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FRANKLIN'S DEFINITION OF IMPEACHMENT AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO ASSASSINATION SHOULDN'T BE TAKEN LITERALLY, SAYS UGA HISTORIAN

Abstract

Wednesday, January 13, 1999

WRITER: Kathy R. Pharr, 706/542-5172, pharr@jd.lawsch.uga.edu

CONTACT: Ed Larson, 706/542-2660

FRANKLIN'S DEFINITION OF IMPEACHMENT AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO ASSASSINATION SHOULDN'T BE TAKEN LITERALLY, SAYS UGA HISTORIAN

ATHENS, Ga. - When many pundits cite Benjamin Franklin's statement that 'in a democracy, impeachment is a way to avoid assassination,' they take him too literally, says University of Georgia law and history professor Ed Larson, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for history.

"There sometimes may come a political imperative to get rid of this person," says Larson. "That's how he [Franklin] viewed impeachment: not when there was legal reason - not when he technically committed crimes that were bad enough - but when the policies that were being imposed on America were so bad that it mandated it."

Impeachment served this purpose, Larson says, in the nation's only other presidential impeachment - that of Andrew Johnson in 1868. Congress reined in Johnson, a Southerner who had been blocking Radical Republicans' attempts at Reconstruction, by forcing him to stop interfering in exchange for acquittal.

"Historians tend to look very negatively at Andrew Johnson because the acts that drove the Republicans to impeach him seem to historically have had a devastating effect on America....Johnson's acts in some ways were responsible for reviving the notion of the Lost Cause which ended up leading to 80 years of real trouble in America which played out through the Jim Crow laws, the continued segregation, and the turmoil clear up to the 1950s. And some historians lay that all at the legacy of Andrew Johnson. Well, that might actually rise to the level that if there hadn't been a way to control him, some people would have rationally concluded you just needed to kill him. It turned out that impeachment was a way to control him."

Johnson was acquitted of impeachment by just one vote. Larson predicts history will repeat itself in 1999, although by a much more comfortable margin for President Bill Clinton.

"Clinton hurts himself as much as anything by his show of arrogance towards the process, but no one could have acted more arrogant towards the process than Andrew Johnson," says Larson. "And despite his arrogance toward the process, in the end people couldn't vote for impeachment, because in the end they didn't think he committed 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' And that's a factor here today."

Larson joined UGA's law and history faculties in 1987. He received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for his book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. He may be reached at 706/542-2660.

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