Putting it bluntly, America’s Founders were terrified of a wanna-be dictator. As Eli Merritt, visiting scholar at Vanderbilt University, concludes in a Feb. 9 column for The New York Times, the Founders would decisively impeach, convict, and bar former President Trump from ever holding office again.
All 55 delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention were “incisive political scientists steeped in history,” as Merritt describes them, who understood that demagogues are the “singular poison” that kills republics and democracies.
Alexander Hamilton warned in Federalist No. 1 against these poisonous types by describing them as ambitious, unscrupulous orators who “have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people,” and then rise to power on “angry and malignant passions, the bitterness of their invectives,” as well as their “avarice, personal animosity, and party opposition.” To read Hamilton’s words now is to marvel at how accurately he has described our former president.
George Mason, a Virginian known in history for his belief in the rule of reason, the Enlightenment, and the natural rights of man, was a strong advocate of the Constitution’s impeachment powers for two crucial reasons. One was the “fallibility” of electors, or voters – meaning that people might be seduced by and elect a demagogue – and the other that whoever is elected might turn out to be “corrupt,” and therefore needed to be removed.
James Madison, our fourth president and “Father of the Constitution,” was concerned about placing too much power in the hands of one man. In his view, chances of a president being incompetent or corrupt was “more within the compass of probable events” than not, and Madison not only endorsed impeachment and conviction, but famously stated, “Shall any man be above justice?”
All of the Founders at the Constitutional Convention were like-minded when it came to the importance of virtuous leadership. They extolled ethical leadership as the “glue that holds a constitutional republic together.” Alexander Hamilton wanted checks and balances so “men of little character” or those “who love power” were kept from office. Benjamin Franklin highlighted the need for “wise and good men.” He urged protections in the Constitution that would prevent the “bold and the violent. The men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits” from ascending to the presidency. George Mason focused on ways that government could check and counteract the “aspiring views of dangerous and ambitious men.”
In no uncertain terms, the founding fathers were of one mind in believing that a constitutional republic must, as Merritt phrases it, “through carefully designed systems and the power of impeachment, conviction and disqualification,” keep out of office those who are “corrupt and unworthy, designing, and/or demagogues.”
Merritt asks what “has happened to us today, to our ethics, our standards of presidential decorum and leadership, to our fidelity to the Constitution and belief in justice, to our political courage and historical understanding of the dangers of demagogues to democracies,” for there to be even a chance that the Senate will acquit Mr. Trump?
I can understand why the congressional Republicans feel the pressure to appease those who believe the Big Lie because they want to save their own skins, but I don’t understand how the ones who say Trump speaks for them or those who rally around him as if he were the annointed, can ignore the reality of Trump’s campaign to subvert our government.
Clearly, there are ethical Republicans. But are there enough of them in the U.S. Senate?
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.