Sean Wilentz: Interviewed about censure

Historians in the News

Q. Is it constitutional to censure a president?

A. It's not in line with the spirit of the Constitution. ... It's not within the article and section [Article II, Section 4] that lays out a procedure for dealing with presidential high crimes and misdemeanors. ... However, the Senate can pass any resolution it chooses to. ... They can pass a resolution on National Peanut Butter Day, and I suppose they could pass a resolution proclaiming their dissatisfaction with the president. ... The fact that the framers didn't put it in the Constitution doesn't mean it can't be done.

Q. Is it just a political ploy?

A.. There was principle involved back in 1834, and there's principle involved now. ... Henry Clay, much like Russell Feingold, had reasons to believe that the president had overstepped his bounds. ... It was an issue of separation of powers. [Clay] actually believed that Jackson had become a kind of Caesar. So it wasn't cynically partisan, any more than what Feingold is doing is cynically partisan. But politics always enters in. ... Censure does become a way of sidestepping impeachment when impeachment is impossible.

Q. How old is this debate?

A. This is a source of repeated conflict in American history about what the boundaries are, not only between the state and the federal governments ... but also between the branches of the federal government. Since 1945 especially, the question of war, and the president's powers in wartime, have been the subject of great debate. ... It really goes back to the birth of the republic.

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