The Federalist Papers is a collection of 85 essays written in 1787 and 1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay to promote the ratification of the new American Constitution. The essays constitute a collective masterwork of polemical advocacy. Though not always prescient (Federalist 84 argues against the establishment of a Bill of Rights) it remains a model of political thought, and a not inconsiderable reference with much that is relevant to today.
Federalist 65 and 66, written by Hamilton, are occupied with the question of impeachment and its methods and dangers. In a significant second paragraph of 65, Hamilton begins:
A well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective.
In other words, impeachment, when undertaken, is every bit as difficult as it is necessary. Difficult why? Here’s why:
The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.
In other words, impeachment concerns itself with the violation of one or more public trusts by public men (politicians). For that reason, it will create angry factions. These factions will divide along party lines with one party hostile to, and another party friendly to, the accused. Hamilton continues:
In many cases [impeachment] will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.
In other words, the outcome of impeachment (which the Constitution, that the writers of the Federalist Papers were promoting, says is to be decided by the Senate) will as often as not be adjudicated more by pre-existing political bias than a just and fair deliberation.
It is an impressive and frank admission by a man who is trying to sell the new Constitution to the American people. The fledgling nation was fortunate to have such men in its midst, men of principal, men whose primary concern was the truth in the service of a great new experiment. America was fortunate because nothing short of the truth would do.
It is a measure of his genius that the hazards Alexander Hamilton cautioned us of 231 years ago are relevant today. The impeachment of Donald Trump, a man who both in secret and out in the open has betrayed the public trust by enlisting a foreign power to subvert the electoral process, moves forward through an ocean of poisonous partisan acrimony. Donald Trump has, in Hamilton’s words in Federalist 66, “prostituted [his] influence in that body as the mercenary instrument of foreign corruption.”
Can we count on the Senate to reach a just verdict? In 66 Hamilton concludes on a hopeful note: “We may thus far count upon their pride, if not upon their virtue.”I would like to thank the attorney and Palmer Report reader Greg Keer for bringing the startling relevance of Federalist 65 and 66 to my attention.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.