This week, Harvard University Press released Cass R. Sunstein’s latest book, “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide.” The timing is fortuitous. Although the charges filed by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, did not implicate the president, the subject of impeachment is on peoples’ minds. We asked Mr. Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, to recommend books that might help readers understand the history and process of charging a public official with misconduct.
Despite its importance, impeachment is a challenging and arcane subject — the Finnegans Wake of constitutional law. Fortunately, there are some terrific books on the topic, helping to guide the perplexed.
The most revelatory, I think, is “Impeachment in America, 1635-1805,” by Peter Charles Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull. The Declaration of Independence was ratified in 1776 and the United States Constitution in 1788. Who knew that in the colonies, impeachment had a history 140 years before the American Revolution started?
Hoffer and Hull demonstrate that our nation developed a homegrown, all-American framework for impeaching high-level officials. By the middle of the 18th century, we converged on a republican understanding of impeachment, by which the colonists had the temerity, and the guts, to impeach officials who were following orders from the king. The War for Independence, and American exceptionalism, started right there.
A magisterial, defining volume, answering dozens of tough questions, is “Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems,” by Raoul Berger. Berger’s emphasis is on the origins of impeachment in England, and the continuity between British and American theories and practices. Readers learn that in England, officials could be impeached for all sorts of misconduct, even if they had not committed crimes. The United States Constitution did not quite land in the same place as English practice, but what happened there is indispensable background.
Charles Black was a professor of constitutional law who could blend, more than anyone before or since, astonishing technical mastery with an ability to communicate. His slim volume, “Impeachment: A Handbook,” is a treasure trove. It cuts through confusion like a knife. It is focused less on history than on hypothetical cases, some of which have become, in the decades since Black wrote, all too real.
For students of impeachment, it’s also crucial to read Gordon Wood’s “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” even though the author says nothing about that topic. Wood demonstrates that in the decades that preceded the American Revolution, republicanism, with its commitment to self-government and the equal dignity of human beings, was on the march in the colonies. That commitment changed the world. If you want to understand impeachment, and why it is so fundamental to the American experiment, that’s a good place to start.