Editorial: Echos of North Carolina, past and present, during impeachment hearings

Posted December 5, 2019 5:00 a.m. EST
Updated December 5, 2019 7:43 a.m. EST

CBC Editorial: Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019; Editorial #8488
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

Two hundred thirty-two years ago North Carolina sent delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Wednesday those at that convention -- particularly William Davie and Hugh Williamson along with the state’s foremost constitution advocate James Iredell -- were present again, in thoughts and spirit if not in body, for the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee’s opening hearing considering impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Not only were these North Carolina framers front-and-center, but Professor Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina School of Law, was one of the key witnesses to open the proceedings.

Four expert witnesses – legal scholars Gerhardt; Pamela Karlan of the Stanford Law School; Noah Feldman of Harvard University; and Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School -- assembled to explain the legal history, process and foundations for presidential impeachment.

All four turned to statements made by the North Carolina constitutional founders to bolster the view that presidents were not kings and were not infallible. Just like all other citizens, presidents were subject to the laws of the land and not above them.

A quick bit of history. In 1787 the legislature selected five delegates to attend the convention – William Blount, Richard Caswell, William Davie, Willie Jones, Alexander Martin, Richard Dobbs Spaight and Hugh Williamson. Caswell was ill and did not attend. Jones refused to participate because he opposed the notion of a federal government. James Iredell, while not a delegate, was the state’s foremost advocate for the Constitution. He was one of the first justices George Washington nominated to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. More than two years after it was signed, on Nov. 21, 1789, North Carolina became the 12th of the 13 states to ratify the Constitution.

In his opening remarks, Gerhardt of the UNC Law School said:

“The framers concern about the need to protect against a corrupt president was evident throughout the constitutional convention. … James Iredell from North Carolina, whom President Washington later appointed to the Supreme Court, assured his fellow delegates, the president is ‘of a very different nature from a monarch. He is to be [p]ersonally responsible for any abuse of the great trust placed in him.’”

“(James) Madison, who would become known as the Father of our Constitution, argued for the inclusion of impeachment in our Constitution, because a president might ‘pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression’ or ‘betray his trust to foreign leaders.’ William Davie, a North Carolina delegate, warned that ‘if he be not impeachable whilst in office, he will spare no effort or means whatever to get himself reelected.’ These aren’t the words of people planning to create an unaccountable chief executive, nor of constitutional designers who thought to leave the remedy of abuse of office simply to elections.”

Noah Feldman of Harvard, said:

On June 2, when the convention was talking about the executive, Hugh Williamson of North Carolina proposed that the executive should be ‘removable on impeachment and conviction of mal-practice or neglect of duty.’ The convention agreed and put the words in their working draft. The framers were borrowing the basic idea of impeachment from the constitutional traditions of England. There, for hundreds of years, Parliament had used impeachment to oversee government officials, remove them from office for abuse of power and corruption, and even punish them.”

“After (Charles) Pinckney (of South Carolina) said that the president shouldn’t be impeached, William Richardson Davie of North Carolina immediately disagreed. If the president could not be impeached, Davie said, “he will spare no efforts or means whatever to get himself re-elected.” Impeachment was therefore an “essential security for the good behavior of the Executive.”  Davie was pointing out that impeachment was necessary to address the situation where a president tried to corrupt elections.”

Pamela Karlan of Stanford Law, looked to North Carolina’s Davie too, and said:

“At the Constitutional Convention, William Davie warned that unless the Constitution contained an impeachment provision, a president might “spare no effort or means whatever to get himself re-elected.”

Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School said:

“As declared by William Davie of North Carolina, impeachment was viewed as the “essential security for good behavior of the Executive.”

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