Blount on the Run

William Blount is one of the most important figures in Tennessee history. He had been a leader in North Carolina, serving in the Continental Congress and in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and thus he signed the U.S. Constitution. As governor of the Southwest Territory appointed by President Washington in 1790, he was the key player in maneuvering the territory into statehood in 1796. When Blount became one of Tennessee’s first two U.S. senators the same year, he commanded a powerful political faction and owned millions of acres through shrewd speculation.1

 William Blount

As territorial governor, Blount had been a dutiful Federalist. Once in the Senate, however, he switched to the Jeffersonian Republicans, the party of most Tennesseans.2 Hence, his relationship with George Washington cooled. Blount’s personal finances also turned downward as land values plummeted because of rumors that Spain was about to transfer New Orleans and Florida to France.3

The U.S. and Spain had entered into “Pinckney’s Treaty” in 1795. The popular accord set the border between American and Spanish territory, precluded the incitement of the Indians and guaranteed free navigation of the Mississippi.4

Unlike Spain, France had no obligation to keep the river open. Even the possibility of the loss of navigation made Western land, such as Blount’s, fall in value. Tennessee was in an uproar at the economic threat. The only hope was that Great Britain, the leading nation in an ongoing war with France, would seize New Orleans and Florida. The peace treaty signed with Britain following the Revolution recognized American rights to navigate the Mississippi.5

 

Col. David Henley (1749-1823)

The Conspiracy

John Chisholm, a Knoxville tavern keeper, who had served as a business agent for Blount, hatched a plot to have the Cherokees and frontiersmen invade poorly defended Florida. This force would then turn the Spanish province over to the British. In payment, Britain would name Chisholm superintendent of Indian affairs and promise that the port of Pensacola would remain open. Chisholm went to Philadelphia to present his plan to the British ambassador and seek financing, but got no commitment. However, the ambassador sent Chisholm to London. After consideration, the British government rejected the risky idea.6

In Chisholm’s absence, Blount took control of the project. If successful, the scheme would allow him to sell land at a profit and prevent bankruptcy.7 As things stood, it was feared senatorial immunity was all that would keep him out of debtors’ prison.8 Moreover, the adventure would make him a hero in Tennessee. After consultation with another large-scale land speculator, Dr. Nicholas Romayne, in New York, the intrigue grew to not only capturing Florida but also New Orleans. Blount himself would lead the forces against New Orleans and Chisholm those against Pensacola.9

Romayne was dispatched to London to advance the cause as Blount continued to organize while following Romayne’s advice “to appear a pure, dignified political character.”10
On April 1, 1797, Blount wrote an indiscreet letter detailing the plot to James Carey, an Indian interpreter, to enlist him to obtain the Cherokees’ involvement, explaining that Blount “probably shall be at the head of the business on the part of the British.”11

As for any grievances the Cherokees had against whites that might discourage their cooperation, Blount instructed Carey to blame former President Washington. Carey was also urged to be careful, “for discovery of the plan would prevent the success, and much injure all the parties concerned.”12 He closed: “When you have read this letter over three times, then burn it.”13

Sen. William Cocke (1748-1828)

The Conspiracy Exposed

An intoxicated Carey allowed the letter to fall into the hands of James Byers, the operator of the trading post at Tellico Blockhouse. Byers gave the letter to Col. David Henley, a War Department agent in Knoxville and Blount’s “mortal enemy.”14 Henley forwarded it to President Adams in Philadelphia. Adams recognized that implementation of the plan would violate the treaty with Spain and could lead to war with Spain and France. After the attorney general advised the president the conspiracy constituted a crime, Adams sent the letter to Congress.15

On July 3, Blount was strolling out of the Senate chamber when he encountered the president’s secretary bearing a message. Blount asked what the message was. The secretary replied that it was “confidential and secret”16 and pushed on past. A few moments later,

Blount returned to find that the clerk was reading aloud his letter to Carey. When asked by Vice President Thomas Jefferson, the presiding officer of the Senate, if he had written the letter, a visibly shaken Blount said he would have to consult his records. Blount was given until the following day to answer.17

Blount sent a message to the Senate on July 4 that was read to the body by Tennessee’s other senator, William Cocke. In it he asked for more time and said he never intended any letter “to injure the United States.”18

Blount then panicked. He rushed to Philadelphia’s harbor and chartered a vessel to take him to North Carolina. Not liking his answer and learning of his impending flight, the House and Senate created investigatory committees and sent officers to arrest him, but because his pursuers did not know what he looked like, Blount disembarked from the docked boat as the wrong man was detained.19

