In 1915, a year after World War I engulfed the European continent, Democrat Frank Buchanan of Illinois declared that he was willing to go to any length to stop the United States from getting drawn into the conflict. Within months, however, the Congressman found himself in a little war of his own, not against a foreign adversary but with his own Justice Department.
Prior to serving in Congress, Buchanan had been an ironworker and an influential labor activist. In 1910 he won a seat in the House promising to fight tariffs and bust trusts. It was his experience in organized labor that largely informed his belief that the burden of the war would fall on America’s working class while the wealthy would prosper. By June, the Congressman had called for a nationwide embargo on all arms exports to Europe.
Many in organized labor felt similarly. Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, hoped America would stay neutral, as did a separate new organization called Labor’s National Peace Council. To centralize the antiwar cause, Labor’s National Peace Council recruited various labor leaders to serve on its board and asked Congressman Buchanan to be its first president. The Peace Council met in Washington on June 22, 1915, and called on the government to nationalize arms manufacturers and ban munitions exports to warring nations. It also sought the cooperation of all labor organizations in advocating for peace in Europe.
But not everyone was on board with Buchanan’s effort, and others questioned the Peace Council’s legitimacy. Gompers worried that the Peace Council was secretly bankrolled by German operatives as a way to sow discord and warned Buchanan as much. But Buchanan, allured by a generous paycheck and a platform to speak out against the war, ignored the red flags. By July, the press had also started to scrutinize the group.
Things quickly unraveled for the Congressman. Within months, H. Snowden Marshall, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced an investigation into the Chicago-based Peace Council, which held some of its assets in a New York bank. A grand jury began hearing evidence that the Peace Council had used foreign money to fund work stoppages up and down the East Coast, jeopardizing America’s production capacity and its ability to ship supplies to the Allied Powers. The question arose as to whether Buchanan, the Peace Council’s president, knew about the organization’s alleged shady activities.
As Buchanan tried to dodge the case, he turned desperate. If he could not stop the investigation, he would simply get rid of the investigator. On December 14, 1915, Buchanan rose from his seat on the House Floor and sought recognition from the Speaker. “I impeach H. Snowden Marshall, United States district attorney for the southern district of New York,” the Illinois Congressman announced, accusing Marshall of corruption and various other “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Buchanan’s effort to prosecute his prosecutor ignited a feud between the legislative and executive branches. The rift challenged the government’s separation of powers and ultimately stretched the House’s legal authority, establishing new precedent on Congress’s contempt power along the way.
The suspicion surrounding Labor’s National Peace Council turned out to be well founded. Behind the operation was Franz von Rintelen, a German spy who characterized himself as a “dark invader.” He arrived in the United States in April 1915 with the goal of disrupting American aid to the Allies. With hundreds of thousands of dollars from the German government at his disposal, von Rintelen worked with a network of co-conspirators to form Labor’s National Peace Council. Over the summer of 1915, the council held several conferences and printed thousands of pamphlets promoting peace. But its true mission, according to H. Snowden Marshall, was to fund labor strikes to disrupt production in munitions factories.
Marshall was unfazed by Buchanan’s impeachment threat. At the end of December, only two weeks after Buchanan introduced his impeachment charges, Marshall’s grand jury returned formal indictments against Buchanan, von Rintelen, and other Peace Council members. But Buchanan’s role remained unclear. Was the Congressman in on the conspiracy, or had he been unwittingly recruited into a figurehead position to give the Peace Council more credibility? The question was for a trial jury to decide.
Meanwhile, an indictment process of a different kind unfolded in the House. Buchanan’s impeachment case against Marshall had been referred to the Judiciary Committee, which began hearings in January 1916. The press pointed out the tit-for-tat nature of the proceedings. “In an effort to stop the grand jury investigation,” reported the Chicago Tribune, “Buchanan . . . demanded the impeachment of Marshall.”
Judiciary Committee members, too, noted that Buchanan’s charges lacked substance. As Buchanan presented his case, the panel repeatedly asked him to specify what exactly Marshall did to warrant impeachment. The committee explained to Buchanan that it needed enough preliminary evidence to develop a prima facie case—a case that appears solid at first glance—before it could ask the House for subpoena power to call witnesses.
After this initial hearing, Buchanan sifted through Marshall’s legal career in search of any impeachable indiscretions. Two days later, Buchanan announced 40 new impeachment charges against the prosecutor and introduced a resolution authorizing the Judiciary Committee to investigate Marshall’s conduct. The charges included accusations that Marshall had failed to prosecute a major tobacco company under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, had shielded a personal friend from prosecution, and had abused his position to get favorable judges assigned to his district, whom he then manipulated through “private solicitation.” Buchanan also accused Marshall of mishandling the Peace Council case and of “corruptly inducing and procuring grand juries to return . . . indictments charging crimes without there being evidence.”
