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Impeachments of the Past


The great historian Richard White has an really interesting essay on the impeachment of Secretary of War William Belknap in 1876.

The House managers, in their final brief of Feb. 2, called that argument wrong and dangerous. In support of their position, they cite the impeachment trial of William Belknap in 1876. Belknap was the secretary of war in the Republican administration of President Ulysses Grant. There has been an effort in recent years to rehabilitate the reputation of the Grant administration, but the Belknap case illustrates how tawdry and corrupt the government was.

Belknap took bribes in a complicated scheme involving the appointment of the trader at Fort Sill in Indian Territory. When in 1876 the arrangement was discovered and the House began impeachment proceedings, Belknap rushed to the White House and resigned moments before the House voted to impeach him. The House impeached him anyway.

Only three senators found Belknap not guilty of the charges, but the Senate failed to convict him because many senators claimed they lacked jurisdiction. In their arguments about jurisdiction, both modern Republican senators and Belknap’s lawyers stressed the status of the accused as a private citizen. His lawyers argued that the House could not impeach a private citizen and thus the Senate could not try him. The House managers countered that what mattered was not whether Belknap held office when impeached, but whether he held office when the alleged offenses took place.

On the questions of precedent, Belknap’s lawyers did not claim that the Senate could not try a private citizen — the claim of Republicans today. Rather, they argued that Belknap could not be tried because he had been a private citizen — if only by minutes — when the House impeached him. It was his status at the moment of impeachment that mattered.

Congress decided that this did not matter. They tried him anyway. Belknap was narrowly acquitted. But the principle was set: what mattered is what you did in government, not whether you bailed just before getting busted. However…

Despite their defeat, the House managers were sanguine. They thought the case settled the principle that those who committed crimes while in office were liable for impeachment no matter whether they still held office or when the prosecution took place.

They did not count on Donald Trump, Rand Paul and the modern Republican Party.


Also worth noting that for all the attempts to rehabilitate Grant’s reputation as president, he was terrible at the job and allowed insane levels of corruption all around him, being the greatest mark for capitalist sharpers of all time, which nearly brought down the economy.

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