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The Historical Precedent for the Impeachment Trial of Donald Trump | Righting America

by Raymond D. Screws

Raymond D. Screws earned his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in 2003.  He also has an MA from Pittsburg State University and a B.A. from School (now College) of the Ozarks, where his advisor was William Trollinger.  Throughout his career, he has been a history professor, museum director, and humanities professional.  He has published articles on immigration and ethnicity as well as a chapter in a book on World War I and Arkansas. He has also co-written a chapter on leadership in America.  Dr. Screws lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is currently the director of a military museum. 

A black and white photo of the side profile, head, and chest of a man with wavy short hair and a long beard wearing a suit and bow-tie.
William W. Belknap. Photo via Library of Congress.

With the second Trump impeachment trial upon us, it is time to look at what this means historically.  

Obviously, no US president has been impeached twice, until now.  But, then again, only two others have been impeached even once: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.  

Of course, they were impeached while still in office. But it is not unprecedented that a public official has been impeached after leaving office.  One was a judge, and the other was President Ulysses Grant’s Secretary of War, William Worth Belknap, about whom I wrote my MA thesis.

Here is a quick background of the Belknap case. During the late 19th century, post-tradership positions – whereby a trader had a permit to sell to native Americans, frontiersmen, and others – at western Forts were profitable, and thus were subject to corruption.

In 1870, President Grant’s Secretary of War, William Belknap, appointed Caleb Marsh the post-trader at Fort Sill, Indian Territory, for his assistance in caring for Belknap’s wife, Carrie, while she was ill.  Marsh, who hailed from New York City, did not want to move to the “Frontier.”  The Fort Sill post-trader, John Evans, did not want to be replaced. So he and Marsh came to a legal agreement in which Evans paid Marsh a sum to remain in his profitable position.  In turn, Marsh paid Carrie Belknap.

Carrie’s sister, Amanda Bower (a widow), lived with the Belknaps.  As Carrie’s health deteriorated, she told Amanda about her deal with Marsh.  Upon Carrie’s death in 1870, Amanda starting receiving the payments from Marsh. 

In 1874, William Belknap married his sister-in-law.  Two years later, in the winter of 1876, the Chair of the House Committee of Expenditures in the War Department, Heister Clymer of Pennsylvania, learned of the Marsh payments to Amanda Belknap.

After an investigation, Clymer decided that the payment was a bribe and pushed for impeachment.  On the morning of March 6, Belknap decided his only way out was to resign, and President Grant accepted the resignation.  But later that day, the House voted to impeach Belknap, despite the resignation.  The question for the House was whether they had the Constitutional right to impeach.  The House decision was to let the Senate debate the question.

The House drew up five articles of impeachment. By May the Senate voted that they did have the Constitutional jurisdiction to impeach, although the vote was just over a majority.

So what do the Belknap impeachment and the second Trump impeachment have in common, besides the fact that both individuals were no longer in office during the impeachment trial?  After all, Trump was president and Belknap was but a cabinet member.  More than this, Belknap resigned to avoid impeachment while Trump served out the last two weeks of his term.  

But what appears to be similar is that both impeachments have followed party lines.  

Today many Senate Republicans express the opinion that the Constitution does not give them the right to have an impeachment trial because, as Trump is no longer the president, he cannot be removed from office.  And the reality is that the Constitution is vague on this issue.  

But of course, the real reason the Democrats want to impeach Trump while the Republicans don’t has to do with politics. And it was the same in 1876. While there were a few Republicans who voted to convict Belknap — just as there are a few Republicans likely to convict Trump – the division very much followed party lines. On the first article in the Belknap impeachment, the vote was 35 yeas (to convict) and 25 nays; most of the Senators voting nay were Republicans who believed Belknap was guilty, but argued that the Senate did not have the jurisdiction to impeach him  Even so, most of those Senators who voted nay believed Belknap was guilty, but they were Republicans.  Today, many Republicans in the Senate believe that Trump should be held accountable for inciting the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, but they do not think it is in the Senate’s jurisdiction to do so. 

Unlike Trump, Belknap did not have a horde of blindly dedicated followers, including evangelical Christians, ready to destroy American democracy for their idol.  William and Amanda Belknap were socially popular in Washington, but with the scandal they lost most of their support.  The Belknaps might have been the life of the party on the D.C. social scene but William did not possess the cult of personality of a Trump, so Americans were not clamoring  (or rioting) to save him.  Plus, President Grant’s reputation had suffered a major blow, even among his supporters, because of the numerous scandals in his administration, which is unlike Trump.  To Grant’s fellow Republicans the Belknap situation was just another reason to abandon the President.  I suspect we will see when the Senate roll call is tallied that most Republicans will not have abandoned Trump.   

A couple of footnotes here:  I’m not convinced that the Constitution allows for impeachment after a person is no longer is office.  Moreover, after reading more than 350 pages of the Congressional Record, I don’t believe the evidence definitively proved William Belknap guilty (although I do think the evidence demonstrated that his wives were guilty).  

But evidence is irrelevant in the Trump impeachment trial. Fearing his followers, the Republicans will make sure Trump is acquitted.