On July 7, a furious Blount appeared before the Federalist dominated Senate with two lawyers. The Senate voted to authorize its committee to seize Blount’s correspondence (it had already seized his luggage on the boat) and demanded that he answer whether he wrote the letter. Blount’s counsel requested a three-day continuance. The Senate agreed to one day if Blount posted $20,000 bond. He secured sufficient sureties and was released.20

The next day, Senator Cocke identified Blount’s handwriting and the Senate expelled Blount from the Senate with a vote of 21 to 1, with Cocke voting with the majority. Although expelled, both houses of Congress were determined to proceed with impeachment. The Senate required him to post a new bond to secure reappearance at trial. This bond was forfeited as he raced to Tennessee on horseback, using back roads to avoid capture.21

 

 Blount Mansion in Knoxville


Safety in Tennessee

As George Washington was calling for his punishment and First Lady Abigail Adams wished the nation had a guillotine for the conspirators,22 Blount arrived in Knoxville, his home and Tennessee’s capital city. There he was greeted by jubilant celebrations. His Tennessee allies, such as Andrew Jackson, had published defenses of the ex-Senator portraying him as a victim of partisan politics who was only trying to save Tennessee from economic collapse.23 Although Blount never publicly admitted that he wrote the letter, he did so in private and offered the excuse that he had forgotten about the treaty with   Spain. 24

The General Assembly was ready to re-elect Blount to the Senate, but he declined. When the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms arrived in Knoxville with a warrant for his arrest to produce him for trial, the U.S. marshal and state authorities refused cooperation. The Senate official, nevertheless, was entertained at Blount Mansion before heading home. “Some of the citizens accompanied him a few miles from town, where, assuring him that William Blount could not be taken from Tennessee as a prisoner, bade him a polite adieu.” 25

Blount was next elected to the State Senate and was unanimously elected speaker. 26 There, in December 1798 and Jan. 1799, he acted as presiding officer and prosecutor in the impeachment trial of his old enemy, Judge David Campbell of the Superior Court. Campbell was charged with improperly dismissing a slander suit brought by Blount against another enemy. 27 Despite the questionable process and Blount’s conflict of interest, Campbell avoided removal by one vote. 28

While Campbell’s impeachment trial was taking place, Blount’s impeachment trial, with Vice President Jefferson presiding, was held in Philadelphia without Blount’s presence. His lawyers convinced the Senate it did not have jurisdiction because impeachment did not apply to senators, and, even if it did, he was no longer a senator. 29 The charges were dismissed on Jan. 11, 1799, by a vote of 14 to 11. 30

Blount died suddenly on March 21, 1800. He was buried at the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Knoxville. Leadership of his political faction fell to his loyal protégé, Andrew Jackson. 31



RUSSELL FOWLER is director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET)and since 1999 he has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has many publications on law and legal history, including many in this Journal.

 

Notes


1. See Jill S. Broer, “William Blount” in Governors of Tennessee 1-23 (Charles W. Crawford. ed., 1979); Terry Weeks, “Blount, William” in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture 74-75 (Carroll Van West. ed., 1998).
2. See Stanley J. Folmsbee, et al. Tennessee: A Short History 127 (1969); Broer at 23.
3. See Broer at 23.
4. See John C. Miller, The Federalist Era 188-89 (1960).
5. See Thomas P. Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee 167 (1955).
6.  See Folmsbee at 126; Miller at 191; Robert E. Corlew, Tennessee: A Short History 129 (1981).
7. See Folmsbee at 128.
8. Miller at 190.
9. See Folmsbee at 128.
10. William H. Masterson, William Blount 310 (1954).
11. Masterson at 312.
12. Id. at 312.
13. Id. at 313.
14. Id. at 316.
15. See Id. at 317; Finger at 209; Broer at 24.
16. Masterson at 315.
17. See Id. at 315-16.
18.  Id. at 319.
19.  See Id. at 320; Broer at 25.
20.  See Id. at 312-22.
21.  See Id. at 322-23; Broer at 25.
22.  Masterson at 317-18.
23.  See Folmsbee at 130.
24.  See Broer at 25.
25.  J. G. M. Ramsey, The Annals of Tennessee 699 (1853).
26.  Id. at 700.
27.  Corlew at 131.
28.  Carroll Van West, “Campbell, David, Judge” in Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture 119 (Carroll Van West, ed., 1998).
29.  See Broer at 25; Folmsbee at 130-31.
30.  Ramsey at 701.
31.  See Corlew at 132; Broer at 27.
 

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