"Now, for the first time in the history of the world, has a nation brought its Chief Magistrate to grief, by high legal process, for administering the powers and duties of his high office in a manner somewhat disagreeable to the feelings of those who expressly desired him to do otherwise. In other times and lands it has been found that despotism of this kind could never be brought to trial in the courts, save upon rejoinder of the defendant to recover costs and damages for frivolous prosecution, and, in the absence of assassination, constitutional nations were obliged to endure rulers who had been pronounced mad or imbecile by many whom those rulers had blindly neglected to appoint to high and remunerative office. Only recently, one of the most civilized countries in the world, and the one which we imitate and abuse the most, was obliged to submit for years to the rule of a king currently believed to be insane by every great man whom he bad ever failed to make a prime-minister; and all this because nobody could hit upon any particular reason for his removal.
" Our fathers were wiser in founding our government, and provided, constitutionally, that a President ' shall' be removed, on conviction of ' treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.' The provision is exact and comprehensive in every particular, save one. It covers the whole ground of Impeachment, save the specification of just what a disagreeable man can be impeached for. This was wisely done, because human foresight must have been inadequate, and the most ingenious human intelligence must have failed in the task of anticipating anything like the fine point to which modern intellect has brought the art of impeaching.
"It may not be unamusing to remember, that the framers of our Constitution had their minds improved, and their pride of human calculation humbled, while at their noble work, by an exemplary case. In the previous year, only, Thaddeus Burke, from his place in the House of Commons of England, had impeached Thaddeus Hastings for the misdemeanor of governing India in such a manner as to absolutely render soldiers and politicians unnecessary there. The mails were continually bringing the gorgeous and burning speeches of the impeachers across the Atlantic; and the great stress laid in these upon the above facts, and upon the additional unheard-of enormity of Hastings not having made a fortune by his government, so worked upon the intellects of our fathers, that they at once gave up all earthly hope of anticipating what a man might be impeached for next, and left the document open for modern improvements.
"Now, therefore, we have the question; what are modern impeachable offences? To quote from the learned judiciary labors of my able friend, the Honorable Thaddeus Lawrence, of Ohio, we define an impeachable high crime and misdemeanor to be an act committed or omitted in violation of the Constitution, or in obedience thereto; and this may exist without violation of any positive law or essential principle of government, yet be esteemed otherwise by those who, from any motive or purpose, desire to impeach.
"The first criticism which will strike the mind on a thoughtful examination of this definition is, that some of the despotic outrages enumerated in it are not within the common-sense definition of Crimes. You will find, however, upon turning to certain notes on the commentaries of Thaddeus Blackstone, that 'when the words "high crimes and misdemeanors" are used in Impeachment, such words have no real meaning whatever, but are used merely to give unspeakable solemnity to the charge.' It being settled, therefore, that Impeachment may ensue from an act either committed or omitted, and that the terms of the accusation have really no earthly meaning, we next proceed to consider whether there actually exists any tribunal to try the case.
"The important question is, 'Does this Senate now sit as a Court, a Jury, or a Coroner's Inquest?' The Constitution seems to have determined it to be the latter, because, under its provision, a man must be politically deceased before he can get any justice from it. You cannot be a Court, because there is no sign of law about any of your proceedings. You cannot be a Jury, because you cannot be challenged, and have made up your minds before hearing a word of the case. You consult no laws except the laws of health, and hold an Inquest by those rules only which refer to Parliamentary ' bodies.' You are a law unto yourselves and to no one else.
" In the first eight Articles of our charge the respondent is accused of removing Secretary Stanton, and appointing Mr. Thomas Secretary ad interim, when the latter was really of an opposite political party from ours; which brings before the American Senate and people this plain issue: Has the President, under the Constitution, the more than kingly prerogative to remove executive officers of his own appointment, and replace them by others who are not of our appointment ? If the respondent can prove the affirmative, why then the great question arises, whether the Presidential office itself (if it has any rights whatever) ought, in fact, to exist as a part of the Constitutional government of a free people ? If not, the respondent has no business to be President at all; and whoever votes ' not guilty' on our Articles, votes to subject our free institutions for four years to the presidency of any man who, being elected President, may choose to officiate as such.
"Article ninth charges that Major-General Thaddeus Emory being in command of the Military Department of Washington, respondent did feloniously express to him the belief that the Act of March 2, 1867, which provides that all orders from the President shall first be composed and afterward issued by General Thaddeus Grant, was inconsistent with any presidential existence at all, with intent thereby to induce Emory to feel some respect for him, and not treat Thaddeus Stanton better than himself. If this transaction stood alone, we might well admit that doubts might arise as to whether the respondent could be executed therefor; but when we find him subsequently offering a brevet to Lieutenant-General Sherman, is it not plain that he wanted to ingratiate himself with the army, so that at least one General would recognize him in the street ? Is it not a high misdemeanor for the President to accomplish an act, which, in the opinion of Congress, if followed by another and different act, might lead to something more than has occurred ?
"Article ten alleges that, intending to produce a question of the undoubted superiority of Congress in the odorous personalities of eloquence, he, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, did make public speeches which, upon being compared with innumerable similar speeches by Congress from time immemorial, are calculated to produce the impression that Congress has at least a competitor in the art of political vituperation, and to destroy that confidence in the superior vulgarity of Congressional oratory which is one of the elements of our national complacency. Competition of this kind with the legislature has generally preceded a seizure by a despot of the legislative power of the country; and if we, through having set the example, cannot accuse the respondent of crime in attempting the first, we can at least assume for his destruction that he really must have intended the latter.
" The House of Representatives has done its duty. We have presented the absence of facts in a constitutional manner, and demand judgment at your hands, in preference to expecting it from your heads. I speak, therefore, not the language of exaggeration, but the words of truth and soberness, when I say, that the future political welfare of quite a number of persons, not accustomed to doing any thing for a living, hangs trembling on the decision of the hour." *
At the conclusion of this able argument, all of which I heard through my piece of Smoked Glass, quite a number of the audience who were not asleep fled stealthily from the house with a strange kind of terror in their faces.
" Why is this ? " ejaculated I.
"They fly," says the Mackerel Chaplain, solemnly, "because they know not at what hour they, too, may be impeached. It is a serious time we live in, and who can tell when he, she, or it, may be impeached ? "
Put your house in order, my boy; for if you have either committed or omitted any act whatsoever, you are guilty of a very high crime and misdemeanor.
Orpheus C. Kerr.
* See Appendix for the original of this great Argument, 1.