Say the word impeachment and the name that immediately comes to mind is Trump. After all, he is responsible for 50% of the four presidential impeachments that have occurred in the country’s 242-year history. Aside from the four presidential impeachments there have been 17 other impeachments in U.S. history. The majority of those involved district court judges, but they have also included a senator, a cabinet member and a Supreme Court justice.
The Constitution provides that the “President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” That leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But it didn’t take long for Congress to use this provision. The first person to be impeached was Tennessee Senator William Blount in 1798.
Blount has a few things in common with Trump. He was a real estate speculator and his purchases were on borrowed money, leaving him with a good deal of debt. He once lost a state election and challenged the result, claiming fraud. And he also was put on trial in the Senate after leaving office.
Blount had founding father credentials. His great-grandfather Thomas Blount arrived in Virginia from England in 1660. He settled on a plantation in North Carolina where William was brought up. During the American Revolution he was a paymaster in a North Carolina regiment. (At one battle he lost $300,000 of soldiers’ pay.) Prior to independence, Blount ran for a seat on the North Carolina House of Commons. He lost. But he claimed fraud and had the election voided. He later ran for the seat again and won.
Blount was North Carolina’s delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. History records Blount as having showed up late, said very little, left early, and signed reluctantly. But back home he encouraged North Carolina to ratify. During this period, Blount helped foster an agreement whereby North Carolina ceded its western lands to the federal government to pay off tax debt. That land, which at the time was called the Southwest Territory, is what is now the state of Tennessee. Blount would end up being appointed by George Washington as governor of the Southwest Territory. He and his family packed up and moved west.
While this was going on, Blount, as well as his brothers, were actively accumulating land in the Southwest Territory, some 2.5 million acres of it. He also was instrumental in preparing Tennessee for statehood, something that became a reality in 1796. In that year, he was elected one of Tennessee’s first senators.
Things were looking up for Blount’s political career. Not so his finances. Land prices were depressed in the mid-1790’s and Blount had overcommitted, leaving him with a mountain of debt. With France winning a war against Spain in Europe, he was afraid the French would gain control of the port of New Orleans and decided that he and other Tennessee land speculators would be better off if England, rather than France, controlled the port. He then concocted the plan that would lead to his downfall. He schemed with two Native American tribes, encouraging them to join with the British to drive the Spanish out of New Orleans.
Unfortunately for Blount, his plan to start a war to protect the value of his landholdings was all spelled out in a letter that was passed from one hand to the next to the next until it ended up in the lap of President John Adams. He passed it on to the Senate and that body voted 25-1 to “sequester” Blount’s seat. Not a big loss for that body since he missed more than 25% of the roll call votes for the first half of 1797.
At the same time the House began impeachment proceedings. Those proceedings featured a fight between two congressmen of opposite parties. After trading insults for a bit, Matthew Lyon, Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont, spewed a load of tobacco juice into the face of Roger Griswold, Federalist congressman from Connecticut. Griswold responded by beating Lyon over the head with his wooden cane. Other representatives broke up the fight and the two apparently escaped disciplinary actions by promising to behave. No such reprieve for Blount. The House approved five articles of impeachment.
The Senate sent a sergeant-at-arms to Tennessee to bring Blount back to face trial. He refused to budge. Blount had originally stated that he was not the author of the incriminating letter. But, after two of his co-conspirators testified that he was, it was time for a new defense strategy. Blount’s attorneys argued that he was not a “civil officer” and that secondly, since he had been expelled from the Senate already, he was no longer an “officer of the United States.”
Enough senators bought that argument to get him off the hook. By a vote of 14-11, the Senate approved the following resolution: “The court is of the 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.”
Constitutional scholars have debated the issue of whether Blount was acquitted because you can’t impeach a senator, or because he had already been out of office. The latter, has implications as a precedent for the trial of Trump.
And there’s one other parallel between Blount and Trump. Despite being disgraced nationally, Blount remained popular among his base, the voters of Tennessee. Within a year he was speaker of the Tennessee State Senate. Tennessee has a county named after Blount, a grammar school and a high school, as well as a town named Blountville. He died in 1800 when an epidemic swept through his home town of Knoxville where the Blount Mansion is now a museum.