Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Politicians Are Quoting The Founding Fathers On Impeachment. Some Are Cherry-Picking


When Congressman Adam Schiff began making the Democrats' case for impeachment in the Senate this week, he began with a quote.


ADAM SCHIFF: When a man unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits, despotic in his ordinary demeanor, known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty...

SHAPIRO: The list continues and ends on this.


SCHIFF: It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he might ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.


That is Schiff quoting Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton wrote that in 1792.

SHAPIRO: All throughout this impeachment process, politicians have been reaching for the words of the Founding Fathers, especially Hamilton, to make a point, so we've called up someone who has spent years studying him. Joanne Freeman is a professor of history at Yale.


JOANNE FREEMAN: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: First, when you look at that specific quote, tell us about the context in which Hamilton was writing at that point.

FREEMAN: So 1792 is when partisanship is really starting to rise in the early years of the republic. So what he's really talking about here is a classical demagogue, and the idea of a demagogue destroying republics was something that people at the time - it was like a cliche. People knew it so well. And it's important to remember a republic at this point was experimental, and the founding generation, they looked back in time. They looked at Ancient Greece and Rome, and what they saw was - well, how do republics fall? Oh, well, some demagogue gets in power and seizes control in all of the ways listed in that quote. And republics fall because they're grounded on public opinion.

SHAPIRO: When you heard it used today by Democrats to describe President Trump, what did you think?

FREEMAN: Well, so that quote has been used a lot. I've seen it bouncing all over the place. People are really using it as though Hamilton was this prophetic person who predicted in the future a Trump-like character. If indeed people read that description of a demagogue and think to themselves that sounds like Donald Trump, that's a separate matter altogether.

SHAPIRO: Well, it's not only Democrats who've been using the words of the Founding Fathers. Republicans have, too. Congressman Doug Collins of Georgia, a Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said this.


DOUG COLLINS: Alexander Hamilton called partisan impeachment regulated by more the comparative strength of parties than the real demonstration of innocence or guilt the greatest danger.

SHAPIRO: So we have Democrats saying that Hamilton's writings bolster their case and Republicans saying that the writings of Hamilton bolster their side. What do you make of this?

FREEMAN: Well, many Republicans have been making that point that Hamilton said it was dangerous and partisan and it shouldn't happen. They're pulling from Federalist No. 65, and what Hamilton actually says in there is, look; an impeachment is bound to be partisan. It's going to cause people to take sides for and against whoever is being impeached. That said, we need to be careful how we deploy it. At the Constitutional Convention, we talked about this, and we decided that the Senate made the most sense to be the ultimate jury in deciding impeachments and would be able to be impartial and act as a jury in these kinds of cases.

So Hamilton wasn't saying this is bad, that it should never happen. He was saying, well, we thought it was pretty essential, but we realized it would be partisan, and we did our best to address that.

SHAPIRO: What did the Founders expect and fear vis a vis impeachment in a context like this?

FREEMAN: The United States was this brand-new nation basically with no army, no navy. And so it seemed very possible to many people that one of the ways in which the republic might go down would be if a foreign power somehow or other swept in and tried to seize control. Foreign influence could be the downfall of the republic.

SHAPIRO: So that really was a very significant specific fear that the founders had.

FREEMAN: Absolutely. They talk about it all the time.

SHAPIRO: When you take a step back and look at the way present-day politicians are using quotes from the Founding Fathers to advance their own arguments, what do you make of this?

FREEMAN: Well, if you have a founder on your side in a political argument, that's a particular strength.


FREEMAN: The problem with that is - and this is a longstanding tradition - politicians and public figures generally tend to cherry-pick founders' words, pulling them out of context and using them as they need them to be. And because we're at such a fraught political moment, I suppose we're getting extreme, fraught examples.

SHAPIRO: I hesitate to ask you to choose sides, but do you think that one side is more accurately representing the view of the founders than the other?

FREEMAN: Ooh, you're asking a tough question. I'll stay in Hamilton-land. Hamilton didn't say we should never impeach people because it's partisan.

SHAPIRO: Yale history professor Joanne Freeman, thanks a lot for talking through this with us.

FREEMAN: Thanks for having me.