Chapter 8

Considerations on the Power of Impeachment


The power of impeachment, is the most salutary principle of a free government. Where there is a full scope for this, there is no danger of convulsions: and there is a prospect that the constitution may be preserved. Injustice may be done: no doubt of that, and injustice, a thousand times, has been done. But it is the fortune de guerre; the fate of war; in other words, a tacit condition of the acceptance of an office. It is a maxim of law, qui sentit commodum sentire debet et onus. A good book might be written on the history of impeachments. It would be instructive; and might be entertaining.

I would like to see the sentiment I have broached, fully developed; and the history of impeached characters so far traced, as to see whether some conduct in a public capacity, or in the ways and means of getting at public office, or appointment, had not laid the foundation of the ultimate prosecution. The presumption is, that the shoe must have pinched somewhere, to have produced that uneasiness which has been felt; and which has terminated in a public accusation. And in some particular perhaps, in which the individual may have deserved commendation rather than blame; but upon which it has been thought the more practicable to succeed, taking into view the prejudices of the times. Such an investigation of causes and effects, might save the character of democratic governments from such blame. I admit it would not perfectly justify the impeaching for one cause, while another was more in the minds of the public; but it would account for it, and excuse it. One is less shocked at the imprisonment and fine of Miltiades, when we recollect his demand of an olive crown after the battle of Marathon. It was answered to him, "when you shall conquer alone, it will be time enough to ask to have honours paid you alone." It may easily be seen, from his coveting this distinction, that his ambition was not sufficiently regulated; and it may be inferred, that the like spirit exhibited in other instances, may have given just offence to a people jealous of equality.

I have known a man in office, whose sordid mind in money matters, appeared to me to render him undeserving of an office; and though this could not render him liable to an impeachment; yet, if he was impeached for something bordering on what was impeachable, there would be a predisposition to be reconciled to his being found guilty. For no man deserves an office in a republic, that is mean in money matters, and is justly chargeable with a sordid economy.

Inordinate self-love in the accumulation of office, in a single family, is at all times obnoxious to popular dislike, and the most upright discharge of a public function, will not atone for the engrossing money in one's own person, or that of connections.

One consideration ought to go a great way in reconciling the public mind, in a popular government, to the bearing these things when they occur, that nature is constantly acting to remove the grievance by death, and in this way to bring about rotation in office. Combinations will be broken by the quiet operation of this general law; pluralities will disappear; and the poor devil that is disgracing himself by a nearness that is contemptible, cannot always live to enjoy, if he ever may be said to enjoy the savings of his penury. In the mean time, it is a satisfaction, that if the general contempt is not felt by him, it is felt by every one else.

Where a man is liberal in his private dealings, and contributes to objects of utility, according to his means, he is thought deserving of office, and his generosity and public spirit, like charity, will cover a multitude of sins. It is rare that such a character becomes the subject of popular prosecution. Where indeed his liberality is but the stilt of his ambition; and this is indulged so as to wound the self-love of others; we need not wonder if it draws persecution. The most manly thing that I know in the history of the Roman senate, is the impeaching Manlius Capitolinus. Generosity, and public spirit on his part had showed itself to be but the stilt of ambition. That is, it was not public spirit, but inordinate self-love. He had saved Rome in defending the capitol; but he was not satisfied with the consciousness of this, and the gratitude of his country on all occasions expressed; but he must be the only man of any name in the state. With a view to this, what were his arts? Affecting to be the advocate of all confined for debt; paying debts himself for some, with ostentation; showing his wounds and scars, and perpetually talking of having defended the capital, haranguing against the senate, and charging them with concealing the public treasures; remonstrating with the community on their not knowing their own strength, and doing themselves justice in the government. From these arts, such was his influence with the body of the people, that even the dictator Cornelius Cassus the second after Romulus, who had taken the spolia opima; and who was created dictator for this purpose, amongst others, of checking the sedition, dreaded it more than the war against the Volsci, which he was obliged first to meet. For though returning victorious over the enemy, and armed with the honour of a triumph, yet he considered the contest at home as the more formidable; and though he had ordered him into custody, yet had not thought it advisable to proceed farther against him. It was thought that his abdicating the dictatorate, which he did at this time, was owing to his not choosing to meet the tempest that was breaking out on behalf of this demagogue to liberate him from the prison. The consuls now chosen, and the senate, were in consternation, when at the proposition of two tribunes of the people, Marcus Moenius, and Quintus Publius, the bold measure was adopted of charging him before the people themselves, and bringing him to an impeachment. The result was, that the very people rallying onward to support him, were arrested in a moment at the idea of guilt charged upon him, and themselves made the judges. What was the charge? Why simply that of attempting to destroy the balance of the government, by inflaming the populace, and running down the senate. Yet strange as it may seem, this very populace who were alleged to be the subject of his arts, and the means of his treason, on a fair examination, found him guilty; and in order to stamp his conduct with perpetual disgrace, it was provided, that no one of the family of Manlius, should ever bear the name of Marcus, which was his name. He was thrown from the Tarpeian rock like the vilest of criminals.