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Barbara Jordan, Speech on Impeachment, July 25, 1974

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


Barbara Jordan, a Democrat from Texas, was the first southern African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. On July 25, 1974, Jordan delivered an inspiring speech to the House Judiciary Committee, on national television, calling for an impeachment trial of then-president Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Not only was Jordan one of the younger members of the Judiciary Committee, she was also one of the few women. What stood out about Jordan’s speech was how she used the Constitution to support her claim for articles of impeachment against Nixon, as opposed to making it a partisan affair. Two days after Jordan delivered this speech, the House Judiciary Committee recommended impeachment. President Nixon resigned from office on August 7, 1973.

Sourcing Questions

  1. To whom was this speech addressed?
  2. Representative Barbara Jordan’s speech was televised to the American people. How did that demonstrate its significance?

Vocabulary Text
I join in thanking you for giving the junior members of this committee the glorious opportunity of sharing the pain of this inquiry. Mr. Chairman, you are a strong man and it has not been easy but we have tried as best we can to give you as much assistance as possible.
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.”
inquisitor (n): a person making an inquiry into a situation

solemnness (adj): seriousness

diminution (n): a reduction of importance
Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. 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.
jurisdiction (n): the official power to make legal decisions and judgements The subject of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men. That is what we are talking about. In other words, the jurisdiction comes from the abuse or violation of some public trust. It is wrong, I suggest, it is a misreading of the Constitution, for any member here to assert that for a member to vote for an article of impeachment means that that member must be convinced that the President should be removed from office.
maladministration (n): dishonest administrator The Constitution doesn’t say that. 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. 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. The nature of impeachment is a narrowly channeled exception to the separation of powers maxim; the federal convention of 1787 said that. It limited impeachment to high crimes and misdemeanors and discounted and opposed the term, “maladministration.” . . .
inimical (adj): tending to obstruct or harm “Prosecutions of impeachments will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community,” said Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, number 65. “And to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.” I do not mean political parties in that sense.
The drawing of political lines goes to the motivation behind impeachment; but impeachment must proceed within the confines of the constitutional term, “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Of the impeachment process, it was Woodrow Wilson who said that “nothing short of the grossest offenses against the plain law of the land will suffice to give them speed and effectiveness. Indignation so great as to overgrow party interest may secure a conviction; but nothing else can.”
appropriation (n): an appropriation bill is legislation that directs funds to specific departments and projects Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for petty reasons. Congress has a lot to do: Appropriations, tax reform, health insurance, campaign finance reform, housing, environmental protection, energy sufficiency, mass transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big, because the task we have before us is a big one. . . .
juxtapose (v): to compare side by side to see contrast At this point, I would like to juxtapose a few of the impeachment criteria with some of the President’s actions.
ratification (n): the giving of formal consent Impeachment criteria: James Madison, from the Virginia ratification convention. “If the President be connected in any suspicious manner with any person and there is grounds to believe that he will shelter him, he may be impeached.”
We have heard time and time again that the evidence reflects payment to the defendants of money. The President had knowledge that these funds were being paid and that these were funds collected for the 1972 presidential campaign. We know that the President met with Mr. Henry Petersen twenty-seven times to discuss matters related to Watergate, and immediately thereafter met with the very persons who were implicated in the information Mr. Petersen was receiving and transmitting to the President. The words are, “If the President be connected in any suspicious manner with any person and there be grounds to believe that he will shelter that person, he may be impeached.” . . .
thwart (v): to prevent someone from accomplishing something Beginning shortly after the Watergate break-in and continuing to the present time, the President has engaged in a series of public statements and actions designed to thwart the lawful investigation by government prosecutors. Moreover, the President has made public announcements and assertions bearing on the Watergate case which the evidence will show he knew to be false. . . .
James Madison, again at the constitutional convention: “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”
perjury (n): lying under oath

surreptitious (adj): secretive
The Constitution charges the President with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the President has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregarded the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, concealed surreptitious entry, attempted to compromise a federal judge while publicly displaying his cooperation with the process of criminal justice. “A President is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.”
If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that eighteenth century Constitution should be abandoned to a twentieth century paper shredder.
acquiesce (v): to accept something reluctantly 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.
Mr. Chairman, I yield back the balance of my time.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What did Representative Jordan imply when she brought up the idea of pain in her first sentence?
  2. In her introduction, what did Representative Jordan make very clear?
  3. According to Jordan, why did a member of Congress not need to be convinced that the president should be removed from office in order to vote for impeachment?
  4. According to Jordan, why was impeachment limited to high crimes and misdemeanors?
  5. Why do you think Representative Jordan juxtaposed impeachment criteria with Nixon’s actions?
  6. According to Jordan, how did President Nixon subvert the Constitution?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. What role do think this speech had in influencing the House Judiciary Committee’s decision to recommend impeachment?
  2. Explain the importance of Representative Jordan using the Constitution as the means to bring the impeachment charges against President Nixon.

Barbara Jordan to the House Judiciary Committee (video, audio, and transcript)