Can the Senate Hold Impeachment Trials of Former Officers of the Government? A Look at Two Precedents

On January 14, 2021, President Donald Trump was impeached a second time, with the charge being that he incited the riot of January 6th, in which several hundred fringe right protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol, with four of them dying and one officer being murdered. Additionally, his call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger was added. While whether his words in the speech being incitement would hold up in court is questionable given that most of the rally participants didn’t storm the Capitol and that there was no direct call to violence, what is not questionable is that Trump pushed a most destructive lie in his “Stop the Steal” media campaign: that the election was stolen from him on account of voter fraud, and that the storming of the Capitol wouldn’t have occurred without this lie and the rally. However, since the Senate reconvenes on January 19th, it is impossible that a trial will be held before he leaves office the following day. Thus, the question here is, can the president be impeached after he has left office? On a national scale, there are two precedents that we can consult.   

Precedent #1: William Blount, 1797.


The first precedent that can be cited is the case of Senator William Blount of Tennessee. Blount, who had been a signatory of the U.S. Constitution, found upon being elected one of Tennessee’s first two senators that his ventures into land speculation had placed him deep in debt, and only his position as a senator had kept him out of debtor’s prison. He thus hatched a scheme to address this problem with Great Britain, which was currently at war with Spain, and the latter was rumored to be selling Florida and its New Orleans territory to Revolutionary France. Blount conspired to lead a group of white settlers and Choctaw Indians to conquer these lands and turn control of them to Britain, thus raising the depressed value of his land. An incriminating letter written by him managed to make it into the hands of President John Adams, who sent a message to Congress that was read aloud, to Blount’s horror. The Senate voted to “sequester” his seat, which was de facto expulsion, by a 25-1 vote on July 8, 1797 for his violation of US neutrality law. However, they also wanted to impeach him and tried to have him brought back to the Capitol, but Blount was under protection in Tennessee. The proceedings occurred in his absence, and his defense argued two points, that senators were not “civil officers” under the Constitution’s impeachment clause and that since Blount was already expelled that he was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Senate.

Blount’s impeachment was dismissed 14-11 on January 11, 1799, with all Jeffersonian Republicans voting to dismiss and Federalists voting against 7-11. The Senate had found him to not be an impeachable officer. Whether the senators had agreed with one of or both of the defense’s arguments is in question. No member of the legislative branch has been impeached since, with expulsion being the chosen method since of kicking them out of office. Despite Blount having been an expelled senator, he managed to continue having a political career in his home state, whose residents didn’t seem to mind that he had engaged in such a scheme. Future President Andrew Jackson, for instance, remained a loyal supporter. He served as speaker of the Tennessee Senate from December 3, 1798 until his death from an epidemic on March 21, 1800.

Precedent #2: William Belknap, 1876.

William W. Belknap - Wikipedia

The second precedent that can be cited is William Belknap. Belknap was President Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of War from 1869 to 1876 and was one of the reasons his administration became notorious for corruption. He regularly threw lavish parties in Washington that brought into question how he could afford to do so. On March 1, 1876, the House’s Clymer Committee, which had been set up to investigate Belknap, discovered a reason why. In 1870, he crafted an arrangement after he appointed at the behest of his wife Carita contractor Caleb P. Marsh as head of the trading post at Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory despite John S. Evans already being appointed to the post. This permitted Evans to remain head provided he allocate $12,000 in annual profits to Marsh, while Marsh had to pay half the sum to Belknap’s wife. After his wife and their child died, Belknap received the payments, and after marrying his late wife’s sister, Amanda, they shared the $6000. The House promptly drafted the impeachment and on March 2, 1876, Belknap tearfully handed his resignation to President Grant minutes before he was unanimously impeached. Despite his resignation, the Senate decided to consider an impeachment trial. All senators were agreed that he had accepted kickbacks from Marsh, but the question was whether an officer of the government could be impeached after having left office.

On May 29, 1876, the Senate voted 37-29 to declare as its opinion that Belknap could be impeached after he left office. Democrats voted 24-2 that this could be done while Republicans voted 13-27 against. However, although the majority of senators voted for all counts of impeachment none reached the needed threshold of 40 votes, and it failed on August 1st based on the objections as to the constitutionality of it by the minority. Belknap never held public office again yet remained popular with the veterans of his home state of Iowa and died in 1890. Perhaps if the Senate had mustered 40 votes for conviction, this would have been a decisive precedent and we wouldn’t be debating this today. Also interesting to note is that if Democrats vote in the case of Trump that this is proper and Republicans vote against, it would reaffirm their old positions about late impeachments.  

What we have here are two deeply unsatisfying precedents even though they involve two clearly guilty men. While Blount’s case was dismissed by the Senate, this could have been that senators didn’t think that members of the Senate were part of the definition of “civil officers” under the Constitution and not because they thought late impeachments were unconstitutional. The Belknap case is a bit more revealing as it deals with a cabinet officer whose trial took place after his resignation and doesn’t have the added complication of him being a senator, and although the Senate officially opined that it could be done, not enough senators agreed this was constitutional to warrant a conviction. We have a precedent for the Senate holding such a trial, but no consensus on whether this action was constitutional. After all, it’s not like Congress hasn’t acted in ways that were found unconstitutional before.

The division as to whether late impeachments can be tried by the Senate doesn’t seem any less divided now than it was 145 years ago: law professor Cass Sunstein and former appellate Judge J. Michael Luttig hold that late impeachments are not constitutional, while law professors Michael Gerhardt and Brian Kalt hold that they are, with the former believing that the impeachment itself must have happened while the officeholder was in office. What we have never seen, and what would be truly satisfying as a precedent, would be a conviction or a judicial ruling on whether this is constitutional. However, the Supreme Court has not been willing to intervene in Senate impeachment convictions so far: in the case of Nixon v. United States (1993), in which Judge Walter Nixon challenged his impeachment conviction for perjury, the court unanimously ruled that the matter was a political question and not subject to Supreme Court review, although some of the more liberal justices left open in a concurrence whether an “unjust” impeachment conviction could be appealed. This suggests that whether an impeachment trial is constitutional is almost if not entirely up to the Senate itself. In conclusion, this is a major gray area, and I cannot say I’m decided on which is right here.


Eschner, K. (2017, July 7). This 1797 Impeachment Has Never Been Fully Resolved. Smithsonian Magazine.

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Folmsbee, S.J. (1979). Blount, William. NCpedia.

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McFeely, W.S. (1981). Grant: A biography. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Nixon v. United States, 506, U.S. 224. (1993).

The Expulsion Case of William Blount of Tennessee (1797). United States Senate.

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The First Impeachment. United States Senate.

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War Secretary’s Impeachment Trial. United States Senate.

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Weiss, D.C. (2021, January 13). As House impeaches Trump for second time, some say Senate trial after his presidency is unconstitutional. ABA Journal.

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1921-1923 MC-Index

File:Warren G. Harding inauguration - convertible.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
On the way to inauguration in 1921, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding in back, Rep. Joe Cannon (R-Ill.) and Sen. Philander Knox (R-Penn.) in front. Harding has the most Republican Congress of the 20th century to work with, the 67th.

The next two years we’ll have a slightly Democratic House, an evenly divided Senate, and Democratic President Joe Biden. This is a little bit of the opposite of how things were one hundred years ago. Democrats were dominant in the South while Republicans were dominant everywhere else given the 1920 election produced a supermajority for House Republicans. Northeastern Republicans were the most conservative in this time, and New York is a remarkable contrast in its senators to today. This Congress would in fact be the last one in which New York had two conservative Republicans representing the state in the Senate: William M. Calder and James Wadsworth Jr., who score 95% and 100% respectively. Wadsworth would later be one of the most hardline opponents of FDR’s New Deal, while being his ally on foreign policy. It is also the last Congress in which Republicans would hold a majority of New York City Congressional districts: the Democrats had done that badly in 1920 thanks to Woodrow Wilson! Today the GOP holds only hold one of New York City’s districts, the Republican leaning Staten Island.

