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The First Impeachment

January 14, 1799


A signer of the U.S. Constitution, William Blount became one of Tennessee's first two senators in 1796. A year later, on July 3, 1797, President John Adams notified Congress that his administration had uncovered a conspiracy, spelled out in an incriminating letter, involving several American citizens who had offered to assist Great Britain in an improbable scheme to take possession of the Spanish-controlled territories of Louisiana and Florida. Blount was among the named conspirators. Apparently, he had devised the plot to prevent Spain from ceding its territories to France, a transaction that would have depressed the value of his extensive southwestern land holdings. With the president’s message in hand, the Senate faced a crisis. How to deal with William Blount? Over the next 18 months, and four short sessions, the Senate managed its first case of expulsion and its first impeachment trial.

Hearing that his scheme had been discovered, Blount at first planned to leave town, but on July 6, 1797, he complied with an order of the Senate and appeared in the Chamber where he was questioned about the letter that revealed his plot. The next day, while the Senate pondered what to do about Blount, the House of Representatives voted to impeach the accused senator—the first instance of the House exercising its constitutional impeachment power. The House informed the Senate of Blount’s impeachment and asked it to “take order for his appearance” to answer the charges. Convinced of Blount’s guilt, on July 8 the Senate voted 25–1 to expel the Tennessee senator, then adopted a motion setting bail to ensure his appearance to face impeachment. Blount failed to appear in the Senate on July 10, however, having already departed for Tennessee with no intention of returning.

On January 28, 1798, with Congress meeting for the second session of the Fifth Congress, the House continued with impeachment proceedings, despite the fact that Blount had already been expelled. It approved five articles of impeachment and selected 11 managers to make the case for conviction before the Senate. As the Senate prepared for its first impeachment trial, on February 5 it formally granted to the doorkeeper, James Mathers, the new title of sergeant at arms, thus empowering him to carry out the Senate's orders. On March 1 the Senate issued a summons for Blount to appear to face impeachment charges when Congress again convened in December for the third session. Sergeant at Arms Mathers traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, to serve the summons. He may have tried to convince Blount to accompany him back to Philadelphia to stand trial, but Blount remained in Tennessee.

On December 17, 1798, as the Senate convened as a Court of Impeachment, Mathers formally reported to the Senate that he had served the summons, but when the sergeant at arms called for Blount to appear—to no one’s surprise—Blount was nowhere to be seen. In fact, by that time Blount had been elected to the Tennessee state senate and was serving as the Speaker of the Senate. House managers questioned if an impeachment trial could move forward without the attendance of the impeached official, but the Senate decided to proceed, allowing Blount’s attorneys—Alexander James Dallas and Jared Ingersoll—to appear on his behalf.

Blount’s attorneys stated that the Senate did not have jurisdiction to try the impeached senator, making two distinct arguments. First, they asserted that a senator was not a “civil officer” within the meaning of the Constitution’s impeachment clause. Second, they argued that since Blount had been expelled in July 1797, he was no longer an officer of the government and thus no longer subject to Senate jurisdiction.

In January of 1799, after three days of exhaustive arguments, the Senate deliberated behind closed doors, then voted on two resolutions. On January 10, 1799, the Senate failed to pass the following resolution by a vote of 11–14:

That William Blount was a civil officer of the United States within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and therefore liable to be impeached by the House of Representatives; That as the articles of impeachment charge him with high crimes and misdemeanors, supposed to have been committed while he was a Senator of the United States, his plea [to dismiss the charges] ought to be overruled.

On January 11, 1799, the Senate approved the following resolution by a vote of 14–11:

The court is of opinion that the matter alleged in the plea of the defendant is sufficient in law to show that this court ought not to hold jurisdiction of the said impeachment, and that the said impeachment is dismissed.

On January 14, 1799, Vice President Thomas Jefferson formally announced the dismissal of the case and brought the trial to an end. It remains unclear on what grounds the Senate based its conclusion as to lack of jurisdiction. Was it because a senator is not a civil officer and cannot be impeached? Or was it that Blount could not be impeached and tried because he had already been expelled? The Senate’s dismissal remains too ambiguous to decisively answer either question; nonetheless, the Senate’s action in the Blount case has been interpreted as precedent for determining that a senator cannot be impeached.