate was deemed the wiser, mature, and more stable body, capable of such consequential decisions.

“Where else than in the Senate could have been found a tribunal sufficiently dignified, or sufficiently independent? What other body would be likely to feel CONFIDENCE ENOUGH IN ITS OWN SITUATION, to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality between an INDIVIDUAL accused, and the REPRESENTATIVES OF THE PEOPLE, HIS ACCUSERS?”

If the founders had made the impeachment process too easy, it could fall victim to the political whims of the day; too hard, and the people would not be able to remove those who violate the public trust. Much like the amendment process which seems to have found the perfect balance between “that extreme facility, which would render the Constitution too mutable; and that extreme difficulty, which might perpetuate its discovered faults,” (Federalist No. 43), the impeachment process  is designed with the perfect equilibrium between too facile, and too complex.  As Troy Kickler notes, of the seventeen Americans impeached since 1789, only seven have been convicted.

As we journey slowly through the Constitution, with the Federalist Papers as our guiding light, it is awe inspiring to uncover layer after layer of checks, balances, and built in safeguards for our liberty.  And to think this beautiful, delicate governmental structure that so ably protects our freedom was designed and agreed upon in a little over three months, in a hot room in Philadelphia!  George Washington called it “a little short of a miracle.” With over 200 years of hindsight, and in-depth study, it becomes more and more apparent that a true miracle occurred.

Good night and God Bless!

Cathy Gillespie

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Guest Essayist: Troy Kickler, Ph.D., Founding Director of the North Carolina History Project

Alexander Hamilton penned three essays (Federalist 64 – 66) explaining why the U.S. Constitution invested the U.S. Senate with certain powers.  In The Federalist 65, he explains, in particular, the Senate’s role in the impeachment process, and why that body–and not the Supreme Court–had been given the authority to convict.

According to the Constitution, the House of Representatives impeaches a national, public official and the Senate hears the trial and issues a verdict. Since 1789, when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, seventeen Americans have been impeached.   The list includes President Andrew Johnson and President William Clinton; however, it includes mainly judges at the U.S. District level.  Among those accused of political misconduct, one resigned before his trial, seven have been convicted, and eight have been acquitted.  Congress can only remove the convicted from their current political office.  The court system will hear any other trials and issue punishment for possible criminal acts.

For the impeachment process, the Constitution requires 1) that Senators “be on Oath or Affirmation,” 2) that the Chief Justice preside over any presidential impeachments (the Vice-President presided over all others), and 3) that a conviction verdict have a minimum of 2/3 vote.

Since 1776, individual state constitutions had included an impeachment process for state officials, and Antifederalists in various states questioned whether state constitutions might be undermined.  Among them was Luther Martin, who ironically later opposed Jeffersonian-Republicans by serving as Justice Samuel Chase’s legal defense during an 1805, national impeachment case.  Other Antifederalists genuinely worried that outside political influence during the impeachment process might affect the Senators’ votes.  In North Carolina, Joseph Taylor and Timothy Bloodworth worried that the House might one day impeach state officials.  Edenton’s James Iredell, one of the first justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, dismissed this argument by pointing out that the constitutional language was clear: only national officials could be impeached by the House of Representatives and possibly convicted by the Senate.

Alexander Hamilton was fully aware of such arguments and put forth a cogent defense of the Senate’s impeachment power in Federalist 65.

One major question that Hamilton answered is why the Senate is given the power to try impeachment cases.  Somewhat agreeing with Antifederalists, Hamilton admitted that partisanship or “political factions” could trump demonstrations of guilt and truth during impeachment trials.  It was possible that reelection concerns and constituents would indeed play a larger role in the impeachment voting process than a genuine search for truth. But that’s why, Hamilton pointed out, the Senate–not the House of Representatives–was given the power.

Before the 17th Amendment’s passage in 1913, state legislatures elected national senators for their state, so Senators were not concerned with winning the popular vote.  Senators were considered in Hamilton’s era, as legal scholar Michael J. Gerhardt writes, “better educated, more virtuous, and more high-minded . . . and thus uniquely able to decide responsibly the most difficult of political questions.”  Elected by state legislative bodies, Senators were considered by Hamilton to be impartial and “sufficiently dignified” to perform the task. And to emphasize the seriousness of the impeachment and ensure a genuine search for truth, these virtuous men were required to take an oath or affirmation (affirmations were allowed so that Quakers, who were conscientiously scrupulous of taking oaths, might not be excluded).

Hamilton considered the Senate preferable to the Supreme Court, too.  For one, impeachment was serious business: a conviction could doom an official’s honor.  Such a decision, Hamilton reasoned, should not be left to a “small number of persons” but to serious deliberation among the most virtuous Americans.  Moreover, the Court should not preside over two cases.  After being stripped of emoluments, the convicted might face the same—yet now predisposed–judges in another trial.  Judges inevitably influenced juries, the New York lawyer also stressed.  Some Constitution critics had suggested uniting the Supreme Court and the Senate during impeachment trials; Hamilton argued that might still lead to an unfair, double prosecution.

The Senate is also preferable to charging people “wholly distinct from the other departments of government” to preside over impeachment trials, Hamilton writes.  That option would increase government size and possibly require permanent positions; either way it would be too costly.  It also would slow down the impeachment process and thereby give the guilty extra time to obfuscate the truth.  Furthermore, Hamilton regretted to point out, a delay might give House members time to influence the decision.

Revealing the popularity and strength of Antifederalist arguments in certain states, Hamilton urged readers to consider the Constitution in its entirety and to avoid letting perfection be the enemy of the good.  The Constitution should not be rejected strictly for a small number of problems, Hamilton argued: [Antifederalists] “ought to prove, not merely that particular provisions in it are not the best which might have been imagined, but that the plan upon the whole is bad and pernicious.”  The search for perfection in government, Hamilton warned in Federalist 65, can lead to anarchy.

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Troy Kickler, Ph.D., is Founding Director of the North Carolina History Project.