Constitutional historian James Coll tells his listeners at Hutton House how the founders gave Congress impeachment powers.

The topic couldn’t have been more timely as a crowd packed Lorber Hall on the LIU Post campus in mid-December to hear a Hutton House Lecture delivered by James Coll on the issue of impeachment.

Coll, a retired New York City Police Department detective, is an adjunct professor of American and Constitutional History at Nassau Community College and Hofstra University. For a decade he’s been a popular guest lecturer at Hutton House.

Before a very attentive audience, he began his talk with a disclaimer.

“No one in here wants to hear me spout on whether I think the president should be impeached or whether I think the president should not be impeached,” said Coll, with a smile. “And no one in here wants to hear whether you think that, either. We’re going to have a conversation about process. I don’t talk about outcomes.”

He told his listeners he also wouldn’t say whether the impeachments against President Andrew Johnson in 1868 and President Bill Clinton in December 1998—the only two American presidents so far to be impeached—were justified.

What he did do is make good on his promise to fully inform his class on how the U.S. Constitution came to embody the founders’ idea of holding our highest elected officials accountable without undermining the democratic process.

This vital question of not just how to put people in office but how to remove them arose early in June 1787 after the Constitutional Convention had barely begun its meeting in Philadelphia. By that time, five states’ constitutions already had impeachment clauses so these representatives had something to work with. Delaware’s John Dickinson proposed that the president could be removed by a majority of state legislatures voting in favor of it, but that idea was dropped.

Ultimately, the House of Representatives was given the power to impeach with a simple majority vote, and the Senate had the sole ability to convict and remove but only with a super majority—two-thirds of those Senators present. As Coll explained, during an impeachment, the House of Representatives acts like a grand jury, and the Senate performs like a jury in open court.

“The impeachment process is designed to be political,” Coll said, but he added that the founders definitely did not want a simple majority to be able to “undue an election.”

Coll explained that the Constitution specifically defines two impeachable offenses, bribery and treason, but what it means by the mention of “high crimes and misdemeanors” has been open to debate for over two hundred years.

“Ultimately, if it’s a president that the Congress opposes for any reason almost of their choosing, they have the ability to use those Constitutional clauses to their advantage,” Coll said.

For President Johnson, after the House voted to impeach him by a lop-sided vote of 146-30 in February 1868, the Senate conducted its trial in March. Coll noted that even though it was an election year, “they literally couldn’t even wait until November” to get rid of this man. But the votes to convict Johnson on those impeachment charges fell one short of the super majority. For President Clinton, the House tally to impeach him was closer, 221-212, but the Senate didn’t come close to having a super majority on either of the two impeachment charges against him, rejecting the first charge 55-45 (67 votes were the threshold), and the second 50-50. Ultimately, on Jan. 20, 2001, his last day in office, Clinton accepted a five-year suspension of his Arkansas law license and paid a $25,000 fine. No criminal charges were ever filed against him.

Getting to the impeachment issues embroiling the current occupant of the White House, Coll was more circumspect. He cited what the presumed incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York City Democrat, had warned about a process that could tear the country apart if a “good faction” of the American voters on both sides of the political aisle weren’t convinced that it had to be done.

“The model that Nadler is talking about, which I think is the model that the founders envisioned for impeachment,” Coll said, “is that it’s not a partisan endeavor.”

He noted that President Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, once it became clear that he’d lost the support of members of his own Republican Party—a stunning turnabout.

“In 1972, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew get more votes for the presidency and the vice presidency than any candidates running for those offices in the history of our country,” Coll recounted. “Within two years, both offices are occupied by two people who did not get a single vote for either of those offices.”

In conclusion, Coll said that the founders gave the House of Representatives a tremendous amount of power—and it comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility.

“If we’re talking about impeachment, it is literally whatever 218 members of the House say it is,” he explained, but he hoped “it is something that we do not use as a way just to overturn election results. Now we’ll see what happens going forward.”

When Coll finished, he was greeted with an ovation.

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