“… it may, perhaps, on some occasion, be found necessary to impeach the President himself…” — JAMES MADISON

On Sunday, September 17, I appeared on the National Mall in Washington as part of Camp Democracy’s day-long session on impeachment.

Camp Democracy organizer David Swanson’s timing was, as always, impeccable.

Though it is too little noted by the current guardians of the American experiment — and the media guardians of the American discourse — September 17 is Constitution Day. It was on September 17, 1787, that 39 of the founders signed the U.S. Constitution and took the first formal step on America’s journey as a nation of laws rather than men.,

It is possible, and indeed appropriate, to debate the intentions of the founders on a host of issues.

But there can be no debate about their determination that the document guarantee the most necessary of all democratic protections: the power of impeachment.

George Mason, who along with James Madison was a definitional figure in the drafting of the Constitution, put it best when he said of the document’s contents: “No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued.”

Madison’s notes from the summer in which the Constitution was drafted, as well as his letters to Jefferson regarding the product of that summer, leave no doubt that the founders intended for impeachment to be utilized whenever necessary in defense of the Republic. They did not want the power to impach treated as a fetish or a fantasy, nor did they intend for its application to be seen as a Constitutional crisis. Rather, they wanted impeachment to be recognized for what it is: the cure for the crisis of executive excess.

It was Madison’s view that impeachment was an “indispensable” provision for defending the American experiment — and the American people — “against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.” The promise of another election, at which a wrongdoing executive might be removed, was not enough to provide such protection, Madison had warned in his address to the Constitutional Convention that made provision for impeachment. “The imitation of the period of {the president’s] service, was not a sufficient security,” explained the man who would, himself, serve two full terms as the new nation’s fourth president. “{The president} might lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers… In the case of the Executive Magistracy which was to be administered by a single man, loss of capacity or corruption was more within the compass of probable events, and either of them might be fatal to the Republic.”

Gouverneur Morris, the “gentleman revolutionary” whose pen Madison credited with providing “the finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution,” was even blunter than his compatriot. Speaking of “the necessity of impeachments,” Morris asserted that only the broad power to remove the president — not merely for corruption and incapacity but for the far more fluidly-defined act of “treachery” — would provide the essential insurance across time that: “This Magistrate is not the King… The people are the King.”

Two hundred and nineteen years after that first September 17, Swanson and the Camp Democracy organizers brought together many of the best thinkers in the nation to discuss the question of how best to maintain the mandate of the Constitution. Former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega, former Kennedy administration aide Marcus Raskin, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern were present, along with former U.S. Representative Elizabeth Holtzman, the co-author of The Case for Impeachment, and Constitutional scholar David Lindorff, the co-author of The Impeachment of George W. Bush. Activists such as Michael Avery, the president of the National Lawyers Guild; Dan DeWalt, the Vermont selectman who began the grassroots movement to pass local impeachment resolution and veteran political operative Steve Cobble showed up to talk strategy.

There was little debate about whether George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their compatriots have committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” — the deliberately broad term for executive wrongdoing that the founders intended to address both legal and political concerns. There was a good deal of frustration with the failure of Democratic leaders to accept the responsibility of the opposition party to hold out-of-control leaders to account. But there was, as well, a dawning recognition that the discussion about impeachment will be had — if not as quickly or as well as should be in Washington, then surely in the great expanses of these United States.

Polls and practices suggest that the citizenry well understands the necessity of holding this administration to account — not to punish Bush or Cheney but to restore the system of checks and balances that has been so warped in this era of executive whim and lawlessness. And 219 years into this American experiment, as we honor the Constitution that is its foundation, the message from Camp Democracy is clear: It is time to remind the politicians and the pundits that: “This Magistrate is not the King… The people are the King.”

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* For more on Camp Democracy, visit the website at: http://www.campdemocracy.org/

* John Nichols’ new book, The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism (The New Press), will be published in October. Of it, Studs Terkel says: “Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: “Bugger off!” So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so.”