The meaning of impeachment

Impeachment is very likely going to be a word we hear often over the next few weeks and perhaps even up until the next US election in November 2020. The New York Times reports today (24 September 2019 in the USA):

WASHINGTON—Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday that the House would begin aformal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, saying that he had betrayed his oath of office and the nation’s security in seeking to enlist a foreign power for his own political gain.

The actions taken to date by the president have seriously violated the Constitution, … he must be held accountable—no one is above the law.

The movement towards the impeachment inquiry seems to be the final straw for the Democrats. Pelosi is taking the action in response to Trump’s alleged actions in pressuring Ukraine to investigate his potential 2020 rival, former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son. There are currently a number of investigations into Trump. They include whether he obstructed justice by interfering in the Russia probes; whether he inflated financial statements; and whether he violated campaign finance rules. Trump has so far avoided impeachment but he seems to have gone too far for the Democrats to ignore this time.

See our previous post about Trump and the meaning of his name.

Meaning of impeach

Impeach has a long pedigree in English. It originated as empeach in the late 14thcentury meaning to impede, hinder, or prevent. It came via Norman French from the Old French word, empeechier, meaning to hinder, stop, impede; capture, trap, or ensnare (the Modern French word is empêcher). Before that it had its origins in the Late Latin word, impedicare, meaning to fetter, catch, entangle. It is made up of im meaning into and pedica meaning a shackle, or fetter (from the root ped meaning foot).

The meaning to accuse a public officer of misconduct was first recorded in the 1560s. The Online Etymological Dictionary suggests it may be a Medieval Latin confusion of the word with impetere meaning to attack or accuse (giving us the modern English word impetus). So the roots of impeach give it a combined meaning of to accuse and to fetter which is close to the intent of the modern word.

What is impeachment

Relying on a separate article by The New York Times, the US Constitution allows Congress to remove presidents during office if they can be found to have committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”.

The term “high crimes and misdemeanours” comes from British common law. It is the offence that Parliament used in removing crown officials. Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, described impeachable crimes as:

… those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.

Only three US presidents have been subjected to impeachment: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 who were impeached but acquitted; and Richard M. Nixon who resigned in 1974 to avoid being impeached.

Impeachment through the Congress is not a defined process. Each impeachment process is voted on and defined before it can go ahead. So, with a Democrat minority in the Senate, Trump’s Republican Party can easily vote down the impeachment.

Up to now some Democrats have argued that to defeat Trump they should focus on trying to beat him in the 2020 election. But others have argued that impeaching him is a moral necessity. If we use the deeper meaning of impeachment, buried in its history, of to accuse and to fetter, it is indeed a necessity.