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Impeachment Trial of Senator William Blount, 1799

Chapter 1: Brief History of the Case
Chapter 2: Chronology
Chapter 3: House Managers
Chapter 4: Defense Counsel

Brief History of the Case

The United States Senate engaged in typical end-of-session activity on July 3, 1797, as the first session of the Fifth Congress moved toward adjournment, Vice President Thomas Jefferson presiding. As the Senate approved a bill providing compensation for diplomatic consuls and appointed a committee to consider a bill imposing "duties on stamped vellum, parchment, and paper," Samuel B. Malcom, Secretary to President John Adams, arrived with a confidential and explosive communication from the President. Adams's letter warned Congress of a "critical situation" that his Cabinet had been investigating for nearly a month. The investigation began when Senator Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts received word of a conspiracy involving British minister Robert Liston and an assortment of frontiersmen and speculators, plotting to impose British control over the Spanish-controlled territories of Louisiana and the Floridas, despite the fact that Spain had been an ally to the United States since the adoption of the Pinckney Treaty in 1795.

The sketchy but disturbing details suggested that this unlikely band of conspirators planned an armed assault on Spanish outposts in the western frontier. Apparently, they were timing the assault to coincide with uprisings by the Creek and Cherokee nations. Most disturbing of all, the letter named Tennessee Senator William Blount as principal conspirator. The most damning piece of evidence was Blount’s April 21, 1797, letter to his friend, James Carey, written in the senator's hand and bearing his signature. Referring to the upcoming coup against the Spanish, Blount predicted in the letter that "the plan . . . will be attempted this fall," and “if the Indians act their part, I have no doubt but it will succeed.” He assured Carey that he expected to "be at the head of this business on the part of the British," and warned his friend to “take care of yourself. I have now to tell you to take care of me, too; for a discovery of the plan would prevent the success and much inure all the parties concerned. ...When you have read this letter over three times, then burn it.” On the advice of Attorney General Charles Lee and noted Federalist lawyers William Lewis and William Rawle, President Adams concluded that the letter provided clear evidence that Blount had committed a crime for which he was "liable to impeachment." He therefore referred the matter to Congress.

Evidence of Blount's misconduct stunned the Senate. Although his Senate career had been short, Blount boasted a long and distinguished public career. A native of North Carolina, he represented that state in the Continental Congress and later was one of 37 men who signed the federal Constitution in Philadelphia. In his adopted home of Tennessee, Blount spearheaded the campaign for statehood, served as president of the Tennessee constitutional convention, and became territorial governor, a position he sought largely to protect his vast land holdings in the territory. In March of 1796, the newly formed Tennessee state legislature elected Blount as one of the state’s first two U.S. senators.

Like most of his colleagues in the era before legislating became a full-time profession, Blount had outside interests to occupy his time away from the Senate. Over the previous two decades, he had gained extensive land holdings that stretched from Carolina to the Mississippi River, but his land speculations were often risky and included holdings in the area then known as the Southwest, territory that became Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, an area then held by Spain, but of interest to France, England, and the United States. The threat of war over this disputed territory was ever-present. Rumors of war and reckless land speculation led many into financial ruin. Like many others, Blount’s speculations had led him into dire financial straits. As historian Buckner Melton wrote, “Blount was poised delicately on the edge of financial collapse in October 1796." Even as senator, Blount was “pursued by creditors and escaped two arrest attempts only by pleading his senatorial immunity.” Hoping to open the volatile lower Mississippi valley to more settlers, thereby increasing the value of his southwestern land possessions, Blount concocted a scheme, in cooperation with other speculators and frontiersmen, to seize control of Spanish-held territories with the aid of British forces and the Creek and Cherokee Indians. When James Carey received Blount's letter, however, he got cold feet.  He showed Blount's letter to a friend. News of the plan quickly spread, and copies of Blount’s letter circulated, eventually reaching the hands of former president George Washington and his successor in the President’s Mansion, John Adams.

