“If the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were sitting today as jurors in the Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, one thing seems certain based on the historical record.”
That’s the opening of a New York Times op-ed by the scholar Eli Merritt, and I think when he says “one thing seems certain,” Dr. Merritt is being way too modest. He’s certain that the delegates of 1787, for all their differences, would be unanimous in voting to convict Trump. Yet based on the historical record, as he puts it, a few other things seem certain too.
It's certain, for example, that at first the founders would look around the room and think, “What the hell, I thought I was dead.” And then some would think, “Hey, there’s my old pal Gouverneur Morris. Time to par-tay!”
It’s also certain that Alexander Hamilton would have his head in his hands, muttering “Please, not this bunch of idiots again” just loud enough for everyone else to hear. Close study of the past allows to us know such things.
Once we inform our 18th-century forebears that they've been brought back to life in 2021, and are taking the place of the U.S. Senate during an impeachment trial, some of them are certain to express annoyance. “I didn’t do enough for this country? Now I have to come back and serve in the Senate? Just to give an op-ed a premise?”
But Chief Justice Roberts is already banging his gavel (he’s also wondering if somebody slipped something in his coffee). He's here, unlike in the real-life second impeachment, because the conceit of this piece, and the op-ed it's making fun of, is that the entire current Senate has been replaced by the 55 delegates from 1787. The Constitution says that whenever that happens, the Chief Justice presides.
One of the framers is recognized and rises. “I think we can all agree on one thing,” he states for the record. “At least there are no women involved in this process!” Then they all yell “huzzah!” and get down to the business at hand.
The business is to arrive at a verdict in the second impeachment of former president Donald J. Trump, and because some of the evidence against him takes the form of video, shot on smartphones, the founders are certain to feel some astonishment at our modern technology. But it’s not just the moving pictures. This is February—it’s not even cold in the room, and Benjamin Franklin is wondering where the stoves are hidden. They also notice there’s no constant stench. Especially notable, when watching scenes of the Capitol insurrection, is how strangely people dress, compared with 1787. It’s probably not worth pointing out to the founders that the people at the Capitol are dressed pretty strangely in today's terms, too.
Of course when they see the video of Trump himself—telling his followers to march against the legislative branch, urging them to stop the constitutionally mandated certification of the presidential election—the men of the eighteenth century start freaking out. Seeing him in action makes them think they have no standing here. Not because there’s no constitutional provision for impeaching a former president, as Trump’s lawyers claim, but because there’s just no way in hell this man ever could have been president in the first place.
When they're assured that he really was, a stunned silence falls over the group.
“But we built in such awesome checks!” George Mason cries. “Checks against designing men of low character! What have these future Americans done to our beautifully designed systems?”
“I know exactly what they did.” Hamilton is livid. “They repealed the Electoral College, because of course they did. Yes, I know we never called it that, Mr. Gerry, but please stick to the point: I always warned against a poisonous American tendency toward democracy. The truth unquestionably is that the only path to a subversion of the republican system is an assclown traitor like this winning a popular election, with no Electoral College to overcome it.”
When it's explained to them that Trump actually lost the popular vote in 2016, and that he became president only because of the Electoral College, there's an even longer silence, broken by a few sniffles.
“Well, boys,” James Madison says at last, “we blew it, plain and simple.” He starts packing up his books. “Sooner than live with this kind of shame, I’ll go back to being dead.”
And on that proposition, all 55 founders really are in unanimous agreement.