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February 5, 1798
To Arrest an Impeached Senator


When barely nine years old, the Senate confronted a crisis of authority. An impeached senator refused to attend his trial in the Senate chamber. Unlike the House of Representatives, or the British House of Commons, the Senate lacked a Sergeant at Arms to enforce its orders. On February 5, 1798, the Senate expanded the duties, title, and salary of its doorkeeper to create the post of Sergeant at Arms. It then directed that officer to arrest the fugitive senator—the Honorable William Blount of Tennessee (pictured).

A signer of the U.S. Constitution, William Blount in 1796 had become one of Tennessee's first two senators. A year later President John Adams notified Congress that his administration had uncovered a conspiracy involving several American citizens who had offered to assist Great Britain in an improbable scheme to take possession of the Spanish-controlled territories of Louisiana and the Floridas. Blount was among the named conspirators. He 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.

On July 7, 1797, while the Senate pondered what to do about Blount, the House of Representatives, for the first time in history, voted a bill of impeachment. The following day, the Senate expelled Blount—its first use of that constitutional power—and adjourned until November. Prior to adjourning, the Senate ordered Blount to answer impeachment charges before a select committee that would meet during the recess. Blount failed to appear. He had departed for Tennessee with no intention of returning.

On February 5, 1798, as the Senate prepared for his trial and still uncertain as to whether or not a senator, or former senator, was even liable for impeachment, it issued the arrest order. The Sergeant at Arms ultimately failed in his first mission, as Blount refused to be taken from Tennessee. A year later, the Senate dismissed the charges for lack of jurisdiction—and possibly for lack of Blount.

Reference Items:

Melton, Buckner Jr.  The First Impeachment: The Constitution's Framers and the Case of Senator William Blount.  Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998.  

Melton, Buckner F., Jr. “Federal Impeachment and Criminal Procedure: The Framers’ Intent.” Maryland Law Review 52 (1993): 437-57.


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