Adra Belknap:  Congress impeached and tried my ancestor after he left office. Trump could be next.

I can already hear the debate over President Donald Trump's (second) impeachment. Can Congress even impeach someone who is no longer in office? What's the point of voting to impeach and try a man who is headed out the door in a few days' time?

The answer to the first question is an emphatic yes. I do have some expertise here; it's in my last name.

I was in seventh grade when my class was silently reading a section of Reconstruction-era American history. I came across the name William Worth Belknap, a former United States secretary of War impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 2, 1876. The paragraph recounted how Belknap had tearfully resigned his cabinet position to President Ulysses S. Grant just two hours prior to his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives. I had never heard of the man, but I was mortified. There are few things that aren't embarrassing to a 12-year-old.

Why bother impeaching? Justice.

Turns out, he is my ancestor. I learned later that Belknap was accused of effectively selling lucrative government appointments at Fort Sill in modern day Oklahoma — he received approximately $20,000 in payments in return for the appointments. Belknap's yearly salary at the time was $8,000. Indeed, 20-grand was a substantial sum in the 19th century United States.

Belknap faced a Senate trial for corruption in office over a period of four months in 1876 — the nation's centennial. Notably, he was a private citizen at the time. The five articles of impeachment alleged that Belknap had, "criminally disregard(ed) his duty as Secretary of War, and basely prostitut(ed) his high office to his lust for private gain." A majority of the Senators voted to convict Belknap for his crimes, but they failed to reach the two-thirds majority required for a conviction.

This brings me to question two. What's the point of such an impeachment and Senate trial? The question was debated at length by the Congress. Those in favor came to a simple conclusion: high crimes require justice.

Rep. George Hoar of Massachusetts, one of the floor managers during Belknap's impeachment trial, argued:

"I believe the effect of this decision will be that for a century to come there will not be in the history of this country a repetition by a Cabinet officer or other high executive official of such offenses as have been disclosed and prosecuted in this trial.
"This House without distinction of party and this country without distinction of party may be grateful to the persons who have set in motion the mechanism for punishing this offense, and to the House of Representatives who, whether the particular sentence has received the support of two-thirds of the other branch or not, have made it impossible almost that these offenses should be repeated."

Crimes, corruption, cowardice

I don't pretend to be a lawyer, and I will leave the legal arguments to others. As a Belknap, I can speak to the legacy of this impeachment.

William Worth Belknap was by many accounts a hero of the Civil War. He served the Union Army and during the Battle of Shiloh he was injured and had his horse shot down under him. And still, he continued in battle. During the Battle of Atlanta, he personally took a Confederate soldier prisoner (supposedly dragging the man by the collar across the battlefield).

William Worth Belknap.

Kurt Bardella:Trump doesn't deserve post-presidential benefits. Remove him and ensure he won't get them.

His Civil War heroism, however, has been largely forgotten by history — even forgotten by his own family. His impeachment is what remains in the history books. Belknap never served in public office again.

I come back to Rep. Hoar's words, "this country without distinction of party may be grateful to the persons who have set in motion the mechanism for punishing (Belknap's) offense." President Trump's crimes will be remembered for generations, without distinction of party. The question is if the country will one day be grateful to the 117th Congress for pursuing justice.

Andra Belknap is a political communications professional. She is campaign communications director for Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and is a former press assistant for the House Committee on Education and Labor and assistant press secretary at the Environmental Protection Agency. She lives in Ojai, California.

USA Today, January 13, 2021


January 14, 2021

Voices4America Post Script. Yesterday, Trump was again impeached, the only President impeached twice. Now the Senate will decide if he is removed from office. The trial will likely be held after his term is over. Does it matter? The Belknap case is the established precedent for a man out of office, to take away his right to run for elected position.

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