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Thursday, January 14, 2021

Belknap and Impeachment Trials

 Andra Belknap (Pitzer `09)  at USA Today:

Can Congress even impeach someone who is no longer in office? What’s the point of voting to impeach and try a man who is headed out the door in a few days’ time? 

The answer to the first question is an emphatic yes. I do have some expertise here; it’s in my last name. 

I was in seventh grade when my class was silently reading a section of Reconstruction-era American history. I came across the name William Worth Belknap, a former United States secretary of War impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 2, 1876. The paragraph recounted how Belknap had tearfully resigned his cabinet position to President Ulysses S. Grant just two hours prior to his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives. I had never heard of the man, but I was mortified. There are few things that aren’t embarrassing to a 12-year-old. 

Turns out, he is my ancestor. I learned later that Belknap was accused of effectively selling lucrative government appointments at Fort Sill in modern day Oklahoma — he received approximately $20,000 in payments in return for the appointments. Belknap’s yearly salary at the time was $8,000. Indeed, 20-grand was a substantial sum in the 19th century United States.

 Belknap faced a Senate trial for corruption in office over a period of four months in 1876 — the nation’s centennial. Notably, he was a private citizen at the time. The five articles of impeachment alleged that Belknap had, “criminally disregard(ed) his duty as Secretary of War, and basely prostitut(ed) his high office to his lust for private gain.” A majority of the Senators voted to convict Belknap for his crimes, but they failed to reach the two-thirds majority required for a conviction. 

This brings me to question two. What’s the point of such an impeachment and Senate trial? The question was debated at length by the Congress. Those in favor came to a simple conclusion: high crimes require justice.