To fully grasp what’s at stake in the impeachment of Donald Trump, it’s important to understand that the nation’s Founders conceived of presidential impeachment as a fundamental safeguard against corruption in office. To the Founders and other influential theorists of republican political philosophy, corruption was the great force that had undermined republics throughout history. The Framers were thus preoccupied with stemming corruption—an age-old challenge made all the more urgent by the Founders’ experience under British rule. Talk of corruption and its remedies pervaded the debates at the Constitutional Convention. As political scientist James D. Savage has observed, James Madison’s notes on the convention indicate that 15 delegates used the word “corruption” no fewer than 54 times, and as law professor Zephyr Teachout has noted, corruption figured prominently in the constitutional delegates’ deliberations on almost a quarter of the 115 days that the Constitutional Convention met.
The Founders wanted to ensure that in the United States, unlike in Europe, the nation’s leaders would be dependent on “We the People”—not on those who would give them financial benefits. They also took pains to structure the new American government so that the people’s representatives would make policy decisions based on the national interest, not their own financial interests. As George Mason warned his fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention, “if we do not provide against corruption, our government will soon be at an end.”
The Founders were also deeply worried that foreign powers would interfere with America’s internal affairs, undermining the nation’s republican institutions and making the country’s leaders subservient to foreign interests. Alexander Hamilton wrote that one of the vulnerabilities of republics “is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption.” During the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry warned that “[f]oreign powers will intermeddle in our affairs, and spare no expense to influence them.”
The Framers were especially mindful that the nation’s new chief executive might be subject to such influences because the Constitution’s design sharply departed from the precursor Articles of Confederation in establishing a strong executive branch headed by a single president. The Framers’ experiences under the articles had convinced them that a strong executive was essential—but they also recognized that with great power came the possibility of great abuses: A president could use the far-reaching authority of his office to benefit himself, at the expense of the people the president was supposed to be serving.