William Blount might have been enshrined as an important Founder except for one tiny problem—he was expelled from the United States Senate for treason on July 7, 1797. The former president, George Washington himself, condemned his Revolutionary War comrade in arms, “…I hope that [Blount] will receive all the punishment which the Constitution and the Laws of this country can inflict and, thereafter, be held in detestation by all good men.”
Oh, how the mighty had fallen.
His life started out much more promisingly and his career had been marked by one achievement, honor, and political position after another. Blount was born in Windsor, North Carolina on March 22, 1749 to a well connected and powerful family of planters and merchants. In addition to their large holding in the Piedmont, the family were early speculators in western lands.
When the Revolution broke out 27 year old Blount was locally important enough to be appointed the paymaster for the 3rd North Carolina Regiment with the equivalent of a captain’s rank and pay. He accompanied the regiment when it marched north to join Washington’s Continental Army in 1777 for the campaign in defense of Philadelphia. The regiment participated in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown. Despite his non-combatant, staff position, Blount is said to have participated in the fights “as if a private soldier.”
After that campaign, Blount returned to his home state where he was appointed paymaster of all state troops—mobilized militia. He spent the next three years immersed in the thankless task of helping to muster and mobilize troops and the even more trying job of find way to arm and pay them.
War came to North Carolina in May of 1780 after the British under Sir Henry Clinton took Charleston, South Carolina. Clinton’s large Army under the field command of General Charles Cornwallis including Hessian regiments, fiercely defiant Tories, and large numbers of Native American auxiliaries turned their attention to North Carolina. Blount joined state forces with Continental Army General Horatio Gate’s troops. At the Battle of Camden Gates attempted to attack with his regulars on the right and the raw Militia, including Blount, on the left. The militia quickly crumbled, exposing the regular’s flank and Gate’s southern army was essentially destroyed allowing the British to occupy much of the state. The battle also ended Blount’s military career.
But politics was another matter. The same year he was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons where he would serve until 1784 rising to Speaker. He served two terms in the Continental Congress and in 1787 was in the State delegation to the Constitutional Convention and was a signatory to the final document, making him an official Founder. He then returned to North Carolina. As a leading Southern statesman with important holdings in the trans-Appalachian west he was a natural choice for President Washington to appoint as the first and only governor of Southwest Territory—the west south of the Ohio.
Blount established his first capital at Rocky Mount in what was still frontier territory. As governor Blount ended years of warfare by concluding the Treaty of Holston with the numerically powerful and extensive Cherokee Nation. With peace on the frontier, and a guaranteed open road through Cherokee lands the area south of Kentucky began to fill up.
Blount moved his capital to a new settlement he named Knoxville in honor of Henry Knox, the Secretary of War and a favorite of Washington’s. He built an impressive mansion in the new settlement as he steered Tennessee to statehood.
Tennessee was admitted to the Union on June 1, 1796 as the 16th state. Blount had chaired the convention that drafted the Constitution for the new state and was a natural choice to be elected by the State Senate to the United State Senate as a member of the new Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson.
He was a rising star with an almost unlimited future. But things soon took a turn for the worse in his personal fortunes.
Most of his fortune was tied to various western land speculation schemes financed by personal notes to friends and loans from a patchwork of undercapitalized local banks. Soon after his election the first official Panic of the new nation wiped out most of those banks and sent the value of heavily leveraged land spiraling downward. Almost before he knew it, Blount was ruined.
To re-build his fortune, Blount turned to a familiar frontier pastime—concocting schemes with foreign powers. Feeling neglected by the national government, westerners had flirted with the Spanish governor in New Orleans offering to break away and swear elegance to the Spanish King in exchange for the right to ship their products to market through the great port. Blount surely knew about such intrigues, and may have played a part in them.
A few years later the Commanding General of Army, James Wilkerson, a double agent for the Spanish, would plot with the sitting Vice-President, Aaron Burr and others to raise a filibustering army purportedly to seize Texas from Spain, but perhaps to create a break-away republic in the west. Wilkerson got cold feet and turned on Burr who President Jefferson then had tried for Treason.
In between those plots, Blount hatched one of his own, or succumbed to bribery to join one. As revealed in an indiscreet letter that fell into the hands of President John Adams, Blount was attempting to form an alliance with the Creek and Cherokee to invade Spanish Florida and turn it over to the British. In return Blount would receive more land grants and recognition of an independent nation, allied to the Indian tribes, to keep the expansionist United States confined to the original coastal states.
Needless to say Adams was outraged and wasted no time passing the letters to the Senate demanding immediate action on July 3, 1797. Four days later the Senate voted 25 to 1 one for immediate expulsion for Treason. In December the House of Representatives voted a bill of impeachment but the Senate ruled that the matter was made moot by the expulsion. Moreover Blount was regarded as having immunity from prosecution under the Constitution for the actions he took as a sitting Senator.
So Blount escaped further punishment. And although his national reputation was ruined, the people of Tennessee were far more forgiving. He was elected to the state Senate in 1798. It was his last elective office.
Blount died on March 21, 1800. Today his home in Knoxville is a shrine and a Museum.