Viewing the issues of the time, it is interesting how some of the issues involve similar arguments that we have now. Republicans, now as then, are concerned with the United States’ ability to compete abroad and want to use the tax code to help this happen. Most notable in the 67th Congress is Republicans voting for tax exemptions for U.S. businesses that operate in China as well as votes for tax reductions. Additionally present is a vote on a bill to exempt the Great Lakes from the crew requirements of the La Follette Seaman’s Act. Unlike now, they backed tariffs as a means to protect businesses while Democrats firmly opposed. Congress’s resident socialist, Meyer London of New York, scores a 13% in this Congress. “Uncle Joe” Cannon, a friend and protege of Abraham Lincoln’s from Illinois, who had served with only two interruptions since 1873, has his final term in this Congress and scores a 95%. Democrats showed support for the notion of states’ rights but in a different manner than you might think today as they were insisting that state authority be deferred to rather than ICC rulings for a bill that permitted interstate telephone companies to sell and purchase property. In this case, states were used as a check on the growing power of corporations.

Some notable issues are not on this scorecard because they don’t translate terribly well to ideology in this time. These include Prohibition and the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. For the former, there were conservative arguments for and against it, and for the latter civil rights didn’t figure on the liberal-conservative scale until after World War II…here its mostly the North vs. the South.

The first link is the legislative scorecard, and the second consists of descriptions of what was voted on. Democrats are in plain text, Republicans in italics. London of New York is a Socialist and Shreve of Pennsylvania is an Independent Republican.

The Gunman in the Capitol and the Man Who Disarmed Him

In light of the seditious riot by a group of alt-right extremists and conspiracy theorists who participated in the “Stop the Steal” rally on Capitol Hill on January 6th in which they stormed the Capitol, my thoughts go to other times in which it has come under attack. I already wrote about the 1954 Capitol Hill shooting by Puerto Rican terrorists that injured five representatives. However, there’s another story, one that involved great courage.

On December 13, 1932, the nation was in turmoil with the Great Depression and one disturbed man demanded to be heard. This was Marlin Kemmerer, a 25-year old department store clerk from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who chose to do so by pulling a gun in the House visitors’ gallery. He shouted that he demanded to be allowed to address the House on the depression. Most members fled the chamber, but three decided to stick around.

Edith Rogers (R-Mass.) and Melvin Maas (R-Minn.) spoke with the gunman. Rogers, who had experience dealing with shell-shocked war veterans, calmly said in a reassuring voice, “You won’t do anything” (Waters). Maas told him that by the rules of the House members can’t speak unless they are not armed. Kemmerer shouted in response, “I demand the right to the floor for 20 minutes” and Maas said, “All right son. Throw down your gun first” (Waters). He initially hesitated but dropped his gun to Maas. Fiorello La Guardia (R-N.Y) rushed to apprehend him along with a D.C. Capitol police officer.

Melvin J. Maas (1898-1964)

In response to the event, Rep. Thomas Blanton (D-Tex.) proposed that people who visit the gallery of the House should be properly vouched for and comes with a legitimate purpose and that “all this countenancing of cranks and crooks ought to stop. An anarchist has no business in a gallery of this Capitol of the people” (Petersen & Manning, 5). Ultimately no change occurred.

Kemmerer was incarcerated for a brief period but was released on January 13, 1933, on the request of the representatives. He ended up making good of his life: by his death on June 29, 2000, he had been married and had two children and seven grandchildren. Maas would receive a Carnegie Hero Fund silver medal for his courage and although he had lost reelection in 1932, he won again in 1934. Despite serving in the Democratic district of St. Paul he would continue to be reelected in three-way races as the Democrats and Farmer-Laborers would split the liberal vote. He would later serve in World War II from its start until fall 1942, and then again after his reelection loss in 1944 when the Democrats and Farmer-Laborers united behind a candidate. The flash from a bomb in his subsequent service would damage his optic nerve and over a four-week period in August 1951 he went completely blind. Already a champion for disabled veterans as a member of the Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, Maas continued his work and in 1954 President Eisenhower appointed him chairman. He carried out his duties energetically until his death on April 13, 1964, from complications of heart disease and diabetes at the age of 65.


A Gunman in the House Gallery in 1932. House of Representatives.

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Nelson, P. (2015, May 4). Maas, Melvin (1898-1964). MNopedia.

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Petersen, R.E. & Manning, J.E. (2017, August 17). Violence Against Members of Congress and Their Staff: Selected Examples and Congressional Responses. Congressional Research Service.

