Why a US politician from 150 years ago will be key in Donald Trump's impeachment trial

William Belknap (left) was impeached in 1876. His case will be an important one to consider in Donald Trump's impeachment trial Credit: Library of Congress/PA

You may not have heard of William Belknap but I suspect by next week we will all know more about him and not just for his lavish parties and equally lavish wives.

This long-dead US politician of the past is suddenly quite key to the present and the question as to whether an out of office politician can actually be impeached.

Back in 1876, no one could work out how Belknap, this modestly paid Secretary of War, was living the high life on his government salary.

The reality was that he wasn’t, he was up to his finely attired neck in money-making scams.

Held to account by the Senate, he raced to the White House, resigned and wept on the president.



It made no difference, the House insisted they would go ahead with impeachment accusing him of “prostituting his high office to his lust for private gain”. Their argument, that politicians should not escape justice by leaving office.

And there’s the part which will be engaging minds in the days ahead, as former President Trump’s team argue it is unconstitutional to impeach a president who is no longer actually the president.

Donald Trump Credit: PA

Their 14 page defence rests on this premise.

It’s going to be a fascinating few weeks if constitutional law is your thing. It’s going to be a fascinating few weeks even if it’s not, these days will determine the constitution of this country for the future, based in no small part on a long forgotten politician.

In the end, Belknap was acquitted, but he was still tried, his case setting an important precedent which will be tested in the weeks ahead.

  • Will the impeachment delay play into Trump's hands? Listen to our latest podcast: