War Secretary's Impeachment Trial
An impeachment trial for a secretary of war occupied much of the Senate’s time during May 1876.
At issue was the behavior of William Belknap, war secretary in the administration of President Ulysses Grant. A former Iowa state legislator and Civil War general, Belknap had held his cabinet post for nearly eight years. In the rollicking era that Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded Age, Belknap was famous for his extravagant Washington parties and his elegantly attired first and second wives. Many questioned how he managed such a grand life style on his $8,000 government salary.
By early 1876, answers began to surface. A House of Representatives’ committee uncovered evidence supporting a pattern of corruption blatant even by the standards of the scandal-tarnished Grant administration.
The trail of evidence extended back to 1870. In that year, Belknap’s luxury-loving first wife assisted a wheeler-dealer named Caleb Marsh by getting her husband to select one of Marsh’s associates to operate the lucrative military trading post at Fort Sill in Indian territory. Marsh’s promise of generous kick-backs prompted Secretary Belknap to make the appointment. Over the next five years, the associate funneled thousands of dollars to Marsh, who provided Belknap regular quarterly payments totaling over $20,000.
On March 2, 1876, just minutes before the House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on articles of impeachment, Belknap raced to the White House, handed Grant his resignation, and burst into tears.
This failed to stop the House. Later that day, members voted unanimously to send the Senate five articles of impeachment, charging Belknap with “criminally disregarding his duty as Secretary of War and basely prostituting his high office to his lust for private gain.”
The Senate convened its trial in early April, with Belknap present, after agreeing that it retained impeachment jurisdiction over former government officials. During May, the Senate heard more than 40 witnesses, as House managers argued that Belknap should not be allowed to escape from justice simply by resigning his office.
On August 1, 1876, the Senate rendered a majority vote against Belknap on all five articles. As each vote fell short of the necessary two thirds, however, he won acquittal. Belknap was not prosecuted further; he died in 1890.
Years later, the Senate finally decided that it made little sense to devote its time and energies to removing from office officials who had already removed themselves.
Bushnell, Eleanore. “William W. Belknap,” in Crimes, Follies and Misfortunes: The Federal Impeachment Trials. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.