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The Censure Case of Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts (1811)

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Violation of injunction of secrecy.

Resolution introduced: Dec. 31, 1810
Senate vote: Jan. 2, 1811

Result: Censured

Massachusetts Federalist Timothy Pickering built an impressive record of public service before he entered the United States Senate in 1803. He served as postmaster general of the United States from 1791 to 1795, as secretary of war in 1795, and as secretary of state from 1795 to 1800. In the latter position, he developed an intense animosity toward France growing out of the events of the French Revolution. He feared that France was seeking to undermine American independence and the result would be mob rule. One biographer concluded that "for more than twenty years his views of French influence and policy constituted an obsession which warped his judgment, weakened his political scruples, and involved him in sundry transactions which clouded his reputation and obscured his great services." While serving as secretary of state under John Adams, he conspired against the president's efforts to settle difficulties with France, leading Adams to dismiss him in May of 1800. Although Pickering was considered, with Alexander Hamilton, a major leader of the Federalist Party, his actions greatly weakened that party's public standing. Federalist friends worried over his excesses; Jeffersonian Republican enemies repudiated him in effigy and caricature. 

In 1810, Pickering found himself one of a tiny minority in the Senate, as the Jeffersonian Republicans swept that year's elections in the northeastern states. When he returned to Washington in December 1810, he searched desperately for an issue by which he could demonstrate that the Republican leaders were charlatans. He found that issue in the seizure, six weeks earlier, of West Florida by a group of American settlers who declared that region independent of Spain and sought annexation by the United States. President James Madison immediately took possession of the region, claiming that it was a part of the Louisiana Purchase. In the words of a biographer, "Pickering, who thought the seizure an unconstitutional act of aggression against a friendly power, sensed an opportunity to embarrass the government."

Statement of the Case
During the Senate debate about the administration's action on December 31, Pickering introduced a letter written by French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand that President Thomas Jefferson had submitted to the Senate five years earlier. Talleyrand had pointed out that the United States had no legitimate claim to the West Florida region under the Louisiana Purchase. Although Pickering had prepared a long speech, he got no further than reading the minister's letter before Samuel Smith of Maryland interrupted to inquire whether the letter had ever been made public. To his dismay, Pickering realized that he had broken a Senate rule by reading an executive document before the injunction of secrecy had been officially removed. Senate Republicans were delighted to have caught their foe in such an indiscretion. That same day, Kentucky senator Henry Clay introduced a resolution of censure.

Response of the Senate
On January 2, 1811, the Senate debated the resolution to reprimand Pickering. A few Federalists argued weakly that Pickering meant no deliberate harm and that the rule of secrecy had not always been followed perfectly. But when Henry Clay spoke, the temper of the Senate became instantly clear. Clay noted that, if the Senate failed to indicate a sharp disapproval of Pickering, there could be little hope of restraining such violations in the future. The fact that transgressions had occurred in the past did not excuse Pickering's action but rather intensified the necessity for a strong reprimand. Timothy Pickering, unrepentant throughout, insisted that he saw no indiscretion in his conduct. The Senate disagreed and passed Henry Clay's resolution of implied censure on a 20 to 7 vote in which Federalists joined Republicans. Passage of the resolution, which stated that Pickering's reading of the letter represented "a palpable violation of the rules of this body," made Pickering the first person to be censured in the history of the Senate.

Senators accepted the argument of Maryland's Samuel Smith that the president relied on the honor of the Senate to hold certain communications in confidence. The failure of one member to do so jeopardized the system of presidential communication and the Senate's constitutional power to advise and consent. Pickering's action in reading a secret message, even such an outdated one, threatened the future relationship between the Senate and the chief executive. For the good of the whole Senate, it was necessary to reprimand Pickering. In addition, supporters of the administration were glad to divert attention from the constitutional issues raised by President James Madison's decision to seize West Florida without prior congressional authorization.

Pickering created his own difficulties in the Senate, vigorously insulting Federalist colleagues as well as Republican opponents. Had he modified his manner, his party could have justified giving him fuller support during the debate. Defeated for reelection in 1811, Pickering later returned to Washington to serve in the House of Representatives from 1813 to 1817. He then retired to his home in Massachusetts, where he devoted himself to agriculture. He died in 1829, a fervent Federalist to the end and one of the last members of that political party.


Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.