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What Hamilton Had to Say about Impeachment


Robert Martin
Robert Martin

The Federalist Papers, written primarily by Alexander Hamilton, have been the subject of much discussion during the current impeachment proceedings. In an interview with a Syracuse television station, Professor of Government Robert Martin talked about the papers, specifically Essay 65, in which Hamilton wrote about the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of impeachment.  

“It was one of the last ones,” said Martin. “He’s wrapping up the discussion of the Senate and he feels like he has to talk about why we empower the Senate to handle this impeachment issue. Who could serve the public interest and would be seen broadly legitimate by the American people so that they would accept these choices.”

The Federalist Papers were written to help to establish a new government, Martin explained. The focus had been on individual states [governing], and the thought that there was a need for a stronger federal government. The Constitution needed ratification. Hamilton and, to a much lesser extent, James Madison and John Jay, wrote the essays. Hamilton wrote the majority – op-eds to support ratification, especially in New York where people were leaning against the Constitution. The essays were an effort to explain the logic of the Constitution.

Democrats and Republicans have been arguing about Essay 65, and Martin said Hamilton would probably be able to see both sides.  Hamilton wrote Essay 65 to explain why the Senate should be empowered to convict. “You’ve got to put power somewhere,” he said. “The Senate was seen as legitimate in serving the public interest.” Martin noted that, “The Senate in this particular instance might be a place for partisanship, and he [Hamilton] and others in the era were very concerned about partisanship.”

Martin said Hamilton wasn't specific in defining which crimes warrant impeachment. “This was a country that was focused on the public good and concerned about the corruption of a leader. State constitutions limited governors in very powerful ways. They limited the abuse of power by the chief executive. There was not an attempt to specify beyond the fact that high crimes referred to abuses of power broadly. In Hamilton’s language, he expressed it as a violation of the public trust.”

Hamilton, according to Martin, “wanted a more powerful, energetic executive, but he made a powerful argument about breach of public trust and was very concerned about partisanship.  Essay 70 argued for one powerful executive of the government. The benefit would be that that leader’s responsibility would be clear and he would be accountable to the public, House and Senate. Hamilton’s concern over partisanship was more than most of his colleagues. Hamilton was concerned about what was good for the country.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. Professor of Government Philip Klinkner and John Vecchione ’86, attorney, will continue the conversation about impeachment in a Common Ground presentation in the Chapel.

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