screen capture of C-Span coverage of House Member Barbara Jordan's speech during impeachment proceedings of Richard M. Nixon

The Speech That Brought Down Richard Nixon

by Tony Wyman

“My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.  I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

Those words were spoken by the daughter of a Baptist minister and warehouseman, a woman whose mother cleaned the homes of wealthy families in Houston, Texas, the place she was born in 1936, twenty-eight years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forever ended legally enforceable racial segregation in the United States of America.

They were spoken by an African-American woman who was barred from attending the whites-only University of Texas at Austin, who, after graduating from the all-black Texas Southern University, a school created by the Texas legislature so it could avoid segregating the state’s other public universities, became the first woman elected to Congress from the State of Texas.

Rep. Barbara Jordan
Barbara Jordan was the first black woman elected to the Texas Senate and the first women sent to the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas. She died in 1996 of complications from pneumonia.

Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, then a freshman member of the United States House of Representatives, delivered a 15-minute speech before the House Judiciary Committee, the opening speech during hearings that were part of the impeachment investigation of President Richard M. Nixon, that is still considered today to be one of the greatest speeches in defense of the Constitution ever given.

She commenced her remarks with words designed to personalize what the Constitution meant to her, how its evolution and amendment made it possible for her to believe the Founders intended to include her and other African-Americans in the great experiment that is American democracy, that their exclusion was, somehow, just an oversight.

Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, “We, the people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.”  I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake.  But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.”

From there, with the a tone of determination and resolve, Rep. Jordan laid out for the members of the House the constitutional basis for impeachment, citing the importance of the checks and balances system of the federal government and the necessity of the legislative branch’s role in containing the powers of the executive.

The powers relating to impeachment are an essential check in the hands of this body, the legislature, against and upon the encroachment of the Executive.  In establishing the division between the two branches of the legislature, the House and the Senate, assigning to the one the right to accuse and to the other the right to judge, the framers of this Constitution were very astute.  They did not make the accusers and the judges the same person.

She argued that the Framers of the Constitution separated the roles of the House and the Senate so that petty politics played no role in the removal of a president, reminding members the Constitution allows impeachment only for “High crimes and misdemeanors,” not for “maladministration.”

We know the nature of impeachment.  We have been talking about it awhile now.  It is chiefly designed for the President and his high ministers to somehow be called into account.  It is designed to “bridle” the Executive if he engages in excesses.  It is designed as a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men.  The framers confined in the Congress the power, if need be, to remove the President in order to strike a delicate balance between a President swollen with power and grown tyrannical and preservation of the independence of the Executive.

And then, before launching into a recitation of the offenses that President Nixon committed that were, under Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, impeachable, Rep. Jordan reminded members that their chief task was to preserve the public faith in its governmental institutions. 

Even though she believed the Watergate scandal was likely to permanently lead to public mistrust of the federal government and its elected leaders, a concern that proved abundantly valid, Rep. Jordan pressed her point that the Congress must assert its role as a co-equal branch of government by defending the Constitution against the president’s offenses. Quoting the Virginia Ratification Convention, she said,

We do not trust our liberty to one branch of the government. We need one branch to check the others.  

In the last minutes of her speech, Rep. Jordan once more reminded members the president is charged by the Constitution to uphold and defend the rule of law, that it is his duty to ensure that the executive branch diligently follows the law as it is prescribed by Congress and that they execute their responsibilities in good faith, and that abrogating that responsibility is, in itself, an impeachable offense.

She also pointed out the members of the committee were responsible for determining if the president violated his duty and that they must take action to determine if he should be tried by the Senate for his offenses.

Has the President committed offenses and planned and directed and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate?  This is the question.  We know that.  We know the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.

While Rep. Jordan avoided advocating for the impeachment of President Nixon in her remarks opening the session, her comments set the tone for the proceedings that followed.  Fearing that impeachment and conviction were inevitable, Mr. Nixon resigned two weeks later.

To watch Rep. Jordan’s speech in its entirety, and to read the text, click here.

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