While its current spate of usage seems to have emanated from what was said during a phone call, its usage is nothing new: some people have, for various perceived reasons, been using the term over the past several years, while some even began using it previous to the actual inauguration. Especially in these divisive political times, it should come as no surprise that today’s word is constantly hurled as a threat to the opposition, though it’s worth noting that formal proceedings have only been initiated 62 times since 1789 in the United States federal government, resulting in 19 actual impeachments, which itself only resulted in 8 convictions (all of which were federal judges). Moreover, while only 2 U.S. Presidents (Johnson and Clinton) have been impeached, neither were convicted. So what does impeachment actually mean and how does the process work?
First, let’s look at the word itself. Being the action of impeaching, the root of our word is the verb impeach, which comes from the Old French empeechier, meaning ‘to hinder, stop, or impede’, and originated as the Late Latin impedicare, meaning ‘to catch or entangle’. With the noun structural suffix -ment, the meaning of our word essentially becomes ‘the act of hindering of impeding’.
Though we’re ultimately talking about trying to stop something (or someone), the manner in which the term has been utilized has changed over time. The first known use of our term is simply that of an accusation or charge, and can be found in a 1387 translation by John Trevisa of the Polychronicon, a chronicle originally written in Latin by English monk Ranulf Higden, where Trevisa translates: “If she pass unhurt barefoot..upon nine burning cultures or shares, let her escape of his impeachment [L. ab impetitione ista].” Aside from a general charge, the first use in a legal framework can be found in the Latin legal concept absque impetitione vasti, meaning ‘without impeachment of waste’ (or without any right to prevent waste), first seen in a will from 1415 which stated: “I will that..my wife [have] it to term of her life without impeachment of waste.” in The Fifty Earliest English Wills in the Court of Probate (1882) by Frederick James Furnivall.
Soon after its introduction as a legal/moral/ethical way of stopping, it began to be accepted and applied in a more generalized sense. For example, it’s use as a general hinderance can be found in The Paston Letters, A.D. 1422-1509, edited by James Gairdner and originally published in 1904, where, in 1432, it is written: “Any thing that might give impeachment or let therto.” The idea of impeachment as being something to damage, discredit, or impair emerged little more than a century later, in Edmund Gest’s 1548 work, A Treatise Againste the Preuee Masse, where he speaks of: “The..insufferable impeachment both of Christ’s honour and our soul’s salvation.”
Of course, all this being said, we know where and how we’re most familiar with the term: as the accusation and prosecution of a person in government for high crimes or misdemeanours. In this sense, the first use can be traced back to the writings of British lawyer and politician John Rushworth, where, in Historical Collections: The Third Part 1640-4 (1692), he recalls that: “The Lords sat upon the Impeachment against the Judges and Bishop Wren.”
However, even this application does little to wade through the murky understanding of the term as it relates to what is currently being called for. So, since this is an issue in American government, let’s view it in American governmental terms.
To begin with, impeachment is far from a conviction, it has more in common with an indictment in criminal law; moreover, even if there is a conviction, all it does is remove the person in question from office (along with often prohibiting them from obtaining office again), but it does not exempt them from further criminal or civil prosecution if deemed necessary. The process itself is divided: either the House or the Senate (typically the Judiciary Committee) may investigate issues deemed to be problematic; the resulting investigation is then presented to the House of Representatives, which must pass the articles of impeachment; finally, the person in question is tried by the Senate, where the impeachment requires a two-thirds vote.
As for why there have only been 8 convictions in 62 attempts, there’s a good reason for such a low rate. First, the burden of proof is left up to the discretion of individual Senators and Representatives, leaving wiggle room for personal and political bias. Second, the U.S. Constitution clearly states that impeachment is for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” but it never gives a modern, legal, in-depth explanation of what is considered a “high crime and misdemeanour,” so this left up to interpretation. Third, and possibly worst of all, the majority of proceedings have, historically, had little to do with actual criminal conduct: substantially less than half of all House impeachment articles have involved criminal conduct or actual criminal statutes, with some even using drunkenness, rude speech, conduct previous to assuming public office, biased-decision making, etc. as the reasoning for proceedings. So, in this current case as well as many historical cases, impeachment can either be a safeguard against abuse of power by those who believe they are above the law or it can be the worst form of wasteful, biased, petty, political theatre, it just depends on what side of the aisle you’re on.