Skip Content
U.S. Flag

Ten Senators Expelled

July 11, 1861

Abraham Lincoln by Freeman Thorp

For what reasons should the Senate expel a member? The Constitution simply states that each house of Congress may "punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member." When the Senate expelled William Blount in 1797 by a nearly unanimous vote, it had reason to believe he was involved in a conspiracy against the United States.

Sixty-four years later, at the start of the Civil War, senators again turned to this constitutional safeguard. Between December 1860 and June 1861, 11 of the nation's 34 states had voted to withdraw from the Union. What was the status of their 22 senators at the beginning of the 37th Congress? Some were no longer senators because their terms had expired. Others sent a letter of resignation. Still others, believing their seats no longer existed, simply left without formal notice. Several remained, despite their states' departure.

During a brief special session in March 1861, weeks before the start of hostilities, the Senate decided to consider these seats as vacant to avoid officially recognizing that it was possible for a state to leave the Union.

On the Fourth of July 1861, with open warfare in progress, President Abraham Lincoln convened Congress to deal with the emergency. With all hope of reconciliation gone, the Senate took up a resolution of expulsion against its 10 missing members. The resolution's supporters argued that the 10 were guilty, like Blount years before, of conspiracy against the government. In futile opposition, several senators contended that the departed southerners were merely following the dictates of their states and were not guilty of personal misconduct.

On July 11, 1861, the Senate quickly passed Senate Daniel Clark's resolution, expelling all 10 southern senators by a vote of 32 to 10. By the following February, the Senate expelled another four senators for offering aid to the Confederacy. Since 1862, despite considering expulsion in an additional 16 instances, the Senate has removed no member under this provision.

Reference Items:

Butler, Anne M., and Wendy Wolff.  United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases, 1793-1990.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995.