What is common between former U.S. President Donald Trump and the first British GovernorGeneral to India, Warren Hastings? The simple answer is their impeachment after they left office. The U.S. prosecutors invoked the trial of Hastings in their arguments against Trump this week.
Citing the example of Hasting’s case in the eighteenth century, the lead prosecutor Representative Jamie Raskin argued in the U.S. Senate that, “The first point comes from English history. And it would have been immediately obvious to anyone familiar with that history that former officials could be held accountable for their abuses while in office”.
Who was Warren Hastings, and why is his case used as a precedent in the Trump impeachment two and a half centuries later? Hastings was an Englishman who rose from humble beginnings and, at the age of 17, joined the East India Company as a clerk in India. Impressed with his hard work, Robert Clive recommended him as the British Resident in Murshidabad.
He then rose to become the first Governor-General of Bengal and had a big role in consolidating British hold in India. But soon, wary of criticism at home about his style of functioning, Hastings resigned and went back to England in 1785.
His most significant detractor, statesman Edmund Burke, who was a Member of Parliament, was keen on Hastings’ impeachment. So he was impeached after he quit office.
While the House of Commons held him guilty the House of Lords acquitted him after a seven-year trial. Referring to this, Jamie Raskin said, “It was the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the former governor-general of the British colony of Bengal, and a corrupt guy. The framers (of the Constitution) knew all about it, and they strongly supported the impeachment. The Hastings case was invoked by name at the convention.”
He asserted that Hastings’ case played a crucial role in the framing of the American Constitution. There is a background to the impeachment. Hastings had taken specific experimental measures like revenue settlement with the highest bidders, the appointment of a Board of Revenue, and substitution of supervisors by Collectors. His reforms mainly consisted of four areas.
They were to deal with the revenue administration, reform of the judicature, settlement of land revenue, and commercial reforms. His judicial reforms had laid the foundations of the Indian judicial system. His timely help to the Madras and Bombay Government consolidated the British interests in Madras and Bombay.
He became fluent in Bengali and had an excellent working knowledge of Urdu and Persian. He liked Sanskrit. “I love India a little more than my own country”. he is reported to have said.
Hastings was held guilty on 22 counts, including misconduct during his time in Calcutta. Edmund Burke took two full days to read the charges against Hastings in the House of Commons. The others were personal corruption, misuse of authority, and improper execution of Indians.
At the end of his arguments, Burke told the House of Commons, “I therefore conclude, what you all conclude, that this body (the East India company), being totally perverted from the purposes of its institution, is utterly incorrigible…”
Burke knew that the House of Lords would never convict Hastings, for the King, the government, and several Lords supported him. But Burke effectively damaged the reputation of Hastings. The case ended with a dismissal of all charges against Hastings.
He received a pension from the Company and lived till 1818. After his impeachment trial, the disheartened Hastings was reported to have rued, “I gave you all and you have rewarded me with confiscation, disgrace and a life of impeachment.” Why did the British Parliament try Hastings when he had already left his job?
Historians say that it was perhaps for preventing him from holding any office in the future and setting an example for a severe breach of public trust. History judged Hastings better, and in later years, he regained his stature. Eventually, the lessons of the Hastings and Trump trials show that impeachment is an inherently political tool.
Trump, even after stepping down from office has his core supporters despite all the charges against him. He was charged with instigating his supporters to create violence and attack the Capitol where confirmation of the Biden election was taking place.
Right now the U.S. Senate hears his impeachment. Historically only three U.S. presidents have been formally impeached by Congress— Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached. Trump has the distinction of being impeached twice during his single term.
Importantly, no president has been dethroned from office. Trump faces two actual charges. They are of abusing his office and obstructing Congress. This weekend may decide his fate.