The United States Impeachment Process

Contributor: Stefani Allegretti. Lesson ID: 13197

What is impeachment? Who can be impeached? Why are they impeached? Discover the answers to these questions and more while investigating the impeachment process in the United States.

categories

United States, United States

subject
Government
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

Impeach...what? While many of us have heard the term impeachment, most of us don't really know what it means.

Test how much YOU know with this quick quiz!

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Now, you're ready to explore the what, who, and why of impeachment!

What is impeachment?

The verb impeach means to make a charge of misconduct against someone in public office. The noun impeachment refers to the process of impeaching.

Watch this quick History Illustrated video, Impeach Definition for Kids:

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Who can be impeached?

"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."

- Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution of the United States

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As you can see from the excerpt above, any civil officer can be impeached. That means judges, senators, or even presidents can be impeached.

In all of U.S. history, only two presidents have been impeached. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, and William (Bill) Clinton was impeached in 1998. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 because he was about to be impeached.

Several judges as well as one senator and one cabinet member have also been impeached throughout U.S. history.

Who starts the impeachment process of a civil officer?

  • The answer is the House of Representatives.

The U.S. Constitution gives the House of Representatives the power to begin the impeachment process of a public officer. First, the House prepares articles of impeachment against the public officer. Then, the House votes to approve the articles of impeachment. If approved by a specific majority, the public officer will stand trial before the Senate.

The Senate acts as the court and jury over impeachment trials. The U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote by the Senate to acquit (a vote of "not guilty") or convict (a vote of "guilty") a civil officer during an impeachment trial.

Both former Presidents Johnson and Clinton were acquitted by the Senate, so they were not removed from office. Just because a public officer has articles of impeachment brought against him or her, it does not mean they will necessarily be removed from office. It all depends on the Senate's vote.

Watch What You Need to Know: Impeachment, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

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  • If you would like to know more about the United States Senate's role in impeachment and past trials, consider exploring its Impeachment site.

Why do civil officers get impeached?

As you saw in the Constitution excerpt above, a civil officer can be impeached for:

  • treason
  • bribery
  • other high crimes and misdemeanors

Treason is defined in the Constitution as waging war against the United States or providing aid to its enemies. Bribery, while not defined, is commonly understood as the exchange of money or gifts to influence a public official.

Two of the House of Representatives impeachment proceedings were based on charges of bribery, and none were based on treason. The remaining fell under high crimes and misdemeanors, but what does that even mean exactly?

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, this phrase was understood to mean an official had abused the power of his office and was unfit to serve. Over the years, Congress has interpreted it different ways.

To better understand this charge, let's learn about the first U.S. president to face impeachment. Andrew Johnson, of the Democratic Party, became the 17th president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Johnson was impeached in 1868 but fell one vote short of being convicted.

  • What were President Johnson's high crimes and misdemeanors?

Read Why Was Andrew Johnson Impeached? from the National Park Service or watch Andrew Johnson: The impeached president from CBS Sunday Morning to find out.

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Wow! That was quite a bit of information! Hopefully, you learned a lot about the impeachment process. Let's move on to the Got It? section to test your knowledge now!

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