The Senate’s First Impeachment Trial

Ever since the United States was founded, we as a nation, have struggled with how to discipline elected officials. The Constitution delineates how the country can remove its president from office. Still, back in the 1790s, the rules governing malfeasance by members of the House of Representatives and Senate were less clear.

Article II, Section 5, Paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution reads “Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and expel a member with the concurrence of two-thirds.

The Constitution of the United States was ratified on June 21st, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document. It took less than nine years for this clause to be tested.

On July 3rd, 1797, President Adams delivered a letter to Vice President Jefferson, who was the president of the Senate and presiding over the Senate the day before it was to adjourn for the year. The document stated that the administration was investigating Senator William Blount of Tennessee.

Blount and others, the administration learned, were planning to attack Spanish outposts in Spanish-controlled western Florida and Louisiana. The raids were to be timed with by an uprising (fomented by Blount and his friends) against the Spanish by the Creek and Cherokee nations.

Space does not permit providing the details on exactly what was planned but note that Blount was in deep financial trouble (along with several of his associates) for land deals that had gone bad in Spanish-held Western Florida and Louisiana. Also, Spain helped the U.S. win its independence and was an ally after signing the Pickney Treaty of 1795.

After evaluating the information that started the investigation, Adam’s Attorney General Charles Lee and well-known lawyers William Lewis and William Rawle agreed that Blount had committed crimes “worthy of impeachment.” More than two-thirds of the Senate agreed and a select committee was formed to collect more evidence and then present what they found to the legislative body in an impeachment trial.

Letters from members of the Senate showed that only a few Senators believed Blount was innocent. The few doubters were all fellow Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson, who asserted that impeaching Blount could lead to a misuse of power by a vengeful majority. They questioned the right of the Senate to even hold the trial because Senators were not “civil officers”; therefore, Article II, Section 3, Paragraph 5 does not apply.

It took the Senate from July 3rd, 1797, when it received the letter, until February, 7th, 1798 to write the formal articles of impeachment. The trial began on December 17th, 1798.

Blount flees to Tennessee and forfeits his bond. His departure also created two new problems for the Senate. One, how do they try someone in absentia? And two, now that Blount was no longer a member of the Senate, do they have jurisdiction, and can they try him?

On January 14th, 1799, the Senate decided it didn’t have jurisdiction even though there were enough votes to impeach Blount. The case left two matters unresolved, i.e. –

Is a sitting Senator a civil officer and therefore subject to impeachment?

If the Senator is not present for the trial, can it go forward?

The long-lasting impact of the Blount impeachment proceedings is that the precedent that that no member of the U.S. Senate can be impeached had been set.

History provides an interesting footnote. After the impeachment proceedings, Blount who was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives and became its speaker.

Portrait of William Blount by Washington Bogart Cooper when Blount was speaker of the Tennessee Senate.

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