With the swirling controversy surrounding the Mueller investigation, its intended targets, the increasing ethical challenges seeming to shadow that investigation and the undoubted desire of Democrats to do anything that might lead to a case for impeachment of the President, today’s entry from the RedState Department of History looks at the first time impeachment was attempted against a Federal official.
We hadn’t been a nation for very long. In 1798, the new American Republic was just over twenty years old and European colonial powers still had interest in the territory surrounding the new United States.
The Mississippi River, as in later years, was key to everything. And unfortunately for the Americans, they didn’t control its mouth.
Spain did, through their control of Louisiana. But Spain was defeated by France in the War of the Pyrenees and that caused worry that France would take New Orleans and deny the Americans access to the Mississippi River.
That caused special angst for William Blount, a man who had made a fortune in land speculation. Born in 1749 in North Carolina, he had played an active role in Revolutionary politics, serving as a paymaster in the Continental Army.
After the war, Blount was a leading voice for expanding the new land west of the Appalachian Mountains, and purchased millions of acres of land in Tennessee in the hopes of making his fortune when the new nation inevitably grew westward. He was appointed governor of “territory south of the river Ohio” by President Washington, and then things got interesting.
Heavily in debt after his huge land purchases, and having seen land values collapse at the same time, Blount determined to try to restore his fortune. He entered into a conspiracy with British officers to encourage frontiersmen and Cherokee Indians to help the British attack New Orleans and West Florida, with the quid pro quo of allowing American access to the Mississippi after they succeeded — reinflating land values.
Before the conspiracy was discovered, Blount became Tennessee’s first U.S. Senator.
Then things started to go wrong for Senator Blount. A Knoxville merchant named James Carey, who was a minor partner in the scheme, gave a government agent a letter from Blount outlining details of the conspiracy. In short order, the letter was in the hands of Secretary of War Timothy Pickering, an old political enemy of Blount’s. Pickering gave the letter to President John Adams.
Determining that the letter constituted a crime, Adams gave the letter to the Senate, which received it on July 3, 1798, while Blount was quite literally out for a walk. When he returned, the letter was read to him in open session and he was asked point-blank by Vice President Thomas Jefferson whether he had written it. Blount asked for a day’s continuance, and then failed to show for the Senate’s July 4 session.
The Senate formed an investigative committee, and rather than testify before it, Blount tried to flee to North Carolina. But another Blount accomplice, an Indian agent named John Chisholm, testified to the truth of the entire scheme and Blount himself finally appeared to deny that he had written the letter.
On July 8, 1798, the Senate voted to “sequester” Blount’s seat by a vote of 25-1, effectively expelling him, while on this date in 1798, the House initiated impeachment proceedings — with Blount’s brother Thomas, a Congressman from North Carolina, abstaining. To begin the proceedings, it was:
Ordered, That William Barry Grove, Abraham Baldwin, Joseph McDowell, and Nathaniel Macon, Members of this House, be examined upon oath, at the bar of this House, touching their knowledge of the handwriting of William Blount, a Senator of the United States for the State of Tennessee; and that Reynold Keene, esq., one of the judges of the court of common pleas for the county of Philadelphia, and also one of the aldermen of the city of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania, administer the said oath.
Thomas Jefferson’s notes on Blount’s defense show a fine precursor to Clintonian word-parsing. Blount’s defense argued that he couldn’t be impeached since, having been expelled, he was no longer a Senator.
There was a measure of truth to this. Blount was no longer a United States senator. By this time, Blount had returned to Tennessee and had gotten himself elected to the state senate, which he eventually served as Speaker. When Blount’s Senate trial took place, he was a member of a different body.
The Senate voted to accept its committee report on the matter, but the full Senate dismissed the impeachment by a vote of 15-11. They decided, in essence, that that impeachment did not apply to U.S. senators — even though Blount wasn’t one at the time of the vote.
In the end, the Senate agreed with the notion that impeachment only applied to the President, Vice President and civil officers of the United States. They adhered to Blount’s defense, which claimed:
To be an officer of the Government one must receive a commission from the Executive. A Senator was not such an officer. Nor was there force in the argument that a Senator had a judicial as well as an executive character. All those qualities of his position emanated from the same source as his legislative qualities.
Managers, however, made the argument that the plain meaning of the Constitution showed that any Federal officer, including a Senator, could be impeached:
It was judged, however, that in case of the President, Vice-President, or any civil officer the punishment ought not to be less than removal, though it might be more, according to circumstances. This provision was, therefore, inserted. Its object, manifestly, is, not to designate the persons who shall be liable to impeachment, but to prevent the Senate, in the exercise of their discretion, from retaining in a civil office a person convicted of ‘‘treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.’’
Back in Tennessee, Blount’s first act in the state senate was a bit ironic. Judge David Campbell had dismissed a libel lawsuit Blount had brought the previous year. Blount tried, unsuccessfully, to have him impeached.
But only one year after his Senate trial, Blount was dead. An epidemic swept through Knoxville early in 1800, claiming the first Federal official ever to face an impeachment charge on March 21, 1800. His son, William Grainger Blount, served in the House of Representatives from 1815-19.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!