Publication Date

December 1, 1998

Perspectives Section


Declaring that they "deplore the present drive to impeach" President Bill Clinton, more than 400 historians signed a letter objecting to current impeachment proceedings that they fear will have "the most serious implications for our constitutional order."

Sean Wilentz (Princeton Univ.) organized the drafting and signing of the letter, together with Arthur Schlesinger jr (City Univ. of New York) and C. Vann Woodward (Yale Univ.). The signatories included academic historians from across the country at large universities and small colleges, as well as a few independent historians.

Citing the framers of the Constitution, the authors of the letter maintain that the recent vote of the House of Representatives to initiate an impeachment inquiry could result in "mangling the system of checks and balances that is our chief safeguard against abuses of public power," and add that the current charges "depart from what the Framers saw as grounds for impeachment."

Arguing that the House decision to conduct an open-ended inquiry created a "novel, all-purpose search for any offense by which to remove a President from office," the historians declare that "the theory of impeachment underlying these efforts is unprecedented in our history."

The signers of the letter go on to ask, "Do we want to establish a precedent for the future harassment of presidents and to tie up our government with a protracted national agony of search and accusation? Or do we want to protect the Constitution and get back to the public business?"

The letter tries to strike a nonpartisan tone, concluding, "We urge you, whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent, to oppose the dangerous new theory of impeachment, and to demand the restoration of the normal operations of our federal government."

However, the letter was not met with universal acclaim. David S. Broder of the Washington Post, the dean of Washington political reporters, dismissed the letter and its authors, saying that “This tenured trashing of Congress for meeting its responsibility says more about the state of the history profession than about the law of the land.”

Shortly before this issue went to press, the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution announced witnesses for a November 9 meeting on the background and history of impeachment. Only three historians—Schlesinger, Forrest McDonald (Univ. of Alabama), and Jack Rakove (Stanford Univ.), were listed among the 19 invited witnesses. The rest of the list is comprised of legal scholars and former politicians.

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