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The Chisholm-Romayne & Blount Schemes
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Thursday, March 05, 2009
Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2007



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Senator Blount's conspiracy to seize the Spanish Plums was grander.

The Genet Scheme to grab the Spanish Plums for the United States set the precedent for the Chisholm-Romayne Scheme, but the Blount Conspiracy was far broader in scope than its precedents.

John Chisholm was a Spanish-hating ex-British soldier who had suffered imprisonment at the hands of the Spanish at Pensacola. He soon became a Knoxville tavern owner, a free lance Indian agent, and a soldier of fortune in want of U.S. citizenship - his citizenship petition for himself and his Loyalist friends was greeted coldly by Secretary of State McHenry and turned down. Chisholm served his client, William Blount, as handyman and Indian agent while Blount was the wheeling and dealing governor of the territory south of the Ohio - Blount's main concerns as real estate speculator and governor were his land deals and Indian affairs.

Chisholm the mercenary was not about to wait for American and British statesmen to form an alliance against Spain to make his fortune - the Federalists loved England but they did not want to entangle the fledgling United States in a war with Spain. A rumor out West had it that Spain would soon return New Orleans and the territory west of the Mississippi, which France had given to Spain in 1763, to France. Of course France was not bound by the U.S. treaty with Spain. It was feared that Napoleon would then close the Mississippi river to the Americans; therefore New Orleans would be better off in British hands, because the 1783 U.S. treaty with Britain guaranteed free navigation of the Mississippi.  Chisholm conceived a scheme for an assault on East Florida, and proceeded to promote it with almost anyone who cared to listen, including the Indian interpreter James Carey, his old Loyalist friends and others on the frontier; and with British minister John Liston. In fine: Chisholm and his ex-Loyalist friends would enlist Indian allies and lead the attack on Spanish Florida; the British would supply provisions and a privateer.

Senator William Blount of Tennessee, patriot of the Revolution, wheeler-dealer and real estate speculator, the first person impeached and tried by Congress, loved Chisholm's scheme for what it was worth, and that was not a lot in comparison to his own grand plan. Indeed, he called the Chisholm part of the so-called Chisholm-Romayne scheme a "petty enterprise" because the big Spanish plum, which Chisholm had relished in conference with his real-estate speculating partner up North, Dr. Nicholas Romayne, was not Spanish Florida, but was Spanish Louisiana, and that was what Blount would have.

The American real-estate bubble burst: prices tumbled; paper was presented; debtor's prison loomed. Dr. Romayne went to England and tried to dump some of the vast Western tracts on British investors; he reported back to Blount that the Western land was considered worthless in England for fear, of course, that Spain, to establish a firm barrier for her possessions further south, would cede Louisiana to France. The doctor's enthusiasm for the conspiracy to set things right would eventually wane, and he would pen a letter to Blount renouncing the plan because of France's successes in the war and the related growth of England's financial burdens.

The details of the Chisholm-Romayne Scheme were probably never worked out. Generally speaking, the British would cooperate in a three-pronged attack on the Northwest (via Canada) and on Pensacola and New Orleans. We do know that Blount discussed Chisholm's plan with Dr. Romayne. The doctor did not like Chisholm's involvement - the mercenary was too disreputable for his taste. And Chisholm was no fool: he realized that he might be shoved aside by Dr. Romayne, hence he was not very cooperative once he knew of his involvement. In fact, he sounded out Aaron Burr in hopes of enlisting him into the scheme.

We do not know if Burr bought into the Blountís own conspiracy. Burr and Blount were friends, and Blount had been seen dining with one James Wilkerson, who was at the heart of the later Burr scheme and who had taken part in a yet earlier plot, an alternate to Genet's plot, the original plot to seize the Spanish Plums - Wilkerson would have had to ally himself with Spain given the political climate at the time.  Thomas Jefferson had also been seen with the "wrong" people - Abigail Adams would wish the guillotine were applied to the likes of Jefferson and Blount. It was a small world, after all, and the Anglo-Saxons had much in common; they wanted much more; to wit, access to the Gulf, Florida, Louisiana, and so on. And the Anglo-Celts disliked not only the Spanish and Native Americans but the Brits as well. Of course the visionary Thomas Jefferson coveted the Mississippi and beyond. He pardoned Wilkerson for his, earlier plot, one far more treasonable plot than Blount's or Burr's, yet he persecuted Burr for a similar yet lesser plot than Blount's.  In fact, Vice-President Jefferson would preside over the impeachment of Senator Blount - Jefferson remarked in a personal letter that he thought Blount had done nothing wrong.

Senator William Blount had had good reason to be anti-Federalist given the arrogant treatment he had suffered at Federalist hands when he tried to take a seat in the U.S. Senate for the new state of Tennessee. Moreover, Blount was favorably disposed toward some of the republican notions of the French Revolution while the Federalists were enamored of English traditions. Wherefore Blount's political affiliation with Jefferson's Republican (Democratic) party.

Blount, in his former capacity as Governor of the Southern District, was too beholden to the Federalists who had appointed him district governor, hence he led a crusade to bring statehood to Tennessee in order to save himself and like-minded Tennesseans from Federalist domination. The regional demands for statehood after the Revolution, which if met would provide independence from the federal government, alarmed the Federalists - too many states would rock the Federalist boat and water down its stock.

