But it wasn’t de Tocqueville’s quote.
Several historians on Twitter pointed out that it was taken from an 1888 book called “American Constitutional Law” by John Innes Clark Hare, who was paraphrasing de Tocqueville’s canonical 1835 work “Democracy in America” to make a point about the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.
Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1868 after a clash during the Reconstruction period but was ultimately acquitted by the Senate. Hare expresses what he believes the alternative could have meant for the country:
“It was long since remarked by De Tocqueville that a decline of public morals in the United States would probably be marked by the abuse of power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office; and the conviction of Andrew Johnson might have been the first step in the downward path, if a few steadfast men in the Senate had not held the duty of administering justice above popular clamor and the dictation which the members of a political party find it so difficult to withstand.”American Constitutional Law, Volume 1 by John Innes Clark Hare. Pg. 211.
It is not clear why Ivanka Trump attributed Hare’s quote directly to de Tocqueville. But Hare’s quote did surface far more recently than 1888, in an Wall Street Journal op-ed by lawyers by David B. Rivkin Jr. and Elizabeth Price Foley, titled “This Impeachment Subverts the Constitution,” published Oct. 25.
“John Innes Clark Hare, paraphrasing Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in 1889: ‘A decline of public morals in the United States would probably be marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office.’ What House Democrats are doing is not only unfair to Mr. Trump and a threat to all his successors. It is an attempt to overrule the constitutional process for selecting the president and thus subvert American democracy itself. For the sake of the Constitution, it must be decisively rejected. If Mr. Trump’s policies are unpopular or offensive, the remedy is up to the people, not Congress.”
Hare himself was likely paraphrasing de Tocqueville’s analysis and critique of the differences between the British and French means of removing public officials from power, and the American one.
“When Europeans established political tribunals, their primary purpose was to punish the guilty, whereas the primary purpose of the Americans was to deprive them of power,” de Tocqueville writes in Volume I of “Democracy in America.” “Political judgment in the United States is in some ways a preventive measure.”
Though de Tocqueville believed there was far less violence involved in the American process for dealing with public figures, he does point out that the same body that accused a political figure such as a president would be the one handing out the judgment, and because removal wasn’t a criminal process, there was a danger it could be overused.
“I think that it will be easy to recognize when the American Republics begin to degenerate: it will suffice to see whether the number of political judgments increases,” de Tocqueville writes in a conclusion that Hare likely cited for his own work decades later.
One might argue that de Tocqueville’s fears haven’t come true. Only one president has ever resigned from office: Richard M. Nixon, who faced insurmountable political pressure because of the Watergate scandal. And only two presidents have ever been impeached in the history of the United States, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton; we will know in the coming weeks whether there will be a third.
Thursday’s botched reference to de Tocqueville isn’t the first time that Ivanka Trump has called on a historic figure to defend her father. In late October, she tweeted an excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to his daughter that referred to “enemies and spies catching and perverting every word that falls from my lips or flows from my pen.”
This week, another staunch defender of the president, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), drew a questionable comparison between Trump’s dealings with Ukraine to President George Washington’s 1794 treaty negotiations with the British and was subsequently lambasted on Twitter.
“I remind my friends on the other side of the aisle that our first president, George Washington, directed his own diplomatic channels to secure a treaty with Great Britain,” Nunes said in an opening statement at Wednesday’s impeachment hearing. “If my Democratic colleagues were around in 1794, they’d probably want to impeach him, too.”
It was, of course, the Founding Fathers who included impeachment in the Constitution in the first place.