When we published a piece about the Belknap impeachment trial back in November, we could hardly have predicted that it might become relevant to current events only two months later (okay, so maybe we could — it is Trump who made it relevant, after all). You will recall that General George Armstrong Custer had leveled some fairly serious accusations at both Belknap, who was Secretary of War, and President Grant’s brother, before he himself was called to testify during an investigation into corruption charges made by a Democratic senator.
The very morning that impeachment was floated as a potential remedy to the alleged corruption, Belknap went to President Grant, confessed his crimes, and resigned. But no one asked whether or not that meant they couldn’t go on ahead with the investigation and impeachment — as many Republicans are now doing in response to former President Donald J. Trump’s upcoming trial.
The House of Representatives unanimously impeached Belknap, who was no longer in office. This precedent is probably one of the reasons that President Nixon resigned before he could be impeached. He would have known that the potential for his impeachment was still there, but that the chances would be significantly reduced, especially for a country that simply wanted to move on from the controversy.
Trump may have been too stubborn to resign after his second impeachment, but the Belknap precedent remains relevant today simply because Trump is no longer in office. But one detail often left out of the debate about whether or not a trial should commence is the fact that Trump was in office when he was impeached. And once a president is impeached, the Senate is legally obligated to conduct a trial. To do anything else would be to ignore their oaths of office.
Also noteworthy is the fact that the majority of the Senate voted to convict Belknap on five separate articles of impeachment. But they missed the two-thirds benchmark needed to find an impeached official guilty, and he was thus acquitted of the charges. He was not prosecuted outside of Congress.