Weaponizing Impeachment: Justice Samuel Chase and President Thomas Jefferson’s Battle Over the Process

Portrait of Justice Samuel Chase. (Maryland State Archives)

There was much discussion over the impeachment process during the Constitution’s ratifying debates. Federalists argued that the ability to impeach an individual gave disproportionate power to the House of Representatives, while Antifederalists favored more provisions to prevent tyranny from taking root. Some individuals liked the idea of having a body other than the Senate try impeachment cases. Most, if not all, debaters feared impeachment could be weaponized. Early in Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, this fear became real with the impeachment of Samuel Chase, a Federalist-affiliated Supreme Court Justice. Was the impeachment a political move? Federalists thought so. Chase was an ardent Federalist, and vocally supported America’s first Federalist president, John Adams, including when Chase sat on the Supreme Court bench. Jefferson did not like Chase’s behavior, but Jefferson disliked Chase’s politics even more. Hence, Jefferson, with an Antifederalist majority in the House of Representatives, had Chase impeached.

To better understand the objections of the rule of impeachment, first turn to the debate over impeachment and the fear that it could be used to increase the power of the party in charge of the House of Representatives. Federalists were afraid that there was too much power being given to the House. If the House did not like an individual or their actions, they could simply impeach them.[1]

It was thought that impeachment would give pause to politicians attempting to commit certain unsavory acts, or even acts that might seem unsavory, even if they were not. Pennsylvania Antifederalist William Petrikin, writing under the pseudonym Aristocrotis, asserted, “this entirely vanishes, when it is considered that the senate hath the principal say in appointing these officers, and that they are the sole judges of all impeachments.”[2]

Petrikin wrote that too much power was consolidated in Congress.[3] He feared how much power the Senate had to appoint and remove cabinet members, judges, ambassadors, and other unelected officials.[4] As Aristocritis, he wrote, “it would be absurd to suppose that they would remove their own servants for performing their secret orders perhaps. For the interest of rulers and the ruled will then be two distinct things.”[5] While Aristocritis may seem to have been paranoid, he was rightfully so. He, along with many Antifederalists, thought that power corrupts people.[6] While he feared that the Senate might appoint people that the majority in that body liked, it does not seem that he considered that the powers vested in Congress could be used against those they did not like. This separation of power is exactly what the framers of the Constitution wanted and precisely why they established the checks and balances.[7] No single group of people, be it legislative, judicial, executive, the states, or some amalgamation of these groups, could fully enforce what they wanted, at least not without support from the rest.

New York state also had issues with the impeachment clause, insisting that a separate court, other than the Senate, be used in trying impeached individuals.[8] On July 26, 1788, the New York convention, headed by New York governor and future Vice President George Clinton, signed the Constitution into ratification in their state. They included several amendments, including how they did not want the Senate to preside over the trial of impeached officials. When the announcement came of the New York convention’s decision, the members made it clear that they all had taken issue with at least some part of the Constitution, but they felt comfortable with the ongoing ratification process. The New York convention hoped a better-measured and tempered document would become the final one.[9] The basis of their fear was reasonable, and the New Yorkers echoed their southern neighbors in Virginia with similar objections.[10] The objection was that the Senate would be unlikely to convict appointments for presidential nominations for various positions should they be impeached. To paraphrase William Grayson, a staunch Virginia Antifederalist and one of Virginia’s first two senators, “since [the Senate] was also charged with advising the president, it would be his partner in crime.”[11] But there was no other viable court to try impeached officials.[12]

The debate over how impeachment was to work continued, even as it was laid out in its original form by James Madison and other creators of the Constitution. Furthermore, three of the country’s largest states, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, all had serious objections to this clause. While the clause by itself may not have been enough to stop ratification in these states, the discourse on it certainly cast a shadow over three states that were essential to the Constitution’s success.

