Think political rhetoric is too highly charged today? Imagine the House framing an impeachment article as “prostituting his high office to his lust for private gain.”
Aside from the somewhat risqué wording, the 1876 impeachment of War Secretary William Belknap is unique for being the only Cabinet secretary (or former Cabinet secretary as it was) to face impeachment. More relevant to the current context, he was the first official to be impeached by the House and tried in the Senate after he’s out of office. This has invited obvious comparisons to Donald Trump’s post-presidency Senate trial, set to begin February 8.
My book, “Abuse of Power: Inside the Three-Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump,” contends the first Trump impeachment most resembled the push to oust President Andrew Johnson from office because of his firing War Secretary Edwin Stanton in 1868. How strange that just eight years later Johnson’s successor, Ulysses S. Grant, saw his handpicked war secretary impeached.
The Trump and Belknap impeachments have one glaring difference. The House voted to impeach Trump on the charge of “incitement to riot” seven days before his term expired. Belknap resigned from office to avoid the indignity of impeachment and the House impeached him anyway.
Grant tapped Belknap, a union major general in the Civil War, in 1869 to run the War Department, what is today the Defense Department. Within a year, businessman Caleb Marsh snatched a lucrative contract for an associate to be the lone vendor for a military trading post at the Fort Sill Indian territory—located in current day Oklahoma.
Marsh’s promises of kickbacks led Belknap to make the appointment, according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office. Over the next five years, Marsh’s associate funneled thousands to Marsh, who in turn provided regular payments to Belknap reaching more than $20,000 over a five-year span.
Belknap’s alibi throughout the entire ordeal was to blame his second and third wives for the bribery, claiming he wasn’t aware—not exactly chivalrous.
Loving another Grant scandal, the Democratic-leaning New York Herald reported about “vague rumors” of corruption with the secretary of war. Other New York papers jumped on the story as well. As the scandal grew, so did international media attention. The London Standard opined, “Happily, the countries are few where so gross an abuse of trust as appears to have just been confessed by the United States secretary of war would be possible.”
Rep. Hiester Clymer, D-Pa., was Belknap’s college roommate. He was also the chairman of the House Committee on Expenditures in the War Department and led the investigation into the corruption that began in late February 1876.
It didn’t take long for things to unravel. Marsh told the House committee that money was sent based on the instructions of the secretary and—Marsh said—he sometimes paid Belknap in person. Heister sent notice to Belknap that he wanted to speak with his former roommate about the Marsh testimony.
Belknap couldn’t rely on partisanship to bail him out since Republicans in Congress were bitterly divided over Grant administration scandals. Democrats took advantage of the wedge picking up ninety House seats in the 1874 midterms to recapture the majority. Republicans kept the Senate in 1874, but again, were hardly united behind the administration.
Belknap visited Grant at the White House, on March 2, 1876, in tears according to most accounts. Much like President Richard Nixon and Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas would later do, Belknap resigned to escape impeachment. Never one to leave a soldier behind, Grant very reluctantly accepted the resignation—but said he still had confidence in his embattled war secretary.
The House was not going to be deterred by a silly little thing like resignation. And it wasn’t close. The full House unanimously approved five articles of impeachment just two hours after Belknap quit his job.
Clymer’s committee continued its investigation and included testimony from an angry George Armstrong Custer, who argued the War Department graft in Washington left soldiers ill-prepared during the war with the Sioux Native American tribe. Clymer’s committee was essentially building a record for the Senate trial.
However, similar to arguments today, Belknap argued his resignation meant the Senate lacked jurisdiction to try him. Plenty of senators agreed then as well, regardless of what they thought of innocence or guilt. A Senate impeachment trial for someone not in office was uncharted territory at the time. It could be unconstitutional, a pointless waste or time, or just downright gratuitous.
The Senate heavily debated the matter before a close vote of thirty-seven-to-twenty-nine determined the body had jurisdiction to try not only Secretary Belknap, but also Citizen Belknap. The resolution said, “Resolved, That in the opinion of the Senate William W. Belknap, the respondent, is amenable to trial by impeachment for acts done as Secretary of War, notwithstanding his resignation of said office before he was impeached.”
Likewise, this week, five GOP senators joined Democrats to reject Sen. Ran Paul’s resolution asserting the trial would be unconstitutional—thus moving the process forward.
So it was in 1876 that the trial of a former official who couldn’t be removed from office began in April, dragged through summer and included more than forty witnesses.
Finally, on August 1, 1876, the Senate voted. It would have taken forty votes at the time to reach the two-thirds necessary. Only thirty-five voted to convict. Most of the twenty-five senators who voted against conviction did so based on concerns about trying a former office holder.
So, Belknap was acquitted. He was investigated by District of Columbia prosecutors, but at Grant’s request prosecutors dropped the case.
Since that time—in 1926 and again in 2009—the House impeached federal judges who resigned before their trial. In both cases, the Senate opted not to deal with the matter.
The Belknap affair would be the last time—until now—the Senate held a trial for a former office holder.
None of these cases are exact parallels to the current trial. Trump’s term expired after he lost an election. Still, as only the second trial of an official, the Belknap trial offers a historical guidepost of what to expect.
Fred Lucas, the author of Abuse of Power: Inside the Three Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump (Bombardier Books, 2020), is the chief national affairs correspondent for The Daily Signal and co-host of the "The Right Side of History" podcast.