The second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump began on February 9 with arguments over constitutionality. Trump’s defenders contended, among other points, that the US Constitution does not provide for the impeachment trial of anyone who has already left the office of President behind. The House managers (in effect, the prosecutors) replied with a name: “Warren Hastings,” and with a lesson on constitutional history.
Warren Hastings was the Governor General of Bengal (the northeastern portion of what later became British India) from 1772 to 1785. He then resigned from his post and returned to England where many, including Edmund Burke, believed that he had been guilty of embezzlement and extortion in his official capacity.
The House of Commons impeached him, and he was tried in the House of Lords. The trial was a celebrated one: the parties were arguing over whether Britain’s overseas conquests were simply conquests, and the new subjects subjugated, or whether the overseas conquests were to be treated as part of a community of law such that violations of their rights, by their British overlords, were to be punished. Proceedings continued for ten years, before the Lords finally acquitted Hastings in 1795.
These lengthy impeachment proceedings then were underway even as the US founding fathers were gathering in Philadelphia. They were discussed in detail in the newspapers arriving from the Mother Country by every ship at that time. Hastings was the paradigm of an impeachment defendant when the Founders wrote the US constitution’s own clauses about impeachment.
The Thing to Know:
Hastings was not even impeached, much less tried in the House of Lords, until after he had left his old office — indeed, until after he had left the whole continent of Asia — behind. In 2021, the Trump prosecutors reminded their colleagues of this point. The US Senate voted in favor of the constitutionality of its own proceedings, and continued to hear the factual case against Trump (which ended, again like Hastings’ trial, with acquittal.)