Before the ratification of the Constitution by a majority of the states, there was great debate over the impeachment clause. Historian Jonathan Gienapp states that the silence of the Constitution on the removal process of members of the Executive Branch was a dangerous affair.[13] Gienapp refers specifically to a South Carolinian politician, William Loughton Smith, who objected to the fact that the only way for an executive officer to be removed, as laid out in the proposed Constitution, was by impeachment.[14] Smith wanted more ways to remove an officer, should it be necessary, although no other proposal was made. Smith further objected that in the Constitution, it only allowed the executive to be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”[15] The ensuing debate did not focus so much on whether the president could be impeached or how to impeach a president, but instead, the debate revolved around executive officers such as various department secretaries, ambassadors, judges, and others. While most members of the ratifying conventions found it laughable that impeachment was the only method of removing a non-elected executive official, it seems as though those same committee members could not agree on how the officers of the executive branch should be removed.[16] This debate lasted long into the First Federal Congress, particularly with the proposed Foreign Affairs Act of 1789. The failed bill reignited a debate on how “good behavior” should impact a potential impeachment, and if impeachment could be enacted solely for a lack of “good behavior.”[17] For Jefferson and the impeachment of Samuel Chase, the idea of “good behavior” became an important, albeit minor, factor in the trial of the judge.

The term “good behavior” did not mean that judges needed to uphold societal standards, such as not being publicly drunk or not being corrupt. Instead, as The Federalist 78 suggests, “good behavior” is based on the ability “to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws.”[18] As is perhaps obvious, this term of “good behavior” is somewhat nebulous, as it will depend on an individual to determine what judicial decisions are “steady, upright,” and most important and difficult, “impartial.”[19] Nonetheless, it might have been a stretch for Chase to be considered impartial. In 1796, the same year Chase was appointed to the Supreme Court by outgoing President George Washington, the judge made speeches supporting fellow Federalist John Adams. 1796 is the year Adams won the presidency.[20] These missteps were only Chase’s first. At this time, Chase came into the spotlight as being a Federalist ally, though at times he was at least attempting to be impartial.

One of the next steps that Chase took to further his reputation as a Federalist was participating in the prosecution of Adams’ possibly unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts.[21] Jefferson’s dislike of Chase started with the judge’s prosecution of James Callender, an Antifederalist newsman, who continuously wrote scathing opinion pieces about John Adams.[22] From the bench, Chase scolded Callendar and impartially conducted a trial. Chase soon convicted, sentenced, fined, and imprisoned Callender because of the latter’s contempt for Federalist doctrine and President Adams.[23] The Callendar case, along with a trial from 1800 where Jefferson considered Chase’s actions improper in court, were among the eight articles of impeachment leveled at Chase in March 1804.[24] Chase defended his judicial choices on these cases, one against Callender and another from 1800 referring to John Fries of Pennsylvania, as being under the protection of and by right of the Sedition Act of 1798, which forbade disloyal, profane, or otherwise improper language from being spoken or published.[25]

Antifederalists under Jefferson strongly objected to the Sedition Act, as well as its sister act, the Alien Act. Jeffersonians felt these laws, passed by Federalists, imposed tyranny on the American people.[26] As renowned scholar of early American republican history Adrienne Koch writes, “despite the diplomatic tone of his Inaugural Address, Jefferson had no intention of abiding by the dictatorial rulings made under the Alien and Sedition Acts. The new President had not forgotten the dangers and abuses to which some of his most respected friends had been subjected in the brief ‘reign of witches,’ which he was now ready to dispel. . . . Those who were still in jail for ‘seditious’ writing, Jefferson pardoned.”[27] The Alien and Sedition Acts were heinous to not only Jeffersonian republicans, but also to many Federalists, like James Madison, who generally favored government oversight in public affairs. Madison even proposed counter-legislation to combat Adams’ acts.[28] It is important to note that while the Alien and Sedition Acts were considered by many, even today, to be unconstitutional violations of First Amendment rights, the Acts were law, and Chase did have the responsibility to follow the law as a Supreme Court Judge. After all, that is what a judge on “good behavior” was supposed to do.[29]

The crux of the controversy lay in the question of whether Samuel Chase acted on “good behavior” by upholding the rule of law as it was presented. To most, except some of the most ardent Antifederalists, Chase’s actions were justifiable since he was doing his job as a Supreme Court justice, even though he was following laws that overlooked an individual’s rights. Jefferson, on the other hand, took Chase’s actions a different way. On May 13, 1803, the president sent a letter to Maryland Representative and strong Antifederalist ally Joseph Nicholson, asking that Mr. Nicholson start an investigation into Chase’s “good behavior,” ideology, and court rulings.[30] Though it had backing from a sitting United States president, the investigation started slowly. A House Committee gathered to inspect Chase’s history in 1804. On March 12 the House of Representatives voted to impeach Chase on eight articles. Six of those articles dealt with specific issues in Chase’s handling of the trials of both Callender and Fries. A seventh charge examined Chase’s attempt to have a Wilmington newspaper editor indicted for sedition, while the eighth and final article of impeachment focused on Chase’s perceived meddling in a grand jury in Baltimore.[31] It would be almost a whole year before Chase faced a Senate trial for his impeachment.