After Blount achieved statehood for Tennessee and took his Senate seat, he was politically a Republican (i.e. democrat) through and through. As for business, business is business, and sometimes the good of private business conflicts with publicly held political persuasions. Senator Blount the real estate speculator was facing financial ruin. That alone gave him due cause to side with the British where his own business was concerned. On the other hand, he faithfully sided with the French in the political arena.

Blount and his speculative compadres had their eyes on the Spanish plums in America: Florida and Louisiana. His Majesty of Spain had allied himself with France against England. The American speculators feared that Spain would concede the plums they sorely wanted to France in return for protection; that would spell disaster for the financial plans of Blount et al.

The most convenient solution: make a deal privately with England to grab the plums from Spain. The scheme: American settlers could get together with some Indian allies; backed up by British privateers, they would occupy the coveted lands. Such an alliance with the British would be in accord with the Anglo-American proclivities of most of the Southerners involved. Not that any affection for the British would preclude an alliance with Spain if it were convenient. William Blount, Andrew Jackson, and John Sevier among others had already participated in or condoned a flirtation with the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Esteban Miro, in a previous scheme (the Daniel Smith affair) that would have separated the District of Mero - prime real estate in the middle of the Cumberland region- from North Carolina and handed it over to Spanish Louisiana, that "the West be one people." But that deal had fallen through; this was now, and the speculators were in an awful fix now that values were plummeting and notes were being called in. So to hell with Spain.

William Blount was on the hook for a million acres in 1796. He was involved in his brother John Gray Blount's deals for another million and six hundred thousand acres. Prices in 1795 were around a quarter per acre for large tracts of two or more million acres. War ensued between Britain and Spain in October of 1796 - Spain was probably about to hand Florida and Louisiana over to France. In Tennessee, it appeared that the Federalists would draw the Holston line fairly - as the Cherokees had expected to begin with. Land values out West dropped to a dime an acre when credit collapsed. The dominoes tumbled one after another. Andrew Jackson was deeply indebted. David Allison, a wealthy easterner whose I.O.U. was once as good as gold, and who was one of Blount's partners in Indian land deals, wound up in debtor's prison. Senator Blount was virtually bankrupt; fortunately, his senatorial immunity saved him from debtor's prison.

Surely something must be done or all would be lost as far as the troubled real estate speculators were concerned. Help from the federal government would not be forthcoming if asked for: the Federalists were behaving diplomatically, hoping that the fledgling United States would not be strangled in its crib by foreign entanglements. An "incriminating" letter in Senator Blount's hand came to light, and the question as to whether or not his conduct rose to a high crime or misdemeanor for which impeachment arose and was quickly answered in the affirmative.

The Blount Conspiracy had intrigued British Minister Liston, for Britain was at the time contemplating an attack on Spain in America. When the conspiracy came to light, Liston would admit that he had spoken to someone about some sort of scheme, but he denied that he was keen on it. He had formerly been interested enough in Chisholm's proposal, however, to provide him with passage to England: Chisholm's efforts there were for naught - he was turned down flat; thereafter a deluded Brit accused him of plotting with Spain.

An argument presented against the impeachment of Senator Blount for high crimes and misdemeanors in regards to his own land-grabbing scheme out West was that the House impeachment (political indictment) had been brought solely on the basis of Blount's letter to his Indian interpreter, James Carey. Blount had risked writing the soon-to-be notorious letter because he had been called to a special session of Congress and could not communicate his wishes directly. In that letter, Blount made references to participants in schemes broader than the customary cheating of Indians out of their land; for instance, the Chisholm-Romayne scheme to seize the Spanish plums. This time the cheating of Indians would be at Holston.

Blount's defenders argued that there cannot be a conspiracy without co-conspirators capable of carrying it out; in this case, the British, who purportedly did not actually conspire to carry out the attacks proposed. The Federalists were in fact embarrassed by the probability, no matter how slim it might be, of British involvement, for that would implicate the Federalists if not the opposing Republican fraction. Therefore President Adams was advised to keep the whole thing quiet; but he dared not do so, lest the cover up be uncovered and his party defamed by the conclusions which might then be drawn about what went on under the sheets.

The incriminating Carey letter was not the only evidence brought to light during the impeachment proceedings, but it was considered sufficient evidence for a quick impeachment. The Congressmen on all sides were rightly concerned for the future of the United States, which seemed to be presently endangered by the misconduct of one of its senators - whether that misconduct was indictable as a criminal offense was not relevant at the moment. Senator Blount had been expelled, but he might be elected again given the fact that he was extremely popular in Tennessee. Conviction at an impeachment trial would disqualify him from office; however, even that was not the chief concern at the time: an investigation must be conducted at once to address what was perceived as a clear and present danger to the United States; and the impeachment committee, the House managers, and the senators serving as inquisitors, judges and jurors for the highest court in the land - in cases of impeachment - did just that. When they realized there really was no threat, the impeachment trial was put on the back burner for the political squabbling that would eventually set precedents for future impeachments. There was no pressing need to wrangle over whether or not the British were in fact conspiring with Blount et al. Many of those involved in the debates certainly knew what "the framers intended," for they had participated in the framing. William Blount should have known, for he was one of the signers of the United States Constitution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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