The Chase Impeachment

SECTION 4. The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.


The issue of the scope of impeachable offenses was early joined as a consequence of the Jefferson Administration’s efforts to rid itself of some of the Federalist judges who were propagandizing the country through grand jury charges and other means. The theory of extreme latitude was enunciated by Senator Giles of Virginia during the impeachment trial of Justice Chase. “The power of impeachment was given without limitation to the House of Representatives; and the power of trying impeachments was given equally without limitation to the Senate. . . . A trial and removal of a judge upon impeachment need not imply any criminality or corruption in him . . . [but] nothing more than a declaration of Congress to this effect: You hold dangerous opinions, and if you are suffered to carry them into effect you will work the destruction of the nation. We want your offices, for the purpose of giving them to men who will fill them better.”871 Chase’s counsel responded that to be impeachable, conduct must constitute an indictable offense.872 The issue was left unresolved, Chase’s acquittal owing more to the political divisions in the Senate than to the merits of the arguments.873

871 1 J. Q. Adams, Memoirs 322 (1874). See also 3 Hinds’ Precedents Of The House Of Representatives Of The United States §§ 2356–2362 (1907).

872 3 Hinds’ Precedents at § 2361.

873 The full record is Trial Of Samuel Chase, Anassociate Justice Of The Supreme Court Of The United States (S. Smith & T. Lloyd eds., 1805). For analysis of the trial and acquittal, see Lillich, The Chase Impeachment, 4 Amer. J. Legal Hist. 49 (1960); and William H. Rehnquist, Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments Of Justice Samuel Chase And President Andrew Johnson (1992). The proceedings against Presidents Tyler and Johnson and the investigation of Justice Douglas are also generally viewed as precedents that restrict the use of impeachment as a political weapon.