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US History Series: A Supreme Court Justice Is Put on Trial in 1805


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Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.

We talked last week about the presidential election of 1804. Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president, was easily re-elected. He was head of the Democratic-Republican Party, known today as the Democratic Party. His political opponents were called Federalists.

Now, Doug Johnson and Richard Rael begin the story of his second term as president of the United States.

Jefferson had a very good record during his first term as president.

He ended many taxes. He paid government debts. And he gained possession of the huge Louisiana Territory from France without going to war. The Federalists were sure he would win the election of 1804. Still, they were surprised by the strength of his election victory.

Jefferson won one hundred 62 electoral votes. His opponent, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, won just 14. The Federalists had expected Pinckney to get about forty.

Jefferson received support even in the Northeast. That is where the Federalists had their greatest strength. What was the explanation?

One man tried to explain the meaning of Jefferson's great victory. He was John Quincy Adams, son of former president John Adams. President Adams had been a firm Federalist. This is what his son said:

"The power of Jefferson's administration rests on a strong majority of the American people. The president has great popular support. His re-election shows that the experiment of the Federalists has failed. It never can and never will be brought to life again. To try to bring it back would be foolish. It would be like trying to put life into a body that has been buried for years."

After the election of 1804, only seven Federalists remained in the United States Senate. Only 25 remained in the House of Representatives.

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The Federalists no longer controlled the Congress, although they still controlled the courts. Many judges had been appointed during John Adams's last days as president. These judges opposed Thomas Jefferson. Some used the courtroom as a place to attack his policies. Judges were not supposed to make political speeches in court.

One of the most powerful anti-Jeffersonian judges was Samuel Chase. He was a member of the Supreme Court.

Samuel Chase was from the state of Maryland. He was active in local and national politics for a long time. He had signed America's Declaration of Independence from Britain. He had served in the Continental Congresses that governed America during and after its Revolutionary War. Yet he did not agree with all parts of the United States Constitution. When the Maryland legislature voted to approve or reject the Constitution, he voted against it.

Samuel Chase was not a republican: he believed that Americans should not have the same rights. For example, he believed that all citizens should not have the right to vote. He said this would lead to mob rule. He declared that great trouble would come to the government if common people had the same rights as educated people who owned property.

President Jefferson heard about Chase's statement. He told a member of Congress that he was concerned. Jefferson asked: "Should this judge's attack on the ideas of our Constitution go without punishment? The public will look to Congress to take the necessary action against him."

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During the last months of Jefferson's first term as president, the House of Representatives began discussing the possibility of removing Justice Chase from the Supreme Court.

A committee was named to investigate. The committee decided that there was enough evidence to bring him to trial before the Senate. The full House agreed. The impeachment trial was to begin in February, 1805.

The judge in the trial was the chief officer of the Senate, Vice President Aaron Burr. Burr would decide what evidence could or could not be heard. His actions would have great influence over the final decision.

Both Federalists and Republicans watched Burr closely during the trial. Both groups looked for some sign of support. Burr gave none. No one found any reason to criticize his actions.

The Senate heard testimony for a little more than three weeks. Then it voted on each of the eight charges against Justice Chase. A two-thirds vote was needed to declare him guilty. None of the charges received the necessary two-thirds vote. The impeachment had failed. Samuel Chase could not be removed from the Supreme Court.

President Jefferson had hoped that Chase would be found guilty. He did not get this wish. But, after the trial, Chase no longer used the courtroom for political purposes.

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A few days after the impeachment trial ended, Thomas Jefferson was to be sworn in as president for a second term. In those days, the inauguration of the American president was held in March, not January.

Aaron Burr would not be serving with Jefferson again. The Republican Party had not supported him for vice president. Instead, it chose George Clinton, who had been governor of New York state. Before leaving office, Burr decided to make one last speech to the Senate.

The senators were very interested in what Burr had to say. Even his political opponents sat up and listened. Burr told his friends goodbye. He said he might never see them again. Yet he said they could still join together in defending freedom and social justice.

He spoke of the senators' great responsibility to protect liberty, the law, and the Constitution. "If the Constitution is ever destroyed," he said, "its final breaths will come on this floor."

Aaron Burr faced a future full of questions. He had lost all political power. He owed large amounts of money. He could not return to his home in the New York area. He would face criminal charges there as a result of his duel with Alexander Hamilton. Burr had shot and killed Hamilton in the duel.

At the end of March, 1805, Burr wrote to his daughter. "In ten or twelve days," he said, "I shall be on my way west. The trip may lead me to New Orleans, perhaps even farther."

He also wrote to his daughter's husband. He said he would not return home. "In New York," he wrote, "I would lose my freedom. In New Jersey, I would be hanged. So, for the present, I will not take a chance."

What would Burr do instead? For more than a year, he had thought about a secret plan. Details are not clear, because he said different things to different people. But history experts say the plan involved an attempt to seize Mexico from Spain.

Burr could not keep his plan a secret from everyone. He needed help. He worked with two men. One was Jonathan Dayton, a former United States senator. The other was James Wilkinson, military governor of the Louisiana Territory.

Burr also needed money. He got some from his daughter's husband. And he got some from a man in Ohio named Harman Blennerhassett. Mr. Blennerhassett had become rich after coming to America from Ireland.

History experts say Burr tried to get help from Britain, too. Burr told the British ambassador in Washington that he wanted money and ships to create a new country. It would include Mexico and several western states. The states would be split away from the Union.

The British ambassador liked Burr's plan. He told Burr that he would urge his government to support it. It would take at least four months, however, for the ambassador to communicate with his government in London. Burr decided not to wait for an answer. He began his trip to the West. That will be our story next week.

Our program was written by Frank Beardsley and Christine Johnson. The narrators were Richard Rael and Doug Johnson. Join us each week for THE MAKING OF A NATION – an American history series in VOA Special English. Transcripts, podcasts and MP3s of our programs can be found at voaspecialenglish.com.


American History in VOA Special English
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Source: US History Series: A Supreme Court Justice Is Put on Trial in 1805
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