14

I'm reading about the use of censure in the United States. I've visited a number of the Wikipedia-like articles, and also read some of the material provided by the Congressional Research Service (Jack Maskell provides some very good papers, for those interested).

One of the Wikipedia-like sites state:

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, were condemned by the Senate for allowing an elected member of the House to hold commissions in the Army. The Senate voted for the reprimand 24 to 12, but it was referred to a special committee and no further action was taken.

Its not clear to me what the censure-worthy infraction was. Why is holding a commission in the Army and being a member of Congress a violation?

  • 1
    Might have something to do with separation of powers (the congress is part of the legislative branch and the army is part of the executive branch). But this isn't my area of expertise. – Philipp Dec 22 '16 at 13:03
11

To answer the question from the point of view of the historical reason for why the act of censure was pursued I believe it is because of pure and simple politics:

General Frank Blair has resigned his seat to the House, and the President has revoked the acceptance of his military resignation. This is a stretch of power and construction that I do not like. Much censure will fall on the President for this act, and it will have additional edge from the violent and injudicious speech of General Blair denouncing in unmeasured terms Mr. Chase. He also assails the appointees of Chase, and his general policy touching agent's permits in the valley of the Mississippi as vicious and corrupt. I have an unfavorable opinion of the Treasury management there and on the coast, and there are some things in the conduct of Chase himself that I disapprove.

Diary entry of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, 28 April 1864

Chase in the above refers to Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Salmon Chase), whom Congressman Frank Blair had just attacked from the floor of the House of Representatives the day before. The stink between the two at the time seems to be centered on the existence of a possible forged requisition form signed by General Blair that had been altered from requesting $150 worth of goods to somewhere between $8,000-$10,000 (those figures are sourced from Mr. Welles' diary, so I assume them to mean 1864 dollars). From here:

On April 27, 1864 Congress Frank Blair, brother of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, attacked Chase in a speech in the House of Representatives – as he had done in February. Historian Daniel J. Ryan wrote: "Lincoln's attitude was friendly enough towards the Blairs that in April, Chase, thoroughly infuriated, still again threatened to resign and to go to Ohio to rally opinion against Lincoln and the Blairs. He was, however, persuaded by Governor John Brough to withhold his resignation."

Supposedly Chase was encouraging this scandal, and, having his honor stained by rumor being too much for him, General Blair resigned his seat and Lincoln immediately reappointed Blair to his old Army rank without getting the required consent of the Senate. From Lincoln's point of view he wasn't creating a new general he was instead simply withdrawing his acceptance of Blair's resignation of Army commission.

The senate disagreed, and it was the absence of consent which caused them to vote to censure.

12

Presumably this was seen as a violation of Article I, Section 6, Clause 2 of the US constitution:

No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.

  • Good info, but I'm not really a fan of taking an answer with "Presumably" and no sources as the actual, factual reason for the incident in question. – Zach Mierzejewski Dec 22 '16 at 18:50
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    @ZachMierzejewski someone looking for historical information about actual incidents is probably better advised to ask at History. This answer is primarily intended to answer the political question with a reference to the document that defines the US political system. – phoog Dec 23 '16 at 3:54
  • Ok, good point. I reread the question and it is not asking about that specific, historical incident; it is definitely asking about a general political rule. – Zach Mierzejewski Dec 23 '16 at 13:57
3

First of all, the House and Senate are allowed to make their own rules as they see fit. In a sense censure can be for anything and everything legislators feel like, wearing socks with sandals is just as justifiable as holding a commission in the army.

Legislators being part of the military can also be problematic as it starts to blur the separation of powers line. as legislators they should be independent from the president, but as enlisted personnel they are subservient to the president who is commander-in-chief. A president that could order around legislators defeats the purpose of representative democracy, so its better if this situation can be avoided. There are rules about refusing illegal orders that can figuratively limit this abuse of power, but don't work that well practically.

Finally, civilian control of the military was one of the principles put in to the constitution. While this is primarily a concern that the president not be an active member of the military. There are still conflicts for legislators in declaring wars or voting for laws that would have a conflict of interest. The goal of this principal is to keep the military as separate from the rest of the government as possible.

  • Principle, not principal. I would just have edited it myself, but I don't have enough rep to make such a "trivial" edit. I would also note that the censure here was directed at the executive branch, not at members of the Senate, so it's hard to imagine what "further action" might have been contemplated. That is, the Senate can certainly vote to censure the president for wearing socks with sandals just as well as a senator, but they can't actually impose any punishment on the president as they could on a senator. – phoog Dec 22 '16 at 18:18
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    The House member in the question was a commissioned officer, not enlisted. There is a huge difference when it comes to the law. For one, commissioned officers are held to higher standards under the UCMJ. Second, it very likely counts for "holding an office" under the part of the U.S. Constitution quoted in phoog's answer. An enlisted member is not an officer: even an NCO is not technically an officer by the legal definition (I know, I used to be an NCO) and might be able to get away with holding an office under the Constitution (except for the UCMJ forbidding running for partisan office). – user5586 Dec 22 '16 at 18:37

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