For the first time in U.S. history, the House of Representatives exercises its constitutional power of impeachment and votes to charge Senator William Blount of Tennessee with “a high misdemeanor, entirely inconsistent with his public duty and trust as a Senator.”
In 1790, President George Washington appointed Blount, who had fought in the American Revolution, as governor of the “Territory South of the River Ohio,” now known as Tennessee. Although he was a successful territorial governor, personal financial problems led him to enter into a conspiracy with British officers to enlist frontiersmen and Cherokee Indians to assist the British in conquering parts of Spanish Florida and Louisiana. Before the conspiracy was uncovered, Blount presided over the Tennessee Constitutional Convention and in 1796 became the state’s first U.S. senator.
The plot was revealed in 1797, and on July 7 the House of Representatives voted to impeach Senator Blount. The next day, the Senate voted by a two-thirds majority to expel him from its ranks. On December 17, 1798, the Senate exercised its “sole power to try all impeachments,” as granted by the Constitution, and initiated a Senate trial against Blount. As vice president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was president of the Senate and thus presided over the impeachment trial proceedings. After two months, Jefferson and the Senate decided to dismiss the charges against Blount, determining that the Senate had no jurisdiction over its own members beyond its constitutional right to expel members by a two-thirds majority vote. By the time of the dismissal, Blount had already been elected as a senator to the Tennessee state legislature, where he was appointed speaker. The constitutional conundrum of conducting a trial of an impeached senator has not yet been resolved.