It’s easy to lose any perspective on U.S. history when you’re busy trying to live through it. But for those of us who will be around in 20 years or so (depending, of course, on what happens in the interim) it seems likely that there will be no shortage of withering commentary concerning this particular time. The country is being treated to the spectacle of a twice-impeached president charged with weighty crimes on the cusp of escaping justice due to the abject cowardice and contemptible self-dealing of one major political party.
Two notable analyses have appeared in the last few weeks asking a patently obvious question: Would the founders of this country, the authors of its Constitution, towards whom all of our politicians profess such heartfelt fealty and respect, convict Donald Trump for his actions on Jan. 6? Would they bar him from ever holding public office again?
The answer appears to be unequivocal: Not only would he be convicted and banned from office for the rest of his wretched existence as long he remained a U.S. citizen, but the verdict committing him to that fate would be unanimous.
The Trump “defense,” such as it is, relies on parsing the semantics of what is or is not “incitement.” The defense contends that at worst, when Trump delivered his rousing call to action from behind his temporary, hardened Plexiglass-protected rostrum—pausing with significance between each phrase to ensure they had the desired impact upon the mob he himself had summoned before him—that he was merely “speaking his mind.” It was simply impossible, the lawyers insisted, to equate what Trump said with what his followers then did.
That defense sounds specious because it is in fact specious. It ignores the context of the moment itself, the notorious months of preparing the mob for just this event. It ignores the urgency impressed upon that mob, its deliberately chosen participants, and the careful timing as Congress set to work only a few hundred yards from where he spoke. It ignores the gravity of the offense that actually occurred. But most of all, it ignores the fact that this was the president of the United States—someone at the absolute pinnacle of power in the country—delivering the message to his deluded faithful, all with the intention of overturning the election.
Dr. Eli Merritt, visiting scholar at Vanderbilt University writing for The New York Times, explains how this country’s actual creators—Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and such—would have viewed such an event.
If the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were sitting today as jurors in the Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, one thing seems certain based on the historical record. Acting with vigor and dispatch, they would cast two near unanimous votes: first, to convict the president of an impeachable offense, and second, to disqualify him from holding future federal office.
They would vote in this way, unmoved by partisan passions or the defense’s claim that the Senate lacks jurisdiction, because they believed as a matter of civic principle that ethical leadership is the glue that holds a constitutional republic together. It was a principle they lived by and one they infused into every aspect of the Constitution they debated that summer in Philadelphia nearly 234 years ago.
Suffice it to say that the hoary excuses we hear from the Senate floor in defense of this demagogue would have earned derision and contempt from those whose efforts created the very body of legislators now sitting in judgment in Washington, D.C. Merritt cites numerous examples, showing how someone with the moral emptiness of Donald Trump is a textbook example of everything the founders despised and warned against in an American president.
To fully appreciate their views on the subject, it’s necessary first to understand the type of people the founders expected to hold office, including the highest office. They strove for individuals possessing virtue, wisdom, and common decency. As Merritt notes, they stressed these necessary qualities for those in government nearly every day of the debates that later were memorialized in the Federalist Papers.
The founders were not fools, however. They recognized that imperfect people (just white men, in those days) would invariably occupy high positions in government. But there was a special breed they singled out as most dangerous to the nascent republic.
They also left behind unequivocal statements describing the type of public personalities the constitutional republic must exclude from office. Through carefully designed systems and the power of impeachment, conviction and disqualification, those to be kept out of office included “corrupt & unworthy men,” “designing men” and “demagogues,” according to Elbridge Gerry.
Alexander Hamilton fought hard to endow the new government with checks and balances to preclude “men of little character,” those who “love power” and “demagogues.” George Mason devoted himself to devising “the most effectual means of checking and counteracting the aspiring views of dangerous and ambitious men.”
To explicitly prevent the ascendancy and exercise of power of such demagogues, they created the checks and balances that exist in our governmental structure—from the separation of powers to the mechanism for impeachment. As James Madison noted, the threat such men presented could be “fatal to the Republic.”
The corruption we are witnessing on the Republican side of the Senate is the most literal example of Madison’s warning that could be imagined.
Frank Bowman is a Curators’ Distinguished Professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. His article, written last month for the Washington Monthly, dovetails with Dr. Merritt’s analysis of the likelihood of the Framers’ position regarding the behavior of Donald Trump:
[A] singular concern of the Framers, not merely when debating impeachment but throughout the process of designing the constitutional system, was the danger of a demagogue rising to the highest office and overthrowing republican government.
Bowman notes that founders such as Jay, Madison, and Hamilton, among others, specifically drew upon historical precedents from ancient British, Greek, and Roman History when developing, articulating, and justifying the language they ultimately implemented when writing the Constitution. The penalty of impeachment, for example, was derived from a practice utilized by the British Parliament. Impeachment in Britain (by the British Parliament) could not remove the king, but could be utilized against his most favored—and most dangerous—allies to remove them from office, with a full range of penalties upon conviction with a view towards keeping them out of public life.
As Bowman explains—echoing Dr. Merritt—in the founding days of the republic, the potential enemy was not a landed aristocracy; instead, “the particular threat that haunted the founding generation was the demagogue.”
The founders cautioned against demagogues constantly. The word appears 187 times in the National Archives’ database of the founders’ writings. Eighteenth-century American writers often used “demagogue” simply as an epithet to suggest that a political opponent was a person of little civic virtue who used the baser arts of flattery and inflammatory rhetoric to secure popular favor. In 1778, in the midst of the Revolution, George Washington wrote to Edward Rutledge complaining that, “that Spirit of Cabal, & destructive Ambition, which has elevated the Factious Demagogue, in every Republic of Antiquity, is making great Head in the Centre of these States.”
But the idea at the bottom of the insult was the Framers’ conclusion, based on the study of history ancient and modern, that republics were peculiarly vulnerable to demagogues – men who craved power for its own sake, and who gained and kept it by dishonest appeals to popular passions.
Bowman notes that the founders’ concern about demagogues was so great that it was one of the reasons Madison recommended “large populous districts” for individual representatives, since such a large mass would be less likely to be swayed by such people.
There is no doubt that the founders of this country had someone exactly like Donald Trump in mind when they provided a constitutional mechanism for that person’s removal and expulsion from the right to hold office. The spectacle of a corrupted cabal of Republican senators groveling in fear and cowardice, bending over backwards to defend him, is exactly the nightmare they wished to avoid.