Rhode Island industrialist James F. Simmons entered the Senate as a Whig in 1841. When he failed to capture a second term, Simmons returned to his manufacturing interests. His most successful ventures centered on the production of yarns, but his commercial contacts throughout the state were varied and far-reaching. In 1857 the Rhode Island legislature again sent Simmons to the Senate, this time as a Republican.
Statement of the Case
On July 2, 1862, Joseph A. Wright (U-IN) submitted a resolution that called for the expulsion of James Simmons. Acting upon information reported by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Wright charged that Simmons had blatantly misused his official influence to secure a war contract for two Rhode Island rifle manufacturers. In exchange for his lobbying efforts, Simmons was said to have received two promissory notes of $10,000 each, the first payments on a $50,000 share in the manufacturers' profits.
Response of the Senate
As early as 1853 widespread abuses of congressional influence had prompted the passage of a mildly worded law to check just such conduct as Simmons'. But the proliferation of wartime opportunities apparently proved too attractive, and the Senate again faced the need to curtail this questionable conduct. Congress responded to the charges against Simmons by quickly passing a law that prohibited members of Congress from accepting fees for services before agencies of the United States government.
A Republican-dominated Senate, already vexed by the prevalence of war lobbying, was embarrassed to have one of its own involved in a case so shockingly obvious. On July 8, the matter was referred to the Judiciary Committee, which reported within a week.
The committee ascertained that an agent of a Rhode Island business firm approached Simmons and requested aid in procuring a government contract for the manufacture of 50,000 breechloading rifles. Simmons corroborated the testimony of the agent, C. D. Schubarth, but insisted that the manufacturers' payments to him were not tied to a guarantee of government contracts. Simmons detailed the transaction with great frankness, expressing his complete astonishment at the charges and contending that he acted for the benefit of both his constituents and his government. Simmons cited the recent Union draft of 500,000 men, for whom the government had but 200,000 weapons. With such a critical shortage, Simmons assumed that prompt delivery from a responsible firm could only aid the war effort. The unabashed senator made no move to deny that he still held the promissory notes or that he expected them to be paid in full.
In its July 14 report, the committee set forth Simmons' case in the most deferential terms, citing his age and honorable life, but ultimately found the senator's behavior entirely inexcusable. Acknowledging that to penalize Simmons under the newly passed law would be unfair and would violate the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto laws, the committee reported back the expulsion resolution with the recommendation that the Senate take whatever action it thought appropriate. When the Senate adjourned three days later, it had taken no action in the Simmons case.
Rather than risk expulsion in the session scheduled to begin in December 1862, Simmons resigned from the Senate on September 5, 1862. He returned to his manufacturing interests in Rhode Island, where he died in 1864.
Source: U.S. Senate Historical Office, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases: 1793-1990 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995), pp. 115-116.