It was one of the first impeachment trials in American history. And it was also one of the strangest.
The man on trial in early 1805 was Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, the first and only member of the high court ever to be impeached. The man presiding over that trial was Vice President Aaron Burr, who was dodging charges in New Jersey for fatally shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel the previous summer.
“Formerly it was the practice in courts of justice to arraign the murderer before the Judge, but now we behold the Judge arraigned before the murderer,” wrote one Boston newspaper under the headline: “The World Upside Down.”
Unlike President Donald Trump, who declined to testify at his second impeachment trial, Chase decided to speak on his own behalf.
The 63-year-old Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was anxious to defend his honor. He was appointed to the high court in 1796 by President George Washington. Chase was an outspoken Federalist, even when presiding over district courts, which then was part of a justice’s duties.
In the 1800 presidential election, Chase openly backed the re-election of President John Adams. This didn’t sit well with winning Democrat Thomas Jefferson. One of his goals was to curtail the independence of the courts, especially since five of the six members of the U.S. Supreme Court were Federalists.
In 1804, the Democratic House impeached the outspoken Chase, affectionately known as “Old Bacon Face.” The charges included “tending to prostitute the high judicial character with which he was invested, to the low purpose of an electioneering partisan.”
The Senate trial was set for Jan. 3, 1805. It was Burr’s final official action as vice president. He had been replaced by George Clinton when Jefferson was re-elected in 1804. The lame duck Burr sought to make the most of his star turn on the Senate stage.
Burr had senators’ chairs replaced by benches covered in red cloth. The benches were placed on either side of his center-stage chair. He had a semi-circular gallery built “in a style of appropriate elegance.” The structure, one Federalist senator said, resembled a “Roman amphitheater.” On Jan. 3, the gallery was “filled with spectators, large portions of whom consisted of ladies,” newspapers noted.
After Burr took his chair, Chase approached and bowed. The justice, who was in ill health, asked for a chair, and an armchair was brought. He rose from his chair and fought back tears as he asked that the trial be delayed so he could prepare his defense.
“It is indeed a humiliating scene to behold an aged man, a Judge, of the Supreme Court of the United States – arraigned before a Court, the president of whom is a fugitive from Justice – & stands indicted as a MURDERER!” New Hampshire Sen. William Plumer wrote in his diary.
The Senate agreed to delay the trial to Feb. 4. This time Chase came forward and asked that he and his lawyers be allowed to read his response to the eight articles of impeachment. His response was more than 100 pages and took more than 3½ hours to read.
In short, he denied the charges. Three of the articles involved writer James Callender, who had been convicted in a district court of violating the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, outlawing criticism of federal officials. Callender had written a pamphlet called “The Prospects Before Us” attacking Adams.
Chase disputed a charge that he had wrongly rejected a witness who was called to declare “whether he had heard Mr. Adams express any opinions favorable to aristocracy or monarchy.” Who could determine if an opinion was favorable? The testimony, he said, “was inconclusive, immaterial and inadmissible.”
As for charges that he made an “inflammatory political harangue” in addressing a Baltimore grand jury, Chase said an error in political expression shouldn’t be a crime. “A party in power might, under this pretext, destroy any judge, who might happen . . . to say something capable of being construed by them, into a political opinion adverse to their own system.”
The two sides called more than 50 witnesses.
As the trial went on, Plumer noted that Burr “seems inclined to act like a tyrant.” The vice president complained that some senators “eat apples & some eat cake in their seats.” But Burr generally handled the trial itself even-handedly.
On Feb. 13, the trial was suspended for the ceremonial counting of electoral votes certifying Jefferson’s victory with Burr also presiding. But there was “concern that it would be dangerous to admit people into the galleries – that they might endanger the lives of the members of Congress,” Plumer wrote. A motion to allow visitors passed by one vote.
Chase sat quietly at his trial as his gout became more painful. Finally, on Feb. 19, he was excused from the rest of the proceeding. “The state of my health will not permit me to remain any longer at this bar,” he said.
Decision day arrived on March 1. Onlookers in the packed galleries sat in silence as the senators deliberated. A two-thirds vote was required to convict Chase, and Democrats controlled the Senate. But the justice’s remarks seemed to sway some moderate Democrats.
Chase was acquitted of all charges. The outcome helped establish the independence of the federal judiciary.
Burr won rave reviews for his performance, even from Chase’s lawyers. The next day he gave his farewell speech to the Senate in words that ring down to the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol and the impeachment trial of Trump.
The Senate, he declared, “is a sanctuary; a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty; and it is here . . . in this exalted refuge; here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political frenzy and the silent arts of corruption; and if the Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hands of the demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnessed on this floor.”
Two years later, in 1807, Burr would stand accused of treason in a plot to seize the new territory of Louisiana. And like Samuel Chase, he, too, would be acquitted.