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Waters, D. (2020, January 19). The Depression-era gunman who tried to hold the House of Representatives hostage: ‘I demand the right to the floor for 20 minutes.’ The Washington Post.

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A Look at Election Challenges: 1877 and 2005
The 1877 Electoral Commission

There are a number of Republicans who wish to challenge the Electoral vote count ostensibly on the number of allegations of voting irregularities and fraud, and Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) raised the objection, apparently on behalf of those who are concerned over these allegations.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and ten other senators have proposed an Electoral Commission, with their joint statement holding that, “In 1877, Congress did not ignore those allegations, nor did the media simply dismiss those raising them as radicals trying to undermine democracy. Instead, Congress appointed an Electoral Commission — consisting of five Senators, five House Members, and five Supreme Court Justices — to consider and resolve the disputed returns. We should follow that precedent. To wit, Congress should immediately appoint an Electoral Commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states. Once completed, individual states would evaluate the Commission’s findings and could convene a special legislative session to certify a change in their vote, if needed” (Cruz). They will object to the counts in one to three states.

Critics of these senators regard this as an attack on democracy, presuming that their real aim is to try to hand the election to Trump in a “coup”. Senator Cruz already cited the 1877 commission as a distant precedent and Josh Hawley can cite the 2005 objection as a precedent. I intend to describe how the situations that were present in 1877 and 2005 are like today and how they are not.

1877 Electoral Vote Commission

The 1876 election was an incredibly contentious race. Democrats had their best chance at winning a presidential election in twenty years and they had ammunition to make their case for election. Their nominee, Samuel J. Tilden of New York, was a reformer who tackled Tammany Hall corruption under the notorious Boss Tweed. The scandals of the Grant Administration seemed to provide the perfect contrast for such a campaign. Additionally, in the Democrats’ favor was the increasing vote in the South for them, due in part to whites increasingly unifying behind them and also in part to using means legal and illegal to suppress the black vote. The Republican nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes, was ideal in some ways as well. He had a reputation as a moderate Republican, was not involved with the current administration, and was able to win the 1868 gubernatorial race in Ohio in a year that was tough on the GOP in the state. After Election Day, the results were that Tilden had scored the majority of the popular vote but three states were contested for the Electoral College: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Oregon was also in play over a disputed elector, although the state was agreed to have been won by Republicans. All Tilden needed was one more electoral vote to secure the win, and accusations flew left and right. Republicans charged Democrats with employing physical intimidation and bribery to suppress black and white Republican votes in those states while Democrats charged Republicans with dirty election tactics of their own, among their claims was that the Republicans deliberately ruined Tilden ballots in Florida by smearing ink on them. Both sides claimed fraud and intimidation generally.

The Electoral Commission was initially a balanced split: seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one Independent, the latter who sat on the Supreme Court. The Independent was going to be Supreme Court Justice David Davis of Illinois, but he was elected to a Senate seat in Illinois, and his replacement was Justice Joseph P. Bradley, a Republican who had a reputation for being apolitical. The commission’s vote, unsurprisingly, was 8-7 for Hayes. Supposedly Bradley had received a visit the night before from a Republican senator who said to him, “whatever the strict legal equities, it would be a national disaster if the government fell into Democratic hands”, if Democrat Congressman Abram Hewitt’s account is accurate (Digital History). This of course didn’t satisfy the Democrats and talk of a repeat of the War of the Rebellion was at hand, but ultimately a compromise was brokered: they would agree to Hayes as president if Reconstruction was ended, funds were allocated for projects in the South, and a Southerner was appointed to his cabinet. Regarding Reconstruction itself, it likely wouldn’t have mattered if Hayes or Tilden were elected here. Tilden would have without doubt ended Reconstruction as Democrats of the time were unified against it, and the Democratic House would have hamstrung any efforts of the Republican Senate to continue. The nation was by and large tired of trying to get Southern whites to regard blacks as their social and legal equals…that would have to wait 80-90 years. Over the next 20-25 years, the Jim Crow process would be completed in the South. 

