Friday, January 31, 2014

High Crimes and Misdemeanors: On Display

[Note: The following guest post, by Reference Intern Kate Dickson, describes the library's new display on the history of impeachment.]

The theme for this month's rare books display -- impeachment -- was inspired by journalist Howard Fields' recent donation of his papers to Duke's J. Michael Goodson Law Library. As a correspondent for UPI in the 1970s, Fields covered the Watergate scandal, focusing on the House Judiciary Committee's inquiry into the possible impeachment of President Richard Nixon. His book on the subject, High Crimes and Misdemeanors, is an account of the Committee's investigation, which concluded that Nixon had in fact committed impeachable offenses (though he ultimately resigned before he could be impeached). Fields' book, along with several excerpts from his papers, is currently on display in the rare books room.

Impeachment has a long and interesting history in the United States, and is well represented in the Goodson Law Library's collection. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin pointed out that impeachment would be preferable to assassination, which was its traditional alternative:
What was the practice before this in cases where the chief Magistrate rendered himself obnoxious? Why recourse was had to assassination in wch. he was not only deprived of his life but of the opportunity of vindicating his character. It wd. be the best way therefore to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the Executive when his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal when he should be unjustly accused.

The benefits of impeachment were also discussed at length in The Federalist. Alexander Hamilton argued in issue LXIX (1788) that an impeachable American President was preferable to an unaccountable British monarch, and that:
In this delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility, the president of confederated America would stand upon no better ground than a governor of New York, and upon worse ground than the governors of Virginia and Delaware.

Impeachment was incorporated into Article II, § 4 of the U.S. Constitution and various provisions of the state constitutions, and it has been used many times against officials at all levels of government. The 19th century saw the impeachment and acquittal of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson, as well as the impeachment and removal of North Carolina Governor William Woods Holden, whose alleged crime was using the state militia to enforce Reconstruction civil rights legislation and respond to race-related violence (Holden was posthumously pardoned by the North Carolina Senate in 2011).


In the 20th century, the near-impeachment of Richard Nixon and the impeachment and acquittal of Bill Clinton were just two prominent examples among many. The 21st century has already seen the impeachment of two federal judges and several state-level officials, including most prominently Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Come by the rare books room to see some of the many impeachment-related sources the Law Library has to offer! To see other Duke University Libraries materials on the subject, try a catalog search for "Impeachments -- United States" or Ask a Librarian.

--Kate Dickson, Reference Intern

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