When William Blount, a United States’ founding father, went into debt on massive land purchases, he cooked up one of history’s more audacious real estate speculation schemes.
The then-senator from Tennessee conspired to help Great Britain forcibly take over Spanish-controlled Louisiana, a plan that would have conveniently fattened his properties’ value.
The House of Representatives did not take kindly to the plot when it leaked and
in 1797. The Senate separately expelled him, meaning his impeachment trial in the Senate unfolded after he had actually left office.
The senators declined to convict Blount. But he’s now one of a trio of American historical figures whose unique political fates are feeding a hot debate south of the border: Can Donald Trump be tried for impeachment even after he ceases to be president?
The other two test cases involve a 19
century secretary of war whose opulent lifestyle was allegedly fueled by bribes, and a federal judge who absconded to the Confederacy during the U.S. civil war. Both faced impeachment after leaving office.
None of the episodes leave a crystal-clear precedent for what can happen once Joe Biden moves into the White House. A wide array of U.S. constitutional experts have offered conflicting opinions in
“It is an open question as to whether a former president can face a Senate impeachment trial,” concluded Scott Bomboy of Washington’s
Meanwhile, though, the debate has turned a rare light on those somewhat obscure characters whose crimes were deemed dire enough to haunt them even after they’d left the building.
For starters, the American constitution’s fairly unique impeachment provision for punishing “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” applies not just to presidents, but also to vice presidents and “civil officers of the United States.” And the constitution says impeachment can result in both removal from office and a ban on holding federal positions in future.
Familiar questions about those laws arose in 1876 when
met his comeuppance.
As secretary of war under President Ulysses S. Grant, Belknap had a salary of $8,000 — about $160,000 in today’s terms — yet lived a lavish existence in Washington that included parties with as many as 1,200 guests.
An explanation for his extravagant ways arrived with evidence that he had taken kickbacks in exchange for approving frontier trading posts. The House of Representatives voted unanimously to impeach him. But before the House vote, and before the case got to the U.S. Senate, Belknap rushed to resign, in tears, to Grant.
That didn’t deter the House or the senators. They ruled that he could be tried “notwithstanding his resignation of said office before he was impeached.” A majority approved all five articles of impeachment but without the required two-thirds margin, Belknap was acquitted.
Then there was
, a federal judge in Tennessee who joined the rebel Confederacy as it went to war with the Union. In 1862, the House impeached Humphries and later the Senate voted to convict and bar him from holding federal office again — even though he was long gone from his original post.
Blount, though, gets the prize for committing the most elaborate and creative “high crimes and misdemeanors” of the three men.
A signatory of the U.S. Constitution who eventually became one of
, he also invested heavily in land west of the Mississippi, much of it on credit. Blount was heavily in debt and land prices had already sunk when France defeated Spain in the War of the Pyrenees, raising the prospect that it would take over the Spanish territory in present-day Louisiana. That could potentially impede American merchants’ access to Blount’s lands, making them worth even less.
Undaunted, it seems, Blount worked with Indigenous tribes, frontiersmen and Britain on a scheme that would have the British take over the territory in exchange for ensuring free passage west.
But a letter outlining part of the plot, known as “Blount’s Conspiracy,” got into the wrong hands, and he soon became the first U.S. official ever to face impeachment.
Complicating matters, the Senate expelled him under a different provision before it tried him on the House’s impeachment articles.
It was another issue, though, that saved Blount from undergoing a Senate trial after he’d already left office. Senators ruled 14-11 that he did not qualify as a “civil officer” as set out in the Constitution.
Blount retreated to Tennessee, where he lived out his life a popular local politician.
Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques