Blount Conspiracy

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The Blount Conspiracy involved an attempt by U.S. senator William Blount to give control of the Old Southwest to Britain. For violating American neutrality and jeopardizing diplomatic relations with Spain, Blount became the first person expelled from the U.S. Senate.

A native of North Carolina, Blount (1749–1800) entered politics to advance his economic interests and was one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. After helping to found Tennessee, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from that state in 1796. Blount made commitments to purchase millions of acres of southwestern land before values collapsed when war broke out between Great Britain and Spain in 1796. In North Carolina, Blount was pursued by creditors and only escaped debtor's prison by pleading his senatorial immunity. Fearing that politically and socially unstable France would gain control of the Mississippi River, the Federalist senator entered into a conspiracy that sought to join the Old Southwest to Britain, which had guaranteed U.S. navigation of the river in the Treaty of 1783. The plan involved three expeditions that would attack the Spanish Empire at New Madrid, New Orleans, and Pensacola in the autumn of 1797. Blount would head the New Orleans forces, consisting of white frontiersmen and Choctaws.

A letter written by Blount on 21 April 1797 revealed his involvement with the British. The administration of President John Adams received the document in mid-June 1797. On 3 July, Adams sent a message to Congress about Blount. While Blount sat in the Senate, the letter was read aloud. Called upon by Vice President Thomas Jefferson for an explanation, Blount turned visibly pale and asked for time to consult his papers. The Senate gave him twenty-four hours. Blount then took flight and failed to appear on 4 July to answer questions. By 5 July, news of Blount's letter had become public knowledge, and he returned to Philadelphia on 6 July in the midst of a nationwide outcry. On 7 July the House of Representatives voted the first impeachment in the nation's history. On 8 July the Senate voted 25 to 1 to expel Blount for acting contrary to his public trust and duty. Sometime in late July, a warrant was issued by the federal district court for Blount's arrest. The senator avoided the marshal and struck out for Tennessee on 2 August.

Blount then became the first man to face impeachment in the United States. On 25 January 1798, the House charged him with five articles of impeachment, including conspiring to conduct a military expedition from U.S. soil against Spain in violation of the Neutrality Act (1794) and inciting Indians to commence hostilities against Spain in violation of Pinckney's Treaty (1795). The impeachment did not hurt Blount at home, where the immensely popular politician won election to the Tennessee legislature later that year. On 14 January 1799, the Senate voted to dismiss the impeachment on the grounds that it lacked jurisdiction. The exact reasons for dismissal were never made clear. Blount died a hero to Tennesseans in 1800.

See alsoMississippi River; Spanish Borderlands; Spanish Conspiracy; Tennessee .


Cayton, Andrew R. L. "'When Shall We Cease to Have Judases?': The Blount Conspiracy and the Limits of the Extended Republic." In Launching the "Extended Republic": The Federalist Era. Edited by Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.

Melton, Buckner F., Jr. The First Impeachment: The Constitution's Framers and the Case of Senator William Blount. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998.

Caryn E. Neumann