1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Blount, William

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BLOUNT, WILLIAM (1749–1800), American politician, was born in Bertie county, North Carolina, on the 26th of March 1749. He was a member of the Continental Congress in 1783–1784 and again in 1786–1787, of the constitutional convention at Philadelphia in 1787, and of the state convention which ratified the Federal constitution for North Carolina in 1789. From 1790 until 1796 he was, by President Washington’s appointment, governor of the “Territory South of the Ohio River,” created out of land ceded to the national government by North Carolina in 1789. He was also during this period the superintendent of Indian affairs for this part of the country. In 1791 he laid out Knoxville (Tennessee) as the seat of government. He presided over the constitutional convention of Tennessee in 1796, and, on the state being admitted to the Union, became one of its first representatives in the United States Senate. In 1797 his connexion became known with a scheme, since called “Blount’s Conspiracy,” which provided for the co-operation of the American frontiersmen, assisted by Indians, and an English force, in the seizure on behalf of Great Britain of the Floridas and Louisiana, then owned by Spain, with which power England was then at war. As this scheme, if carried out, involved the corrupting of two officials of the United States, an Indian agent and an interpreter, a breach of the neutrality of the United States, and the breach of Article V. of the treaty of San Lorenzo el Real (signed on the 27th of October 1795) between the United States and Spain, by which each power agreed not to incite the Indians to attack the other, Blount was impeached by the House of Representatives on the 7th of July 1797, and on the following day was formally expelled from the Senate for “having been guilty of high misdemeanor, entirely inconsistent with his public trust and duty as a senator.” On the 29th of January 1798 articles of impeachment were adopted by the House of Representatives. On the 14th of January 1799, however, the Senate, sitting as a court of impeachment, decided that it had no jurisdiction, Blount not then being a member of the Senate, and, in the Senate’s opinion, not having been, even as a member, a civil officer of the United States, within the meaning of the constitution. The case is significant as being the first case of impeachment brought before the United States Senate. “In a legal point of view, all that the case decides is that a senator of the United States who has been expelled from his seat is not after such expulsion subject to impeachment” (Francis Wharton, State Trials). In effect, however, it also decided that a member of Congress was not in the meaning of the constitution a civil officer of the United States and therefore could not be impeached. The “conspiracy” was disavowed by the British government, which, however, seems to have secretly favoured it. Blount was enthusiastically supported by his constituents, and upon his return to Tennessee was made a member and the presiding officer of the state senate. He died at Knoxville on the 21st of March 1800.

For a defence of Blount, see General Marcus J. Wright’s Account of the Life and Services of William Blount (Washington, D.C., 1884).