It is important to note that Chase was doing his job as a judge. According to William Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1986-2005, “more moderate Republicans saw no need for structural change in the government.”[32] Rehnquist continues, citing that if Chase had been convicted, this would have given Jefferson and the Antifederalists an opening to reshape the judiciary in a way that would better suit them and their agenda.[33] Then-Senator John Quincy Adams, son of the former president John Adams, wrote to his father, stating the same thing: “the assault upon Judge Chase; as this in its turn was unquestionably intended to pave the way for another prosecution, which would have swept the Supreme Judicial Bench clean at a stroke.”[34] According to Senator Adams, even Jefferson’s push for an investigation that would lead to an impeachment was an overstep of power. Writing to his father the following week, Senator Adams said the articles of impeachment levied against Chase were more about the Antifederalists perceiving “evil intent” in Chase’s choices rather than points of law and order and “good behavior.”[35] Senator Adams’ claims were hyperbolic, as the articles of impeachment did deal with actual legal issues, and not just “evil intent,” but Senator Adams’ thoughts on the matter, particularly in his first letter to his father, were not far from the truth.[36]

One need not look far to find evidence of Rehnquist’s point about how many republicans did not want to proceed with Chase’s impeachment. Turning to some of Jefferson’s own correspondences with his political allies, Representative Caesar A. Rodney, in a letter to Jefferson, stated that “Judge Chase was extremely moderate here in his charge. I suppose he was ashamed of the [charge] he gave in Maryland.”[37] Rodney continued, writing that while Chase tried the patience of Antifederalists, and should not have issued his rulings on a couple of cases, impeaching Chase was not the solution to change the judiciary.[38] It seems Rodney later changed his mind, writing, “I find the impeachment of Chase is a popular thing even with some Federal lawyers who can not but admit its justice & propriety.”[39] Rodney also supported John Randolph’s issue of orders to inquire about Chase’s activities.[40] Even though Rodney changed his mind, Rehnquist’s point is proven that there were some that did not support Jefferson’s attempts to rewrite the judicial branch’s authority. In fact, the Antifederalists who did not support Jefferson, either for philosophical or practical reasons, would be the end of Samuel Chase’s trial.[41] On February 26, 1805, Samuel Chase was acquitted on all accounts. One charge had him face nineteen votes in favor of conviction versus fifteen, the largest majority the Senate could muster. Another charge had zero votes for impeachment. The other six were all similar, being in the mid-teens for conviction or innocence on each charge. A two-thirds majority vote is required for conviction.

The impeachment and failed trial of a United States Supreme Court Justice could have broken the Constitution. Although the trial was held on the grounds of impropriety, it was about political power. Chief Justice Rehnquist argues that this event set up the independent judiciary that the United States still has.[42] Some of Chase’s actions were also supportive of judicial independence, like his support of Madison v. Marbury, which in effect gives the Supreme Court say over Congressionally passed laws.[43] While Chase’s impeachment trial served to strengthen the Supreme Court’s hold over America, the Supreme Court could just as easily have gone from “the least dangerous branch” to a branch that was not even a consideration for danger, if the Jeffersonian Antifederalists had gotten their way.[44] In the immediate aftermath of Chase’s acquittal, there were calls from House Impeachment Managers and various Senators for new reworkings of the Constitution. Both Randolph and Nicholson offered resolutions to make removing federal officers easier.[45] According to Rehnquist, the only thing that stopped these resolutions from possibly becoming amendments was the soon-expiring lame-duck session of Congress. When the House reconvened, the resolutions were never spoken of again.[46]

Though Jefferson’s partisan tactics to remove a judge failed, he and other Antifederalists succeeded in ensuring that federal judges in the future would be more careful in their personal rhetoric, as well as ensuring more fairness from the bench.[47] As Rehnquist puts it, the Senate saw that Chase perhaps acted unethically in how he issued sentences and in his personal rhetoric, but found nothing but solidity in his judicial rulings and proceedings.[48] At times during the trial, up to six Jeffersonian republican Antifederalists voted not to convict Chase for various reasons. Dr. Samuel Mitchill, a senator from New York who voted not to convict Chase, once wrote, “this tedious and important trial is brought to an end. All this mighty effort has ended in nothing. On this occasion myself and my colleague . . . acted with the Federalists. But we did so on full conviction that the evidence, our oaths, the Constitution, and our conscience required us to act as we have done.”[49] The six Republicans that broke away from Jefferson are notable, and Mitchill is possibly even more so, as he and the president had some correspondence. Jefferson and Mitchill were friends, with Mitchill regularly sending Jefferson reading materials.[50] The six dissenting Republicans are important because they show that the ratifiers were correct—the impeachment process could be weaponized for political gain.

