HM - November 2019 - Empower


Why Teach History?

by Nicole Etcheson

Ball State University

We are in a constitutional crisis.

Last Thursday, the Democratic-led House of Representatives endorsed an impeachment inquiry into President Donald J. Trump. Legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein calls impeachment “a remedy of last resort,” not a component of the republic’s normal functioning.

As history teachers, it is our job to give students a context for the current crisis. Students need to understand why impeachment is part of our system of government. Members of the constitutional convention, having recently rebelled against their king, feared the power of monarchy. Monarchs are above the law, but the Constitution specified that presidents are not. The legislative branch plays a crucial role as part of a system of checks and balances, ensuring that the president is accountable to the people. At the same time, however, the drafters of the Constitution provided little guidance on what constitutes the “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” that are impeachable offenses.

Students will need the historical context of the Founding and of the four impeachment crises. Although each case has unique aspects—the firing of a Cabinet member, the cover-up of a “third-rate burglary,” the tawdry details of a sexual harassment case, and the use of foreign powers for domestic political purposes—students can still be asked to think about comparisons and contrasts. How are the impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton alike or different? Why did Richard M. Nixon resign when Johnson and Clinton chose to face trial in the Senate? What are the similarities and differences between the proceedings against all four presidents?

When cynical students dismiss impeachment as “just political,” the proper response might be, of course. The Constitution, which creates our political system, is by definition political. Impeachment is the political process by which the legislative branch removes a president it regards as acting against the nation’s interests.

A more fruitful discussion might explore why, when forty-four men have served in the nation’s highest office, only four have been impeached or faced serious threat of impeachment. The republic existed for over three quarters of a century before the first impeachment crisis. Another century passed before the second. But impeachment crises are now coming at roughly twenty-year intervals. Does the accelerating rate merely result from the circumstances of those administrations? Or does it reveal something important about the nature of our politics and the evolution of our constitutional system?

A government in constitutional crisis is not a government that can fulfill its promise to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Time and resources that could be devoted to the normal functions of government are necessarily diverted to the impeachment process. This provides an opportunity for students to discuss the relative merits of these impeachments. They should ponder the question, which Congress will have to face, of whether the magnitude of presidential misbehavior necessitates impeachment and removal from office.

After the constitutional convention, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government the convention had given the people. “A republic, madam,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.” Franklin’s caveat, “if you can keep it,” not only speaks to the rarity of republics in a world then dominated by monarchies, but also reminds us that self-government imposes responsibilities on the people. Note that when Franklin spoke of the woman’s obligation to keep the republic, women were not mentioned in the Constitution and had only one political right, that of petition. Students, most of whom will have far more expanded political rights than an eighteenth-century woman, have an even greater obligation to keep the republic. Their right of self-government asks them not just to grant politicians the right to rule at occasional elections, but to be informed, to let their elected officials know their opinions, and to hold elected officials responsible at those elections. Perhaps they will one day be office-holders themselves.

History teachers in our republic have special responsibilities. By instructing students in the constitutional framework of the republic and in the history of impeachment, teachers can give them a context within which to understand the current crisis. Teachers, too, have a role in keeping the republic.