On this day in 1797, Tennessee senator William Blount is impeached by the House of Representatives.
But Blount was one of the signers of the Constitution! How could matters have degenerated so badly?
Presumably, it all began because Blount was obsessed with land. He had pushed for the infamous Land Grab Act of 1783 in North Carolina after the war. That Act opened up millions of acres of land to the west of the Appalachians. Blount took advantage of the opportunity to grab as much land as he could—not all of it in completely honest ways. Soon, he’d obtained an appointment as the territorial governor of the Southwest Territory. When Tennessee was admitted to the Union in 1796, he was elected a U.S. Senator.
Naturally, he wasn’t done trying to increase the value of his western lands. He believed that the value of his land would increase if the British were able to seize Spanish possessions in Florida and Louisiana. Thus, he began to furtively support an alliance between a few Indian tribes and the British.
He was digging himself in deeper and deeper, wasn’t he?!
Unfortunately for Blount, President John Adams was given a copy of a letter that incriminated him in the plot. He transmitted this letter to Congress on July 3, 1797. In the letter, Blount reported to his correspondent that he would “have a hand in the business, and probably shall be at the head of the business on the part of the British.” He commented that “if the Indians act their part, I have no doubt but it will succeed.”
The Senate had the letter read in Blount’s presence, but the Senator asked for a day to review his papers and put together his response. The next day, he asked for another delay so he could gather “other evidence to remove suspicion.” None of this was true, of course. In reality, Blount was plotting an escape to North Carolina.
On July 7, the House voted to impeach Blount. The next day, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to expel him. A select committee was appointed to investigate the matter.
Then, as now, political investigations don’t move too quickly. The impeachment process dragged on for more than a year. Ultimately, Blount refused to appear before the Senate, claiming that it had no jurisdiction over him. Finally, in January 1799, the Senate accepted the argument that impeachment proceedings could not proceed. William Blount was not a “civil officer of the United States within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States”—and he wasn’t even a Senator anymore. He was therefore not “liable to be impeached by the House of Representatives.” The impeachment proceedings were officially dismissed.
At the state level, Blount’s reputation didn’t suffer too much. He was soon elected to the Tennessee state senate. But at the national level, Blount’s main influence was to establish the precedent that Senators may not be impeached.
Perhaps not exactly the way that you want to make your mark in the history books?
- A History of the People of the United States, From the Revolution to the Civil War (Vol. 2; 1891)
- Asher Crosby Hinds, Hinds’ precedents of the House of Representatives of the United States (Vol. 3; 1907)
- CRS Report: Impeachment Grounds: A Collection of Selected Materials (1998)
- Michael J. Gerhardt, The Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis (2000)
- Senate Resolution on William Blount (January 11, 1799)
- Senate Resolution on William Blount (July 4, 1797)
- Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on William Blount’s Impeachment Trial (January 5, 1799)