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The Censure Case of Benjamin Tappan of Ohio (1844)

Benjamin Tappan

Violation of injunction of secrecy.

Request for investigation: April 29, 1844
Referred to committee: April 29, 1844
Committee report: May 8, 1844
Resolution and Senate vote:  May 10, 1844
Proceedings made public: May 16, 1844

Result: Censured

Newly independent Texas first petitioned the United States for annexation in 1837. In the following years, the issue remained mired in political disagreements tied to the slavery controversy. By 1844, as the question of annexation moved toward a congressional confrontation, both northern and southern leaders used partisan newspapers to reveal the strategy of the opposition and to inflame sectional sentiment.

On April 22, 1844, President John Tyler sent to the Senate a message in which he outlined the terms of an annexation agreement with Texas. This communication was protected by the confidentiality of a Senate executive session. Still, some senators objected to the secret nature of the president's negotiations about the agreement, as well as to his attempts to pass the annexation accord without Senate discussion.

Statement of the Case
Five days after President Tyler's confidential message arrived in the Senate, the New York Evening Post printed the document. On April 29, 1844, a perturbed William S. Archer (Whig-VA), who was responsible for managing the treaty materials as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked that a select committee investigate the circumstances under which the Post had secured the document. The Senate unanimously approved Archer's resolution and appointed him chairman of the select committee.

The committee subpoenaed William G. Boggs, editor of the New York Evening Post, but before that testimony could be heard, Benjamin Tappan (Democrat-OH), a 70-year-old first-term senator, notified the committee of his involvement in the matter. Tappan, the audacious, sharp-witted, and sarcastic elder brother of ardent abolitionists Arthur and Lewis Tappan, readily admitted that he gave his copy of the treaty materials to a messenger with instructions to deliver the items to the editors of the New York paper. The testimony of the messenger, Jonathan D. Stevenson, and the editor, William Boggs, corroborated Tappan's admission. When the committee reported back to the Senate on May 8, Archer submitted a resolution calling for the expulsion of Benjamin Tappan for violating the Senate's order that the treaty materials remain confidential.

Response of the Senate
From May 8 to 10, the Senate in closed session debated two resolutions in the Tappan matter. The first would have expelled Tappan for flagrant violation of Senate Rule 29, which provided that "all confidential communications, made by the President of the United States to the Senate, shall be by the members thereof kept secret." A substitute introduced by Thomas F. Bayard, Sr., (Democrat-DE) called for censure rather than expulsion. On May 10 the Senate adopted Bayard's substitute resolution of censure by a vote of 38 to 7. Archer then offered another resolution that declared, since Tappan had apologized and acknowledged his wrongdoing, no further action of censure should be taken against him. The Senate passed this measure by a vote of 39 to 3 and then approved a proposal by the committee adding to the Senate's rules a provision that "disclosing for publication" materials "directed by the Senate to be held in confidence" would be grounds for expelling a member.

Subsequently, on May 16, at Archer's instigation, the Senate made public its proceedings in the Tappan matter, which had been conducted in secret. This action was apparently designed to embarrass Tappan and further emphasize the Senate's disapproval of his conduct.

Tappan, a ferociously independent man, had not joined in the antislavery activities of his brothers and had refused to enter abolitionist petitions from citizens of Ohio. Yet he was among those senators offended by President Tyler's conduct in the Texas negotiations. Tappan's revelations to the New York Evening Post, although a violation of Senate rules, reflected the accommodating relationship many of his senatorial colleagues maintained with journalists. Recognition of this fact, coupled with Tappan's prompt confession, weakened the expulsion efforts of William Archer. Tappan served out the remaining months of his Senate term, which ended on March 3, 1845. He died in 1857.

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.