The 1876 election had the following official results in contested states for Hayes: Florida, 992 votes (1.97%), Louisiana, 4807 votes (3.3%), and South Carolina, 889 votes (0.49%). By contrast, the 2020 election results were as follows for Biden: Arizona, 10,457 votes (0.31%), Georgia, 12,670 votes (0.24%), and Pennsylvania, 81,660 votes (1.16%). The raw numbers are much lower in the previous case but the percentage difference is on average lower in the latter. The population is simply much, much higher with the states we’re looking at now. However, in raw numbers the highest margin for Hayes, Louisiana, is over 5500 votes less than Arizona, the lowest margin for Biden. It is much easier to mess with smaller numbers of ballots and particularly so in 1876, as fraudulent practices in voting were considerably more common. Also, the notion that there will be any “satisfactory” resolution to an Electoral Commission is wishful thinking at best. The vote was bitterly divided and many Democrats still didn’t accept Hayes as a legitimate president, taking to referring to him as “Rutherfraud” and “his fraudulency” throughout his presidency (Barnard). Senator John J. Ingalls (R-Kan.) reflected in a debate ten years later on the Electoral Count Act, “The Electoral Commission of 1877 was a contrivance that will never be repeated in our politics. It was a device that was favored by each party in the belief that it would cheat the other, and it resulted, as I once before said, in defrauding both” (Bomboy). I think these Republicans just want this commission to be a sounding board for anyone who signed an affidavit to air their grievances on how the 2020 election went, and people won’t change how they felt about the election. This was largely true of feelings of the 1876 election as well.

The vote on the electors has not been cast yet, but when it is some may remember the 2005 vote on the electors. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) officially objected to the total and cited Ohio. They cited allegations of voting irregularities in the state of Ohio. Although some currently serving senators, such as Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) who condemn Hawley’s objection praised Boxer for her objection at the time, she was ultimately the only one in the chamber to vote to object. In the House, 30 Democrats joined Tubbs Jones in her objection. Among those currently serving are Maxine Waters of California, Alcee Hastings of Florida, Ed Markey of Massachusetts (now a senator), and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina (who has condemned the current objection). Waters herself also objected to the count in 2016, and there was an objection in 2000 as well. These two, however, got no Senate support. Presumably, Hawley can make the same claim that Boxer can about his act here. After all, like in 2004, the winner prevailed with both the popular and electoral vote. There is also no question, that staunch Democrats in 2004, like staunch Republicans in 2020, had concerns about the voting process. The difference, however, lies primarily in the thoughts and actions of one man: the man who lost the election.

The objection of Boxer was not pushed for by John Kerry, who had conceded the morning following the election, and Kerry didn’t publicly express that this was his backdoor ticket to the White House. The same cannot be said for Donald J. Trump. Rather than this being an unexpected development on his behalf, Trump has not conceded and has led the push for this objection along with his most vocal supporters in conservative media. They have pushed wild claims about widespread and systemic voter fraud with no greater evidence than interpreting the voting statistics of the year as strange (admittedly true compared to past elections given the high turnout and mail-in ballots) and pointing out that mail-in votes came in overwhelmingly for Democrats, even though Trump himself told his supporters not to vote by mail. Although the vote has not been cast yet on the objection, it is looking like 12-13 senators will vote for it and possibly at least 100 representatives, all of course Republican. This is a major increase from one senator and 31 representatives, all Democrat. While you might argue that the senators who are engaged in this are acting on behalf of their concerned and angry voter base (and in the cases of Cruz and Hawley trying to get their votes for 2024) and are not really intending to overturn the election, the president is saying this is the case. Although the objection is officially about concerns that are very much like those of Boxer and Tubbs Jones in 2005, the leading role he has played here and the scope and magnitude of those objecting are substantive and cannot be ignored. Without Trump at the helm on this, yes, this could be compared well to the 2005 objection, if a bit larger. This objection is only somewhat comparable to the 2005 objection and the implications are far different given the actions and words of Trump, especially now with the infamous Trump-Raffensberger call, which make no mistake, was not made in good faith. If it were, Trump would not have asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger for just enough votes to win. And apparently, he’s engaging in this despite having privately admitted that he’s lost! According to Politico’s Anita Kumar, he wants to keep fighting to keep public attention on him and to please his fans. This makes the Republican senators who go along with this supporting actors in the final episodes of The Trump Show as it approaches the cancellation date of January 20th.

