Impeachment. No matter what your personal politics, this gravely serious process and decision can be a challenging topic to explain and teach to young people.
On this page we have gathered some of the best resources available for understanding impeachment and how it proceeds, as well as a summary of historical precedents. We have also included extensive resources offering sage advice from experienced teachers and professors across the country for addressing this critical topic in your classroom and even at home around the dinner table.
The Constitution and the Impeachment Process
What Does the Constitution Say?
Grounds for impeachment are defined in the U.S. Constitution.
Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states, “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
This means that if any federal official (not just the president, but also other officials such as the vice president, cabinet members, senators, representatives, and judges) commits a crime or acts improperly, that official can be formally charged (impeached) by the House of Representatives. Once impeached, the Senate holds a trial. If the Senate convicts the official, he or she is removed from office.
What Is the Process?
The following diagram provides a basic overview of how an impeachment process unfolds.
Impeachment begins in the House of Representatives with an investigation. If Congress believes impeachable offenses have been committed, then they define articles of impeachment (such as Abuse of Power) and then vote whether or not to pass the articles. If a president is faced with multiple articles of impeachment, only one needs to be passed to be impeached. Only a simple majority is required to pass articles of impeachment.
If a president has been impeached, then the process moves to the Senate where a trial is held. The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presides over the trial. At the conclusion, the Senate votes whether to find the president guilty or not guilty. A two-thirds vote is required to convict. A president who is found guilty is removed from office.
To better understand the impeachment process and to review historical precedents, watch this seven-minute video: “How Does the Impeachment Process Work?” by Sarah Kerr, Natalie Reneau, and Aaron Byrd on The New York Times website.
Presidential impeachment has been rare in the United States. The House of Representatives has impeached only three presidents. The Senate has not voted to remove any of them from office.
- President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868. Johnson was then tried and acquitted by the Senate.
- Three Articles of impeachment were drawn up against President Richard Nixon by the House of Representatives in 1974, but he resigned before he could be impeached.
- President William Clinton was impeached in 1998 on charges of Perjury and Obstruction of Justice. The Senate held a trial and found Clinton not guilty.
- President Donald Trump is the only president to have been impeached twice. He was charged by the House of Representatives with Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Congress and then impeached on December 18, 2019. Trump was then acquitted of both articles by the Senate on February 5, 2020. One year later Trump was charged by the House of Representatives with High Crimes and Misdemeanors and impeached on January 13, 2021. The trial began February 9, 2021, and the Senate voted to acquit Trump on February 13 with a vote of 57-43 to convict, less than the two-thirds required.
When you’re teaching civics and government, it’s so easy for them to see the Constitution as this stale document behind four inches of glass in a marble building in Washington. But it’s something that requires all of us to make happen. It’s still living and breathing.
[In the impeachment inquiry] we see the Constitution being brought to life. And what happens next is dependent on the moves that not just those in power make, but ultimately that the citizens who have the power in a democratic society make, by holding and voting in democratic elections.
— Tyler Murphy, Teacher of U.S. Government and History (EdWeek.org)
We invite you to scroll through this annotated bibliography of resources for digging deeper on this topic.
“How to talk to your kids about impeachment” by Gretchen Frazee on the PBS News Hour website.
Even children as young as five years old are aware of political news and campaigns. Check out this article and cheat-sheet for talking to your kids and students about impeachment and other often sensitive political topics of the day.
“Teaching Impeachment in Politically Risky Times” by Stephen Sawchuk on the Education Week website.
Interviews with teachers across the country regarding why choosing to teach impeachment and other politically divisive topics is an opportunity for modeling good civil discourse.
“Impeachment Inquiry Becomes A Lesson Plan For High School Government Teachers” by Jeremy Hobson on the WBUR.org website.
An NPR interview with a high school history teacher explores how to share facts with students and enable them to make up their own minds.
“Teaching Impeachment: 7 Ideas From Our Readers” by Natalie Proulx on The New York Times website.
Teachers from around the country suggest how, and why, to help students make sense of this historic moment. The seven key ideas include:
- Understand the impeachment process.
- Weigh the evidence by reading primary and secondary sources.
- Stay up-to-date with weekly or daily check-ins.
- Look back at the history of impeachment.
- Practice media literacy.
- Connect impeachment to your curriculum.
- Remember why teaching this matters — even if it seems risky.
“Students should learn about impeachment in school – here’s how to make it work” by Paula McAvoy on TheConversation.com.
A veteran teacher provides three suggestions for teachers regarding how to bring politics into the classroom:
- Emphasize history.
- Study original sources.
- Address polarization.
“The Educator’s Playbook: A lesson plan for an impeachment inquiry” by Sigal Ben-Porath at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Professor Ben-Porath urges educators to address impeachment with students using the following strategies:
- Don’t fear the controversy, lean into it.
- Dig into the facts.
- Get people talking
- Make the time.
- Consider other views, as long as they are grounded in facts.
- Take it beyond the classroom.
“How the Framers Understood Impeachment—And How Party Politics Altered Their Intent” by Professor Jeremy Bailey, interviewed by Ellen Tucker on TeachingAmericanHistory.org.
Political Science Professor Jeremy D. Baily explains impeachment from a constitutional and historical perspective.
“What Is the Impeachment Process? A Step-by-Step Guide” by Wiyi Cai on The New York Times website.
A graphical guide demonstrates how an impeachment unfolds from investigation in the House of Representatives to the trial and vote in the Senate.
“Impeachment” on the website of the U.S. Senate.
This page lists the origins and development of impeachment, as well as links to articles about impeachment trials held in the Senate for not only presidents, but also cabinet members and judges.
©2021 by Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance