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This 1797 Impeachment Has Never Been Fully Resolved

Can an impeached senator be tried? Who knows! Let’s unpack this constitutional question

Senator William Blount was impeached on this day in 1797. (NYPL)
smithsonian.com

How do you solve a problem like Senator William Blount? The Senate still doesn’t know!

The case of Blount, who was impeached on this day in 1797, set a number of historic precedents. It also provided the Senate and the House an opportunity to flex their respective muscles.  

Blount, a U.S. Senator for Tennessee, had been deeply involved in a madcap and unlikely scheme to help the British wrest control of parts of Florida and Louisiana from the Spanish. He’d done this when he was governor of the “Territory South of the River Ohio,” also known as modern Tennessee, writes History.com. And the reason he did it was money: he needed some. Blount “had apparently 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,” according to the United States Senate website.

In 1797, John Adams’s government uncovered the conspiracy, the Senate website records. Evidence of this conspiracy included a letter Blount had written, which Adams obtained and sent to both the Senate and the House.

“Adams acted on an opinion from the attorney general that the letter was evidence of a crime and that Blount, a senator, was liable to impeachment under the Constitution,” the U.S. Senate Historical Office writes. The Senate was less than a decade old, and this was an early test of the limits of its power.

Two hundred twenty years ago today, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Blount. It was the first time impeachment proceedings had ever been initiated against any government official, and the only time they were initiated against a member of Congress.

The House informed the Senate, which in turn voted to expel Blount on July 8, then adjourned for the summer, telling Blount to show up for hearings during the recess. For his part, Blount headed back to Tennessee, unrepentant. In the months that followed, he refused to come back for the hearings, which were held without him. The Senate eventually voted to drop the impeachment case, arguing that Blount was not an impeachable officer, either because Blount had left office or because no senator could be impeached (the Senate wasn't clear on the intent of its vote).

Today, some scholars have argued that the Senate meant to say that no senators are impeachable; others argue that it meant only Blount, since he had left office, was not impeachable. The question of whether the Senate has jurisdiction to try an impeached senator is still up in the air, though the House has not impeached another member of Congress since. 

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