Requests for Information related to Thomas Jefferson



>"There is another opinion entertained by some men of such judgment
>information as to lessen my confidence in my own. That is, that the
>Legislature alone is the exclusive expounder of the sense of the
>Constitution in every part of it whatever. And they allege in its
>support that this branch has authority to impeach and punish a member
>either of the others acting contrary to its declaration of the
>sense of the Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to W. H. Torrance,
>ME 14:305
>i read your webpage at
>and found it very interesting... particularly the above quote.  if i
>understand correctly, is t.j. saying that since now, with regard to
>impeachment, the legislature is performing a duty normally undertaken
>the judiciary (accusation and prosecution), suddenly there is a loss of
>balance between the branches?  that is, if the legislature decides that
>the "sense" of the constitution is "this" (for today, that perjury is a
>high crime) and you (public official) have defied that "sense", then the
>legislature has the unique power of being judicial?

Jefferson made this point because he did not believe that the judiciary
SHOULD decide the "sense of the Constitution" for the other branches
of government.  He was always opposed to Judicial Review.  His original
belief was that each branch of government should decide for itself the
meaning of the Constitution.  What he is saying here is, SINCE the
legislature is indeed authorized to impeach a government official based
on THEIR interpretation of what the Constitution means, then maybe --
just "maybe" -- they should be the branch of government that decides
what the Constitution means for every other branch of government.  In
other words, he is not directly defining impeachment; he is assuming a
kind of definition of impeachment to make his point about judicial review.
I was using that assumption which he made as though he were defining
impeachment, since he apparently accepts that assumption as valid.  It
is important to separate the two issues that are being compared:
impeachment and interpretation of the Constitution.  Jefferson never
directly defined impeachment, so we have to try to discover what he
thought of it in this indirect way.

Thus, he is not saying there is a loss of balance between the branches.
He is saying that the legislature interprets the meaning of the
Constitution in order to impeach, and therefore, perhaps it should
interpret the meaning of the Constitution INSTEAD OF the supreme
court doing so in other judicial matters.   Impeachment is only for the
purpose of removing a civil officer from office; therefore, it is not really in
conflict with the functions of the judiciary, and there is not any imbalance
created by the legislature performing this function.

In a sense, therefore, it could follow as you put it.  If the legislature says
that perjury is included under "high crime and misdemeanors," then they
have interpreted the meaning of the Constitution within the bounds of
their proper authority.  Drawing the matter to a theoretical absurdity, we
could say that if the legislature chose to make jay-walking a "high crime
and misdemeanor," they could impeach the president and remove him
from office on that account.  They have the power to interpret the
Constitution for the purposes of impeachment, and that is what they
would be doing if they chose to go outside the bounds of reason.

But keeping things in their proper perspective, we must note that the
point Jefferson was making was NOT that Congress can make any crime
or misdemeanor they wish an impeachable offense.  The main point that
is useful to us is, that a person is impeached for offenses AGAINST THE
CONSTITUTION.  In other words (and as an example), if the
Constitution says the President should do something, and he refuses to
do it, then he has violated his obligations under the Constitution.
Jefferson's point is, in determining what the President is obligated to do
under the Constitution, the Legislature acts for itself in interpeting what
that obligation is.

For us, that helps define what an impeachable offense is in Jefferson's
view: an offense against constitutional duties and obligations as are
imposed on the office which the person being impeached occupies.  This
is what Jefferson is assuming when he makes the statements quoted
above.  Although technically speaking, that same power to interpret the
Constitution for the purposes of impeachment gives the power to
interpret what "high crimes and misdemeanors" itself means, that is not
Jefferson's point.  He is already assuming that it means official
misconduct that undermines constitutional government.  He is only
saying that, given that assumption, the Congress then is empowered to
interpret the Constitution in order to determine whether the misconduct
alleged does indeed undermine constitutional government.

>is this the constitution's achilles heel?  why was it that the power of
>impeachment was given to the legislature (understanding that they
>large numbers, varied politics, and were not appointed by the president
>unlike the justices) rather than having a more balanced process?  why
>not a national referendum?

The purpose of impeachment is to protect the republic and to compel
adherence to the Constitution.  The power to impeach COULD have
been given to the judiciary.  But under a government such as ours, the
people themselves are the ultimate sovereign.  It is their responsibility to
exercise a general oversight of the operation of government.  If the
people do not insist on constitutional government, then it will quickly
disappear.  The judiciary is not elected by the people, nor directly
responsible to them.  Since the houses of Congress are elected by the
people, and are their agents and representatives in the national
government, then it follows that this is the branch of government that
should be in charge of impeachments and of being the ultimate
safeguard of the Constitution, compelling all government officers to
adhere to it.  After all, it is only through the legislature that the
Constitution can be amended -- not by the President, or by the judiciary.
They stand guard over the content of the Constitution, and so they are
the natural ones to protect it.

A national referendum would be very cumbersome.  It would mean
something like a political campaign carried on in the press and
occupying the attention of the whole nation until settled.  That is why we
have representatives: to do the business of the nation on our behalf.
So, it is more practical that they tend to all impeachments.  Remember:
all the other officers of government, including the judiciary, are subject to
impeachment also.

>i've always been totally fascinated with jefferson.  do you have any
>biographies that you think are exceptional (if you too are fascinated by

I have put a very interesting biography of Jefferson on the web.  It is
available at:

Life of Thomas Jefferson, by B. L. Rayner
Rayner's lively and interesting full-length biography, published in 1834,
emphasizes the role of republican principles in Jefferson's life and
thought.  It contains many excerpts from Jefferson's writings as well as
anecdotes taken from the writings of those who knew Jefferson.  It
presents a dramatic and passionate portrayal of Jefferson's life, with
special emphasis on his contributions to the creation of the American
republic.  The book is completely revised and corrected, and is divided
into 39 chapters.

The best known and most authoritative biography is the six-volume set
by Dumas Malone.  A good, readable one-volume biography is the one
by Willard Sterne Randall.


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