(Revise of original post dated 6/19/2017)
“An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
–House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (April 1970)
In the summer of 1787, as the framers debated the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin worried about how to get ride of corrupt or incompetent officials. Without some method of removal, the only recourse was assassination.
The other delegates agreed. And after considerable debate, they added the power of impeachment to the list of checks and balances of the legislature on the other two branches.
To date, the Senate has conducted formal impeachment proceedings 19 times, resulting in seven acquittals, eight convictions, three dismissals, and one resignation with no further action.
Gerald Ford knew how high that bar was set. In 1970, he failed in his attempt to impeach Douglas. The FDR-appointed liberal justice had already survived an earlier impeachment attempt over his brief stay of execution for convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg. This time, the supposed offense was financial impropriety, but Ford and others also clearly balked at Douglas’s liberal views. The majority of the House disagreed, and Douglas stayed on the bench.
So far, only two American presidents have been impeached and tried in the Senate: Andrew Johnson—Lincoln’s successor—and Bill Clinton. Both were acquitted. Richard Nixon would certainly have been impeached had he not resigned his office in August 1974.
Of the other impeachment cases since 1789, one was of a senator—William Blount of Tennessee, case dismissed in 1799—and one a cabinet officer, Secretary of War William Belknap, who was acquitted in 1876. Most of the other impeachment cases have involved federal judges, eight of whom have been convicted.
Read a brief history of impeachment in this article from Smithsonian, “The History of American Impeachment.”
Read more about the Constitutional power of impeachment in these articles from the National Constitution Center.