Upon hearing of the conspiracy plot, the Senate and the House immediately appointed select committees to investigate the allegations. On July 6, the Senate committee reported an expulsion resolution, which passed by an overwhelming margin two days laterexpelling Blount from the Senate. The House committee, after debating the resolution at some length, reported a resolution to impeach Blount for "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Few members of Congress doubted Blount's guilt. Even his most avid defender, Virginia Republican John Nicholas, who wanted more proof of the charges and an investigation of British Minister Robert Liston's part in the affair, professed a willingness "to act upon the business." But the Republican minority, fearing the misuse of the impeachment power by a vengeful majority, questioned whether the House had the right to discipline a member of the Senate, arguing that senators were not civil officers within the meaning of Article II, section 4 of the Constitution, and hence not liable to impeachment. Albert Gallatin, a Democratic-Republican from Pennsylvania, was one of the first to make this argument. "It was his opinion," Gallatin contended on July 6, "that, by the Constitution, officers of the Government only were intended to be impeached, and not members of the Legislature." Countering an assertion by select committee Chairman Samuel Sitgreaves's, a Pennsylvania Federalist, that a senator was liable to impeachment for "any thing he might do as a legislator," Gallatin warned that "if a man were to be called in question for a vote . . . the privilege which he had always understood that they enjoyed, would be greatly narrowed."

The House formally impeached Blount before the Senate on July 7, 1797, but would not enumerate the charges against him until the following February. With adjournment rapidly approaching, the House appointed a select committee to prepare articles of impeachment and authorized the committee to pursue its investigation during the recess. In the meantime, Blount left for Tennessee, forfeiting the $2,000 that he and his sureties (his brother, Thomas, and former Senator Pierce Butler of South Carolina) had pledged to guarantee his appearance. His flight complicated matters for the Senate, which would have to determine whether, and how, to try an absent party.

Over the next several months, the Senate spent considerable time preparing for Blount's trial, defining the scope of its power to try impeachments, appointing a Sergeant-at-Arms, and debating impeachment trial procedures. With formal articles of impeachment presented on February 7, 1798, the Senate trial began on December 17, 1798. House managers and Blount's defense counsel presented arguments, but ultimately the question came down to impeachability. Was a senator a "civil officer" and thereby subject to impeachment, and did the Senate have jurisdiction over William Blount, now a former member of the U.S. Senate?  On January 14, 1799, the Senate dismissed the case jurisdictional grounds.

This first impeachment trial in the Senate left many issues unsettled, most importantly the question, was a senator a civil officer of the United States and therefore liable to impeachment? If so, did his resignation stay the proceedings? Although the Senate failed to voice its opinion on that matter, its dismissal of the Blount case set a precedent that still holds today—a U.S. senator cannot be impeached.


Jul 3, 1797President John Adams notified Congress of an alleged conspiracy involving Tennessee Senator William Blount.
Jul 6, 1797A Senate committee recommended expelling Blount.
Jul 7, 1797The House of Representatives notified the Senate of Blount's impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Jul 8, 1797The Senate expelled Blount by a vote of 25 to 1.
Feb 7, 1798The House of Representatives presented articles of impeachment to the Senate.
Dec 17, 1798The Senate impeachment trial began.
Jan 7, 1799The Senate informed the House of Representatives of its plans to dismiss the case.
Jan 11, 1799The Senate formally voted to dismiss the Blount case, citing lack of jurisdiction over the former member.
Jan 14, 1799The Senate formally dismissed charges against Blount by a vote of 14 to 11. 

House Managers

Samuel Sitgreaves of Pennsylvania (later replaced by John Wilkes Kittera of Pennsylvania)
James A. Bayard, Sr. of Delaware
Robert G. Harper of South Carolina
Samuel Sewall of Massachusetts
Hezekiah Hosmer of New York
John Dennis of Maryland
Thomas Evans of Virginia
James H. Imlay of New Jersey
William Gordon of New Hampshire
Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina
Samuel W. Dana of Connecticut

Defense Counsel

Jared Ingersoll, lawyer
Alexander J. Dallas, lawyer