Oftentimes there is very little that stands between tyranny and liberty, or, according to some, Federalism and Antifederalism.[51] It appears as though the Constitution’s framers and their opposition had reason to argue and deliberate. If Chase had been impeached, it is likely that a whole new meaning would have been given to the separation of powers, namely one where the Legislative Branch held control over almost everything. It does seem odd, however, that while the Antifederalists were so afraid of impeachment not working, they were the ones that first used it, and for attempted political gain no less. Moreover, this is what various Antifederalists feared, that the impeachment process could be weaponized. Indeed, in the case against Samuel Chase, it was.


[1]John Kaminski and Richard Leffler, eds., Federalist and Antifederalists: The Debate over the Ratification of the Constitution (Madison, WI: Madison House Publishers, Inc., 1998), 38.

[2]Aristocrotis, “The Government of Nature Delineated; or An Exact Picture of the New Federal Constitution, Carlisle, Pa., c. 27 April 1788,” in The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (DHRC), vol. XXXIV, Pennsylvania Supplemental Documents [3], eds. John Kaminski, et. al. (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2019), 1255.

[3]An Old Whig, “Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer, 12 October,” in DHRC, vol. XIII, Commentaries (I), eds.  John Kaminski, et. al. (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1981), 376.

[4]Aristocrotis, “The Government of Nature Delineated,” 1255-1256.

[5]Ibid., 1255.

[6]Reformation, “Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer, 29 September 1787,” DHRC, vol. XXXII, Pennsylvania Supplemental Documents [1], 248-249, ; “Pennsylvania Mercury, 28 June 1788,” DHRC, vol. XXXIV, Penn. Suppl. Docs. [3], 1308.

[7]Kaminski, Federalist and Antifederalists, 68.

[8]Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 397-398; New York Convention, “New York Declaration of Rights, Form of Ratification, and Recommendatory Amendments to the Constitution, 26 July 1788,” in DHRC vol. XXIII, New York [5], eds. John Kaminski, et. al. (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2009), 2333.

[9]Maier, Ratification, 398.

[10]James Madison, “Impeachment of the Executive, [20 July] 1787,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-10-02-0066.

[11]New York Convention, 286; William Grayson, “The Virginia Convention Wednesday 18 June 1788,” in DHRC vol.X, Virginia [3], eds. John Kaminski, et.al (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1993), 1373-1375; 1387.

[12]James Madison to an Unidentified Correspondent, May 29, 1805, founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-09-02-0466.

[13]Jonathan Gienapp, The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 126-127.

[14]Ibid., 127.

[15]Ibid., 126-127; US Constitution, art. 2, section 4.

[16]Gienapp, The Second Creation, 127-128.

[17]Ibid., 133-134; 386.

[18]Publius (Alexander Hamilton), The Federalist 78, May 28, 1788, reprinted in the New York Independent Journal, June 14, 1788, as quoted in Kaminski, Federalists and Antifederalists, 136-137.

[19]Ibid., 136-137; Irving Dillard, “Samuel Chase,” in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds.,The Justices of the United States Supreme Court 1789-1969 Their Lives and Major Opinions (New York: Chelsea House, 1969), 1:189.

[20]Dillard, “Samuel Chase,” 193.

[21]R.B. Bernstein, Thomas Jefferson The Revolution of Ideas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 154.

[22]James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, August 5, 1797, founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-17-02-0026.

[23]Bernstein, Thomas Jefferson, 154; Jefferson to James Monroe, May 26, 1801, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-34-02-0147.

[24]Dillard, “Samuel Chase,” 192-194, 196; Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, April 19, 1800, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-31-02-0436.

[25]Dillard, “Samuel Chase,” 196.

[26]Ibid., 194-195; Adrienne Koch, Jefferson & Madison The Great Collaboration (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1950), 184.

[27]Koch, Jefferson & Madison, 218; “Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Joseph Priestly, 21 March 1801,” The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford, vol. VIII, 21:quoted in Koch, Jefferson & Madison, 218.

