The Only Senator Ever Impeached by the House of Representatives
Updated: Feb 16
In the last several posts, we have focused on the efforts by France and Spain to affect US alliances and foreign policy and the US efforts to counteract them (Citizen Genet Affair, French Influence in the Mississippi Valley, Jay Treaty, XYZ Affair and the Quasi-War with France). The French, however, were not the only European nation with those goals. England, although actively working to involve the US in the conflicts in Europe, was quite willing to listen to, and perhaps tacitly encourage, schemes by certain citizens of the frontier region, to deliver Spain’s colonies in the southeastern part of the continent to English control. One such attempt, spearheaded by Revolutionary War Veteran, Senator William Blount, resulted in the first case of the US Senate expelling a member and the only time a US Senator was Impeached by the US House of Representatives.
William, the eldest in a large North Carolina family, was born in 1749 while his mother was visiting his grandfather's Rosefield estate, on the site of present Windsor near Pamlico Sound. As a youth, he received a good education in the private schools of the colony. Shortly after the War for Independence began, in December 1776, William Blount accepted appointment as the regimental paymaster for the 3d North Carolina Regiment. Although a regimental paymaster was not a commissioned officer with command responsibility on the battlefield, Blount served under a warrant on the regimental staff and drew the same pay and allowances as a captain.
Following the American defeat at Camden, Blount resigned his military responsibilities to accept a seat in the North Carolina assembly. There he served four terms in the lower house followed by two terms in the Senate. He stood for his state in the Continental Congress and in the convention of 1787 that drafted the Constitution of the United States. After North Carolina refused to join the new government, Blount won election to the second convention, where he helped bring about the state's ratification of the US Constitution.
Blount supported the cession of the state's western lands to the United States and, when the Federal Government organized the ceded territories as the “Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio”, he was appointed Governor. President Washington also appointed Blount as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the region south of the Ohio River. In this post, he achieved great popularity with the settlers in this region by negotiating the Treaty of the Holston of 1791 with the Cherokee. In this treaty, the Cherokee, in return for an annual provision of $5,000 worth of trade goods, would cede a large area of land (much of it already settled illegally by whites) to the United States and cease their raids upon the settlers in the ceded lands.
During the first stages of the territory's history, Blount had autocratic authority. He proclaimed laws, created new counties, appointed civil officials, organized the territorial militia, and supervised its training. However, by 1794 the population was adequate for the election of a territorial assembly. When a territorial census revealed a population adequate for statehood, Blount arranged for a constitutional convention, over which he presided as chairman, which drafted the state's first constitution. He was elected as one of the state's first two members of the U.S. Senate.
Like many of his fellow veterans during this period, Blount had become an investor and speculator in western lands. Blount made commitments to buy millions of acres of frontier land but then war broke out between Great Britain and Spain in 1796. Rumors ran rampant that Spain was going to sell their East and West Florida and Louisiana colonies to France and panic set in. Spain had agreed in the Pinckney Treaty (also known as the Treaty of San Lorenzo and the Treaty of Madrid) to guarantee American navigation rights to the Mississippi and through the Port of New Orleans, which were critical to the economies of the states and territories west of the Appalachians. If France came to control the Spanish Colonies, they would be under no requirement to continue that policy.
As a result, western land prices crashed, and Blount found himself in difficult financial straits facing bankruptcy. In North Carolina, creditors pursued Blount and he only escaped debtor's prison by pleading his senatorial immunity. Fearing that politically and socially unstable France would gain control of the Mississippi River, the Federalist senator joined a conspiracy that was to join the Old Southwest to Britain, which had guaranteed U.S. navigation of the Mississippi River in the Treaty of 1783.
The plot, conceived by John Chisholm, a Knoxville tavern keeper, who had served as a business agent for Blount, was to have the Cherokees and frontiersmen invade poorly defended Florida. This force would then turn the Spanish province over to the British. In payment, Britain would name Chisholm superintendent of Indian affairs and promise that the port of Pensacola would remain open. Chisholm went to Philadelphia to present his plan to the British ambassador, Robert Liston and seek financing but got no commitment. However, the ambassador sent Chisholm to London. After consideration, the British government rejected the risky idea.
Meanwhile, in Chisholm’s absence, Blount took control of the project. If successful, the scheme would allow him to sell land at a profit and prevent bankruptcy. Moreover, the adventure would make him a hero in Tennessee. After consultation with another large-scale land speculator, Dr. Nicholas Romayne, of New York, the intrigue grew to not only capturing Florida but also New Orleans.
The plan involved three expeditions that would attack the Spanish Empire at New Madrid, New Orleans, and Pensacola in the autumn of 1797. Blount would head the New Orleans forces, consisting of white frontiersmen and Choctaws, and Chisholm would head the attack against Pensacola. The New Madrid attack would be composed of Northern Indians, under the leadership of Chief Joseph Brant, along with William Whitley’s Men from Kentucky and more men from Tennessee.
Romayne traveled to London to advance the cause as Blount continued to organize while following Romayne’s advice “to appear a pure, dignified political character”.
On April 1, 1797, Blount wrote a letter detailing the plot to James Carey, an Indian interpreter, to enlist him to obtain the Cherokees’ involvement, explaining that Blount “probably shall be at the head of the business on the part of the British.” Blount urged Carey to be careful, “for discovery of the plan would prevent the success, and much injure all the parties concerned”. He closed: “When you have read this letter over three times, then burn it”.
The Conspiracy Exposed
An intoxicated Carey allowed the letter to fall into the hands of James Byers, the operator of the trading post at Tellico Blockhouse. Byers gave the letter to Col. David Henley, a War Department agent in Knoxville and Henley sent it to President Adams in Philadelphia. Adams recognized that implementation of the plan would violate the treaty with Spain and could lead to war with Spain and France. After Attorney General Charles Lee counseled the president that the conspiracy was a crime, Adams sent the letter to Congress.
On July 3, Blount was strolling out of the Senate chamber when he met the president’s secretary bearing a message. Blount asked what the message was. The secretary replied that it was “confidential and secret” and pushed on past. A few moments later, Blount returned to find that the clerk was reading aloud his letter to Carey. When asked by Vice President Thomas Jefferson, the presiding officer of the Senate, if he had written the letter, a visibly shaken Blount said he would have to consult his records. The Senate gave Blount until the following day to answer. Blount sent a message to the Senate on July 4 which Tennessee’s other senator, William Cocke read to the body. In it he asked for more time and said he never intended any letter “to injure the United States”.
Blount then panicked. He rushed to Philadelphia’s harbor and chartered a vessel to take him to North Carolina. Not liking his answer and learning of his impending flight, the House and Senate created investigatory committees and sent officers to arrest him, but because his pursuers did not know what he looked like, Blount disembarked from the docked boat as the wrong man was detained.
On July 7, a furious Blount appeared before the Federalist dominated Senate with two lawyers. The Senate voted to authorize its committee to seize Blount’s correspondence (it had already seized his luggage on the boat) and demanded that he answer whether he wrote the letter. Blount’s counsel requested a three-day continuance. Because of his earlier attempt to flee, the Senate agreed to one day if Blount posted $20,000 bond. He secured enough sureties for release. The next day, Senator Cocke confirmed the handwriting was Blount’s, and the Senate expelled Blount from the Senate with a vote of 21 to 1, with Cocke voting with the majority. Although expelled, both houses of Congress were determined to go ahead with impeachment. The Senate required him to post a new bond to secure reappearance at trial. He lost this bond as he raced to Tennessee on horseback, using back roads to avoid capture.
With George Washington calling for his punishment and First Lady Abigail Adams expressing the wish that the nation had a guillotine for the conspirators, Blount arrived in Knoxville, his home and Tennessee’s capital city. His Tennessee allies, such as Andrew Jackson, had published defenses of the ex-Senator portraying him as a victim of partisan politics who was only trying to save Tennessee from economic collapse. Although Blount never publicly admitted that he wrote the letter, he did so in private and offered the excuse that he had forgotten about the treaty with Spain.
When the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms arrived in Knoxville with a warrant for his arrest to produce him for trial, the U.S. marshal and state authorities refused cooperation. The Senate official, nevertheless, was entertained at Blount Mansion before heading home. In his absence, on 25 January 1798, the House charged him with five articles of impeachment, including conspiring to conduct a military expedition from U.S. soil against Spain in violation of the Neutrality Act (1794) and inciting Indians to commence hostilities against Spain in violation of Pinckney's Treaty (1795). On 14 January 1799, the Senate voted to dismiss the impeachment. While the exact reasons for dismissal were never clear, the publicly acknowledged reason was that since he was no longer a Senator, the Senate lacked authority.
The impeachment did not hurt Blount at home. The immensely popular politician won election to the Tennessee legislature as the Senator for Knox County that year and later became Speaker of the Tennessee Senate. In March 1800, an epidemic swept through Knoxville, and several members of the Blount family fell ill. Blount was tending to his sick family when he, too, fell ill on March 11. After 10 days, he died on the night of March 21, 1800 and buried at the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery a few blocks from his home in Knoxville.
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