I think the complaint isn’t really at its heart about how the vote went down. Its about the entire political environment of 2020 that brought about the vote: the Trump impeachment, the riots that accompanied the massive anti-racism protests that followed George Floyd’s demise at the hands of the police and the Democrats’ tepid and milquetoast reaction to them, the stark contrast between the media coverage surrounding Trump and that surrounding Biden, the view that elected Democrats granted privileges in the wake of COVID-19 for woke activists and not for common people, and the rising “woke” culture. However, all these things and more cannot be the official reason behind the objection, but the political grievances of 2020 are the real reasons. The environment of 2020 itself was thought to be unfair, and a number of conservatives wish to use the electoral objection as a means to express protest…after all a few congressmen delivering speeches bemoaning the political environment of 2020 isn’t as memorable as an objection. However, other presidents of history could make the claim that the political environment was unfair to them. After all, it’s a damn shame for Herbert Hoover that in 1932 General Douglas MacArthur was far too gung-ho in carrying out his order to clear out bonus marcher encampments, that voters no longer liked his Prohibition stance, and that the Great Depression grew worse. It’s a damn shame for Jimmy Carter that the economy was in the crapper and the whole Iran Hostage Crisis was going on in 1980. It’s a damn shame for George H.W. Bush that despite having a war in Iraq that was by all metrics successful in 1991, economic recovery from a mild recession wasn’t moving along fast enough in 1992 to get him reelected and that Democrats used his willingness to compromise with them on tax increases against him on an election year.


Barnard, H. (2005). Rutherford Hayes and his America. Newtown, Connecticut: American Political Biography Press.

Bomboy, S. (2021, January 4). Looking Back: The Electoral Commission of 1877. Interactive Constitution.

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Cruz, T. (2021, January 2). Joint Statement from Senators Cruz, Johnson, Lankford, Daines, Kennedy, Blackburn, Braun, Senators-Elect Lummis, Marshall, Hagerty, Tuberville. U.S. Senator for Texas Ted Cruz.

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Kumar, A. (2021, January 5). Trump privately admits it’s over, but wants to brawl for attention. Politico.

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Olsen, T. (2020, December 31). Democrats who praised 2004 objections to Electoral College certification now slam Hawley. FOX News.

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The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876. Digital History.

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Harold Knutson: 32 Years of Trial and Transformation

In 1916, Congressman Charles Lindbergh, Sr. of Minnesota (yes, the father of the famous aviator) decided to run for the Senate. He had throughout his career stood on the progressive wing of the Republican Party and was adamantly opposed to getting involved in World War I, the latter which cost him his Senate bid. Succeeding him was Harold Knutson (1880-1953), who almost immediately upon taking office found himself facing a vote of great importance: American participation in World War I.

Harold Knutson in 1917.jpg
Knutson in 1917.

Voting on War and Backing Harding

Public sentiment was overwhelmingly on the side of going to war given Germany’s increased aggression through unrestricted submarine warfare as well as the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram in January 1917, in which German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann offered Mexico the states of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if they should ally with Germany and prevail. Despite public pressure, Knutson voted against declaring war on Germany, one of fifty representatives to do so, a group that included the first woman in Congress, Jeanette Rankin, and the only Socialist in Congress, Meyer London. Those who voted against faced accusations of disloyalty. The electoral consequences for those who voted “nay” were real: seventeen representatives who had voted against lost reelection or renomination. Senators James K. Vardaman of Mississippi and Asle J. Gronna of North Dakota lost renomination in 1918 and 1920 respectively. Senator Harry Lane of Oregon had also voted against and was facing a recall but died only a month later. Fortunately for Knutson, his district seemed to like his vote and reelected him. In his first few terms in Congress he was a staunch advocate for farmers and veterans and politically was moderate conservative. Knutson gained enough respect as a legislator to serve as majority whip from 1919 to 1923 and in this role, he broadly supported the policies of President Warren G. Harding, but differed on veterans bonuses, voting to override his veto. In 1924, however, an event occurred that threatened his political career.

