On the morning of Friday, July 20, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention, in Philadelphia, addressed the question of whether or not a President could be impeached while in office. A king might be beheaded, a Prime Minister toppled. What fate could befall a terrible President? Charles Pinckney, of South Carolina, and Gouverneur Morris, of Pennsylvania, moved to strike out a proposed phrase stipulating that the President could be removed “on impeachment and conviction for malpractice or neglect of duty.” Morris thought that if a President committed crimes, he wouldn’t be reëlected, and that would be that, since no other solution accorded with the separation of powers. “Who,” he wondered, “shall impeach?” The irascible George Mason, of Virginia, found this argument absurd. “Shall any man be above justice?” Mason asked. “Above all, shall that man be above it who can commit the most extensive injustice?” It was as good a question then as it is now.
The delegates had been debating the manner of electing a President, wrangling over the weighty matters of the Electoral College and proportionate representation. It was a hot summer. They were tired and ornery, and a good many of them had grown impatient with compromise. “One objection against electors was the danger of their being corrupted by the candidates, and this furnished a peculiar reason in favor of impeachments whilst in office,” Mason pointed out. If the Electoral College were to stand, Mason thought, impeachment ought not be a matter open to compromise: it was an essential remedy. He wanted to know, “Shall the man who has practised corruption, and by that means procured his appointment in the first instance, be suffered to escape punishment by repeating his guilt?”