Old James Madison was one of those who, in helping to compose the Constitution, had agreed that a president could be impeached, and if convicted, removed from office for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Other men had insisted that the need for reelection would provide sufficient check on a president. But old Madison would have none of it.
The democratic discipline of election would not suffice, for between elections a wicked president “might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers.”
This, then, was Madison’s legacy, which Scrump had inherited. But to repeat: Madison was dead. And his successor never bothered his head about such stuff. “Bah!” said Scrump, whenever anyone mentioned the Constitution, “Humbug!”
Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Impeachment Eve — old Scrump sat busy in his White House. It was cold, bleak, biting weather.
“A merry Impeachment, Mr Scrump! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice.
“Humbug!” said Scrump.
But as he entered the bedroom, he was startled by a booming sound, and then he heard the noise of footsteps on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.
“It’s humbug still!” said Scrump.
His color changed though, when Madison’s ghost came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes.
“You will be haunted,” said the ghost, “by Three Spirits. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.”
The hour bell sounded with a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy One. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside, and Scrump found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them.
“Who, and what are you?” Scrump demanded.
“I am the Ghost of Impeachment Past. Rise! And walk with me!”
The Ghost led Scrump to a large, white, domed structure, and asked him if he knew it.
“Know it?” said Scrump. “I’ve always wondered what it was and why it was so much huger than the White House.”
They went in. At the sight of a plump gentleman, Scrump cried in great excitement: “Why, it’s old Bubba Clinton! Bless his heart!”
Old Bubba laid down his cigar, and looked up at the clock. He rubbed his hands and called out in a comfortable, jovial voice:
“Yo ho, my boys!” said Bubba. “It’s Impeachment Eve! But it don’t signify.”
“They impeached old Bubba,” whispered Scrump to the Ghost. “They said he lied under oath and obstructed justice about his lady friends. But they acquitted him. Just as they acquitted old Andrew Johnson before him.”
“Does Impeachment remind you of Christmas?” asked the Ghost, with a spectral wink.
“Why yes,” replied Scrump. “Children believe in Santa Claus just as they believe in the impeachment clause. But grown-ups know better.”
Back in his bedroom, Scrooge was startled to hear a voice in the adjoining chamber. “Come in!” exclaimed the Ghost of Impeachment Present. “Come in! and know me better, man!”
Without another word, the second Spirit whisked Scrump across a vast sea, arriving finally in a darkened city that Scrump almost recognized. They approached a black-painted door, unadorned save for the number 10.
On the threshold of the door the Spirit smiled, and stopped to bless Boris Snatchit’s dwelling. Looking through the frosted window, Scrump perceived that Snatchit — whom he considered his most devoted ally — was giving a party.
“Mr. Scrump!” he heard said Boris exclaim; “I give you Mr. Scrump, the Funder of our Fellowship!”
“The Funder of our Fellowship indeed!” cried Mrs Merkel, reddening. “I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.”
“It should be Impeachment Day, I am sure,” she went on, “on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr. Scrump.”
“God bless us every one!” cried Tiny Volodymyr.
The third ghost was shrouded in a deep black garment, which left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.
“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Impeachment Yet To Come?” said Scrump.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand — toward a churchyard.
The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. Scrump crept towards it, trembling as he went; and read upon the stone of the neglected grave not his own name — as he had feared — but the words: “The Constitution.”
The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.
“No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”
The finger still was there.
“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “Hear me! I am not the man I was.”
“I will honor Impeachment in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrump, laughing and crying in the same breath. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Impeachment to everybody! Hello here! Whoop! Hello!”
“A merry Impeachment, Boris!” said Scrump, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped poor Mr. Snatchit on the back. “A merrier Impeachment, Boris, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll lower your tariffs, and endeavor to assist your economy!”
Scrump was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Volodymyr he was a second father.
That, anyway, is how Dickens ends A Christmas Carol: with the redemption of the miscreant. But Marley remains dead. And in this version of the story I fear that the same may prove to be true not just of Madison, but of the Constitution, too.
Madison’s criteria for impeachment and removal had their ambiguities, but it is hard to deny they have been met in the case of Mr Scrump.
Nevertheless Madison is dead — as dead as a door nail. And if Mr. Trump rides all this out and secures reelection on next November, then the same will be true of that crucial section of the Constitution that Madison helped devise.
In which case, my Christmas message this year must be a variation on Tiny Tim’s: God help us every one!
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.