The Sex Scandal

Police found him in a parked car on the side of the road in Arlington, Virginia, with Labor Department employee Leroy M. Hull and arrested him on a “grave moral offense”. Knutson tried to bribe the officers with $100, but was indicted. This “grave moral offense” was probably sodomy, but a jury ultimately acquitted him after Congressional colleagues testified as character witnesses. Homosexuality was regarded as an unspeakable matter in 1924 (“don’t ask, don’t tell” comes to mind) and this incident may have given him some problems in his reelection bid, as his race was closer than in 1922. Nonetheless, Knutson survived.

Knutson: The Survivor

He continued to take some stances that were rather courageous, including changing his mind on Prohibition and voting against immigration restrictions when they had reached the height of popularity in 1924. Knutson even managed to thrive: he was one of the Republican legislators who managed to stay in office the entirety of FDR’s presidency. This was an impressive feat given the dire straits of the GOP during much of the Roosevelt Administration. He was initially open to some New Deal measures, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act, but by FDR’s second term he had become a staunch foe. A supporter of lower income taxes, he didn’t appreciate the hefty tax increases that came with maintaining the New Deal bureaucracy. On civil rights, Knutson’s record is mixed. He voted against an anti-lynching bill in 1937 and an anti-poll tax bill in 1943, but voted for anti-poll tax legislation in 1942 and 1947 as well as an anti-discrimination rider in 1946. Consistent with his views on entering World War I, he was a staunch non-interventionist up until the attack on Pearl Harbor. This time he voted to declare war.

Knutson and FDR’s “Fala Speech”

In 1944, Knutson had learned of a rumor that President Roosevelt had accidentally left his Scottish terrier, Fala, on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a Navy destroyer from Seattle to pick him up. Republican Thomas Dewey seemed to be riding high and Roosevelt’s campaign was not going so well: there were rumors flying about the poor state of his health and he had delivered a weak campaign address in Bremerton, Washington on August 12th. On August 31st, however, Knutson spoke in Congress about this rumor and accused Roosevelt of extravagance, which was echoed by Republican leaders and newspaper columnists. After the Navy issued a denial, Knutson instead charged that a plane had been sent, but this was denied as well. This gave Roosevelt a chance for a comeback, and he used it well. On September 23rd, he delivered a speech before the Teamsters Union which also played on the radio where he covered the matter:

“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars – his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself – such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog” (Lewellyn, 66-67).

This speech helped reinvigorate his campaign and got the public to see that Roosevelt was good for another term. Exactly eight years later, Richard Nixon would invoke his own dog, Checkers, to save his career. As it happened, FDR wasn’t good for another term given his health and died three months into his fourth term.

Harold Knutson vs. Harry S. Truman

Knutson as chair of House Ways and Means Committee.

Knutson proved no friendlier to his successor, Harry S. Truman; he was one of his leading Congressional antagonists. The 1946 election gave him a chance to strike a blow for lower taxes. With the election of a Republican Congress, Knutson became the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and succeeded in getting passed a bill reducing income taxes over President Truman’s veto. He also remained non-interventionist in his views as evidenced by his votes against the Greek-Turkish Aid Act and the Marshall Plan. However, Truman’s numerous attacks on the 80th Congress, particularly on the issue of grain storage, proved quite effective against rural Republicans. In 1948, he lost reelection to political newcomer Democrat Fred Marshall. The last time a Democrat had won the district was in 1892. Knutson chose to retire rather than try for his old seat in 1950. A lot had changed since 1917 for Knutson: he was much older, far more conservative, and the American political consensus was behind internationalism rather than the unilateral nationalism of old. His MC-Index score averaged 70% in his first ten terms (1917-1937), but it averaged 93% in his last six terms (1937-1949). Knutson had become too confident in his ability to retain elected office and it cost him.


Congressman Knutson Arrested on Grave Charge. United States House of Representatives.

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Kestenbaum, L. Politicians in Trouble or Disgrace: Minnesota. The Political Graveyard.

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Llewellyn, J. (2010). Paws, Pathos and Presidential Persuasion: Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fala Speech” as Precursor and Model for Richard Nixon’s “Checkers Speech”. Communication and Theater Association of Minnesota Journal, 37(5), 64-75.

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