[28]Koch, Jefferson & Madison, 184; Irving Brant, James Madison: Father of the Constitution, 1787-1800 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1950), 421.

[29]Publius, The Federalist 78, 136.

[30]Dillard, “Samuel Chase,” 195; Jefferson to Joseph H. Nicholson, May 13, 1803, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-40-02-0278.

[31]Dillard, “Samuel Chase,” 195-196.

[32]William Rehnquist, Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson (New York: Quill William Morrow, 1992), 53-54.

[33]Ibid., 54.

[34]John Quincy Adams to John Adams, March 8, 1805, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-1391.

[35]John Quincy Adams to John Adams, March 14, 1805, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-1395.

[36]Ibid.: John Quincy Adams to John Adams, March 8, 1805; Rehnquist, Grand Inquests, 75-76.

[37]Caesar A. Rodney to Jefferson, July 7, 1803, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-40-02-0518.


[39]Rodney to Jefferson, April 9, 1804, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-43-02-0172; Jefferson to Nicholson, May 13, 1803.


[41]Rehnquist, Grand Inquests, 99; 104-105; Dillard, “Samuel Chase,” 196.

[42]Rehnquist, Grand Inquests, 114.

[43]Ibid., 115.

[44]Ibid., 106: Publius, The Federalist 78, 136.

[45]Rehnquist, Grand Inquests, 106-107.

[46]Ibid., 106.

[47]Dillard, “Samuel Chase,” 197.

[48]Rehnquist, Grand Inquests, 107-109.

[49]“Samuel Mitchill to Catherine Mitchill, 26 February 1805,” Harper’s New Weekly Magazine, vol. LVIII, no. CCCXLVII (April 1879), “Dr. Mitchill’s Letters from Washington: 1801-1813”: quoted in Rehnquist, Grand Inquests, 109-110; “Samuel Mitchill to Catherine Mitchill, 1 March 1805,” Harper’s New Weekly Magazine, vol. LVIII, no. CCCXLVII (April 1879), babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924080772068&view=1up&seq=759&q1=this%20tedious%20and%20important%20trial%20is%20brought%20to%20an%20end, 749.

[50]Jefferson to Samuel Mitchill, September 8, 1805, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-2354.

[51]Aristocrotis, “The Government of Nature Delineated,” 1255.

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  • It is not quite accurate to equate the Antifederalists of the Ratification Debates with the Jeffersonian Republicans. The most famous example of this point is James Madison, “Father of the Constitution,” author of 29 of the Federalist Papers, who joined Jefferson in founding the first Republican Party in the early 1790s.

    • Randall, thanks for your sharing your thoughts and for reading the article. The first section of the article was meant more to show how many of our Founders and other political leaders (going into the 1810s, in Madison’s case) had evolving opinions on a variety of issues, including impeachment, and how they exhibited those changing ideas in words and actions. It was not so much of equating the two groups, but simply illustrating the changing dynamics of the day.

  • Justice Chase’s behavior on the bench was far beyond the bounds of what was accepted behavior for federal judges, even by Federalist standards. Chief Justice Rehnquist’s book did not excuse the behavior, but argued that President Jefferson overplayed his hand and scared the more thoughtful Republican Senators. The failure of the Chase impeachment and trial taught the federal judges that they could abuse power and not answer for those acts. With all due respect to Chief Justice Rehnquist, the power of Congress to remove abusive federal judges was unduly weakened by the Chase precedent. The notion that the Senate would have allowed Jefferson to remove the entire Supreme Court is simply silly.

  • John, I have to agree with you that Justice Rehnquist did not excuse the behavior, but, as you said, Jefferson overplayed his hand. Rehnquist, on page 53 of his book, writes: “…Jefferson’s elliptical suggestion to Nicholson that Chase be impeached might have been the opening volley in an attack that, if successful, would have led to the removal of other members of the Supreme Court. There is no doubt that some of the Republicans, such as Virginia Senator William Branch Giles, had this in mind.” While Rehnquist points out that Jefferson’s opinion on the matter of a complete overhaul of the Supreme Court is not anywhere near as clear, it is well known that Jefferson did not care for the so-called “Midnight Justices,” who he felt were unfairly appointed after the referendum on Federalist administration in 1800. So, while Chase’s behavior was unacceptable on a number of levels, some senators, even of Jefferson’s party (like Mitchill), were skeptical that removing Chase would solve the problem and were afraid it would open the flood gates to a new precedent that may not be beneficial to future administrations.

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