The Belknap precedent

One of the good things about the impeachment of Donald Trump — maybe the only good thing — is that it has brought William Belknap into the spotlight. And that’s a good thing only for history buffs.

Belknap is the only member of the executive branch until now to be impeached after leaving office. His impeachment trial is said to be precedent for holding one for Trump.

Belknap was a heroic figure in many ways. A Princeton man and a lawyer, he joined the Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. He entered as a major, owing to prior service as captain in the Iowa militia. By the end of the war, he was a general.

Belknap fought at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and in Sherman’s march through Georgia. At Shiloh, he was wounded. At Atlanta, he jumped over an embankment and personally captured the colonel of the Alabama 45th Infantry who had moved close to the Union battle line.

After the war, Belknap was collector of internal revenue for Iowa. As far as is known, there was never the hint of scandal from that service despite the many opportunities it presented for personal enrichment.

Belknap became Secretary of War in the Grant administration. He worked with Grant to effectuate Reconstruction in the South, a heroic but probably doomed effort.

He also distinguished himself after the devastating Chicago fire of 1871. Belknap sent in troops who saw to it that Chicago received aid, that the aid was distributed promptly, and that order was maintained

Belknap got into trouble over a relatively minor but genuine scandal involving Army trading posts, over which he had control as Secretary of War. It seems that Belknap unjustly enriched himself to keep his second wife, and later his third wife (the sister of the second, who had died), living in style.

President Grant knew nothing about the scandal. When he learned of it, he reportedly was skeptical that Belknap had done anything wrong. But the evidence was clear, and Grant likely would have fired his War Secretary, as he eventually dismissed his corrupt private secretary, Civil War hero Orville Babcock.

Before it came to that, however, Belknap rushed to the White House and begged Grant to accept his resignation. The president wrote out a brief note accepting the resignation “with great regret.”

The House impeached Belknap anyway. In transmitting the impeachment articles to the Senate, the Speaker explained that Belknap had resigned “with intent to evade the proceedings of impeachment against him.”

The Senate voted that it had jurisdiction to try Belknap even though he was no longer in office. However, fewer than two-thirds of the Senators voted that way, and fewer than two-thirds (mostly the same ones) voted to convict.

The Belknap impeachment provides weak support for an impeachment trial of a president who is no longer in office because his term expired. Belknap was out of office because he resigned to avoid impeachment (as the House Speaker told the Senate) not because his term was over.

Chuck Schumer, in a speech that cited the Belknap precedent, said:

It makes no sense whatsoever that a president or an official could commit a heinous crime against our country and then defeat Congress’ impeachment powers. . .by simply resigning.

That’s what Belknap did. It’s also what Richard Nixon did, successfully. However, it’s not what Trump has done. He didn’t resign. His term as president ended.

I also question whether even apt Senate precedent has much bearing on the matter. Each Senate has its own dynamic, its own party balance, its own agenda, and its own prejudices. The vote on Belknap was likely driven more by how Senators felt about Belknap and Grant than by constitutional niceties (although, to be fair, there was a fairly erudite debate about the Founders’ intent).

The same dynamic drives the Trump impeachment, of course. Ask yourself how many of the 50 Democrats who found that an ex-president can be tried by the Senate would have voted that way if a Democratic former president were set to be tried. My answer is, approximately zero. And many Republican Senators would be taking a different view of the constitutional question, as well.

Given the way the Senate actually decides matters like this, I don’t think one Senate should feel bound by what another Senate did — and certainly not if the first Senate acted almost 150 years ago.

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