Would the Founders Have Convicted Donald Trump? A Rip Van Winkle Counterfactual by Eli Merritt

It’s been a while since I pointed out the appearance of a “Rip van Winkle Counterfactual” in the mass media, but the Vanderbilt professor, Eli Merritt, provided me the opportunity to do so with his new op-ed in the New York Times, “Would the Founders Convict Trump and Bar Him From Office?” 

As he puts it: 

“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. Acting with vigor and dispatch, they would cast two near unanimous votes: first, to convict the president of an impeachable offense, and second, to disqualify him from holding future federal office. 

They would vote in this way, unmoved by partisan passions or the defense’s claim that the Senate lacks jurisdiction, because they believed as a matter of civic principle that ethical leadership is the glue that holds a constitutional republic together. It was a principle they lived by and one they infused into every aspect of the Constitution they debated that summer in Philadelphia nearly 234 years ago.” 

Merritt goes on to cite chapter and verse from 18th century political treatises to bolster his case.  But the most significant takeaway from his counterfactual – at least for this blog post -- is the way it reminds us that thought experiments that involve comparisons between the past and present can help us understand the significance of contemporary events. 

By imagining people from the past waking up in our present and applying their own standards of judgment to evaluate what they see, we reveal the extent to which we respect or neglect their views. 

So will we respect the Founders' views or not?   

The impeachment trial of Donald Trump continues….