On Impeachment

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Chisholm-Romayne Scheme

Senator William Blount

The Chisholm-Romayne Scheme


David Arthur Walters

The Genet Scheme to grab the Spanish Plums for the United States set the precedent for the Chisholm-Romayne Scheme, but the Blount Conspiracy was far broader in scope than its precedents.

John Chisholm was a Spanish-hating ex-British soldier who had suffered imprisonment at the hands of the Spanish at Pensacola. He soon became a Knoxville tavern owner, a free lance Indian agent, and a soldier of fortune in want of U.S. citizenship - his citizenship petition for himself and his Loyalist friends was greeted coldly by Secretary of State McHenry and turned down. Chisholm served his client, William Blount, as handyman and Indian agent while Blount was the wheeling and dealing governor of the territory south of the Ohio - Blount's main concerns as real estate speculator and governor were his land deals and Indian affairs.

Chisholm the mercenary was not about to wait for American and British statesmen to form an alliance against Spain to make his fortune - the Federalists loved England but they did not want to entangle the fledgling United States in a war with Spain. A rumor out West had it that Spain would soon return New Orleans and the territory west of the Mississippi, which France had given to Spain in 1763, to France. Of course France was not bound by the U.S. treaty with Spain. It was feared that Napoleon would then close the Mississippi river to the Americans; therefore New Orleans would be better off in British hands, because the 1783 U.S. treaty with Britain guaranteed free navigation of the Mississippi. Chisholm conceived a scheme for an assault on East Florida, and proceeded to promote it with almost anyone who cared to listen, including the Indian interpreter James Carey, his old Loyalist friends and others on the frontier; and with British minister John Liston. In fine: Chisholm and his ex-Loyalist friends would enlist Indian allies and lead the attack on Spanish Florida; the British would supply provisions and a privateer.

Senator William Blount of Tennessee, patriot of the Revolution, wheeler-dealer and real estate speculator, the first person impeached and tried by Congress, loved Chisholm's scheme for what it was worth, and that was not a lot in comparison to his own grand plan. Indeed, he called the Chisholm part of the so-called Chisholm-Romayne scheme a "petty enterprise" because the big Spanish plum, which Chisholm had relished in conference with his real-estate speculating partner up North, Dr. Nicholas Romayne, was not Spanish Florida, but was Spanish Louisiana, and that was what Blount would have.

The American real-estate bubble burst: prices tumbled; paper was presented; debtor's prison loomed. Dr. Romayne went to England and tried to dump some of the vast Western tracts on British investors; he reported back to Blount that the Western land was considered worthless in England for fear, of course, that Spain, to establish a firm barrier for her possessions further south, would cede Louisiana to France. The doctor's enthusiasm for the conspiracy to set things right would eventually wane, and he would pen a letter to Blount renouncing the plan because of France's successes in the war and the related growth of England's financial burdens.

The details of the Chisholm-Romayne Scheme were probably never worked out. Generally speaking, the British would cooperate in a three-pronged attack on the Northwest (via Canada) and on Pensacola and New Orleans. We do know that Blount discussed Chisholm's plan with Dr. Romayne. The doctor did not like Chisholm's involvement - the mercenary was too disreputable for his taste. And Chisholm was no fool: he realized that he might be shoved aside by Dr. Romayne, hence he was not very cooperative once he knew of his involvement. In fact, he sounded out Aaron Burr in hopes of enlisting him into the scheme.

We do not know if Burr bought into the Blount’s own conspiracy. Burr and Blount were friends, and Blount had been seen dining with one James Wilkerson, who was at the heart of the later Burr scheme and who had taken part in a yet earlier plot, an alternate to Genet's plot, the original plot to seize the Spanish Plums - Wilkerson would have had to ally himself with Spain given the political climate at the time. Thomas Jefferson had also been seen with the "wrong" people - Abigail Adams would wish the guillotine were applied to the likes of Jefferson and Blount. It was a small world, after all, and the Anglo-Saxons had much in common; they wanted much more; to wit, access to the Gulf, Florida, Louisiana, and so on. And the Anglo-Celts disliked not only the Spanish and Native Americans but the Brits as well. Of course the visionary Thomas Jefferson coveted the Mississippi and beyond. He pardoned Wilkerson for his, earlier plot, one far more treasonable plot than Blount's or Burr's, yet he persecuted Burr for a similar yet lesser plot than Blount's. In fact, Vice-President Jefferson would preside over the impeachment of Senator Blount - Jefferson remarked in a personal letter that he thought Blount had done nothing wrong.

The Blount Conspiracy had intrigued British Minister Liston, for Britain was at the time contemplating an attack on Spain in America. When the conspiracy came to light, Liston would admit that he had spoken to someone about some sort of scheme, but he denied that he was keen on it. He had formerly been interested enough in Chisholm's proposal, however, to provide him with passage to England: Chisholm's efforts there were for naught - he was turned down flat; thereafter a deluded Brit accused him of plotting with Spain.

An argument presented against the impeachment of Senator Blount for high crimes and misdemeanors in regards to his own land-grabbing scheme out West was that the House impeachment (political indictment) had been brought solely on the basis of Blount's letter to his Indian interpreter, James Carey. Blount had risked writing the soon-to-be notorious letter because he had been called to a special session of Congress and could not communicate his wishes directly. In that letter, Blount made references to participants in schemes broader than the customary cheating of Indians out of their land; for instance, the Chisholm-Romayne scheme to seize the Spanish plums. This time the cheating of Indians would be at Holston.

Blount's defenders argued that there cannot be a conspiracy without co-conspirators capable of carrying it out; in this case, the British, who purportedly did not actually conspire to carry out the attacks proposed. The Federalists were in fact embarrassed by the probability, no matter how slim it might be, of British involvement, for that would implicate the Federalists if not the opposing Republican fraction. Therefore President Adams was advised to keep the whole thing quiet; but he dared not do so, lest the cover up be uncovered and his party defamed by the conclusions which might then be drawn about what went on under the sheets.

The Carey letter was not the only evidence brought to light during the impeachment proceedings, but it was considered sufficient evidence for a quick impeachment. The Congressmen on all sides were rightly concerned for the future of the United States, which seemed to be presently endangered by the misconduct of one of its senators - whether that misconduct was indictable as a criminal offense was not relevant at the moment. Senator Blount had been expelled, but he might be elected again given the fact that he was extremely popular in Tennessee. Conviction at an impeachment trial would disqualify him from office; however, even that was not the chief concern at the time: an investigation must be conducted at once to address what was perceived as a clear and present danger to the United States; and the impeachment committee, the House managers, and the senators serving as inquisitors, judges and jurors for the highest court in the land - in cases of impeachment - did just that. When they realized there really was no threat, the impeachment trial was put on the back burner for the political squabbling that would eventually set precedents for future impeachments. There was no pressing need to wrangle over whether or not the British were in fact conspiring with Blount et al. Many of those involved in the debates certainly knew what "the framers intended," for they had participated in the framing. William Blount should have known, for he was one of the signers of the United States Constitution.


At 3:41 AM, Blogger chisholm said...

Where is the proof that John Chisholm was an ex British solider? It has been speculated that his father was but I have never before seen any mention that John was an ex soldier of any kind.

At 7:52 AM, Blogger David Arthur Walters said...

There are several references to John Chisholm as an ex-British soldier who wound up in Pensacola and onward, not being the earlier John Chisholm. I do not have time to research the question, so perhaps the questioners will make the distinctions for the record. Here is one link



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