Having launched his opening volley, Buchanan then went on the defensive as he pleaded his innocence before his colleagues. He insisted before the Judiciary Committee that he had never met von Rintelen, that he was unaware of any German influence behind the Peace Council, and that there was no evidence to justify the conspiracy charges against him. He also denied involvement in any labor strikes. Impatient with the speed of the Judiciary Committee’s preliminary investigation, Buchanan took his case straight to the House Floor and asked, unsuccessfully, that the committee be given subpoena power immediately. At least one reporter in the gallery saw Buchanan’s hasty maneuver as the act of a desperate man. “Buchanan looked scared to death,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “he tried to bluff . . . but he ended by pleading with the members” while “nervously mopping his forehead.” Buchanan’s colleagues also were skeptical. Hunter Moss of West Virginia warned against subjecting the House to the “unnecessary labor of fruitless investigations,” while Judiciary Committee Chairman Edwin Yates Webb of North Carolina noted that opening a full investigation “straight off the bat” would break precedent. Buchanan countered that only full subpoena power would uncover crucial evidence. “Many of the witnesses . . . will not come voluntarily,” he said.
It became clear that Buchanan didn’t have many allies in the House. “Nine-tenths of the Judiciary Committee . . . were sympathetic with Mr. Marshall,” reflected Chairman Webb, “but . . . when you start the impeachment machinery in motion it is the duty of the committee to get to the bottom of the matter.”
The committee heard testimony on a widely publicized case from Marshall’s career, in which a young woman had sued former New York district attorney James Osborne—a friend of Marshall—in a breach of promise suit, claiming that Osborne had committed to marry her and then backed out. The woman’s attorney told the committee that Marshall used his power to shield his friend from the lawsuit. Combined with Buchanan’s accusations that Marshall had targeted him unfairly, the Judiciary Committee decided to move forward with the investigation. “We are dealing with a Member of Congress, who has been indicted after he filed impeachment charges. Now, I believe that the high prerogatives of the House demand that we be zealous for our own rights,” observed John Nelson of Wisconsin. On January 27, the House approved the committee’s request for subpoena power and resources to conduct Marshall’s impeachment inquiry. As was typical for impeachments at the time, the Judiciary Committee created a special subcommittee endowed with the same powers as the full committee for the investigation. The case rested with the three men appointed to the subcommittee: Representatives Charles Carlin of Virginia, Warren Gard of Ohio, and John Nelson.
The special impeachment subcommittee traveled to New York in late February where it launched a probe into Marshall’s handling of the Labor’s National Peace Council case. Carlin, Gard, and Nelson summoned the grand jurors who had indicted Buchanan, one of Marshall’s assistant attorneys, members of the Peace Council, and journalists who covered the hearings against Buchanan to determine if the Congressman had been indicted in retaliation for introducing impeachment charges against Marshall. The jurors defended Marshall’s conduct and denied that he tried to influence their decision to move forward with the charges against Buchanan.
When the subcommittee failed to gain access to the minutes of the grand jury proceedings in the records of the district court, the three Members knew they had hit a wall. Carlin, Gard, and Nelson ultimately concluded that pressing forward with the Peace Council case would be politically unwise and dropped the issue. In June 1916, the subcommittee reported that it found no evidence of corruption in the district attorney’s office, and that further investigation into Marshall’s conduct was unwarranted.
By then, however, tensions between the House and Marshall had escalated into an all-out war. Earlier that year, in March, New York Times reporter Leonard Holme published comments from Marshall’s office claiming that the House had opened its investigation in bad faith to delay the Justice Department’s prosecution of “pro-German partisans.” In response, the Judiciary subcommittee summoned Holme and asked him where he got his information. When Holme refused to divulge his sources, the subcommittee ordered the Sergeant at Arms, Robert Gordon, to arrest him. Gordon detained Holme but, being in New York, had nowhere to lock up his prisoner. When the U.S. Marshals refused Gordon’s request to take custody of Holme—insisting that they would not detain anyone not charged by a court—the Sergeant at Arms brought Holme back to the subcommittee, which released him after a second round of questioning.
News of Holme’s arrest infuriated Marshall, who wrote the Judiciary Committee an angry letter denouncing its investigation, which he characterized as a blatant intimidation tactic. “I . . . [offer] to resign,” the prosecutor wrote, “if you can indicate anything I ever did that remotely approximates the lawless tyranny of your order of arrest of Mr. Holme.”
Back in Washington, Marshall’s comments struck a nerve—a House select committee determined his letter to be “defamatory and insulting.” The House promptly passed a resolution declaring Marshall’s actions to be a “breach of the privileges” of the House, charged Marshall with contempt, and authorized his arrest.
Congress has exercised its power to arrest and fine individuals for contempt since the eighteenth century. While not explicitly written in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed Congress’s right to defend the integrity of its proceedings by punishing those who interfere with the legislative process. Since 1857, most contempt violations—such as bribery, failure to comply with subpoenas, and refusal to answer committee questions—have been referred to the courts, where individuals face criminal charges. But since Marshall was already part of the justice system, the House decided to skip the middleman and arrest him itself.
On June 26, the House sent Robert Gordon to Marshall’s New York office, where the Sergeant at Arms read the arrest warrant out loud to the U.S. Attorney. But before Gordon could remove him from the building, Marshall hastily assembled a writ of habeas corpus—a legal recourse used to report an unlawful detention—and had it signed by a judge from his district. “Tell the House to obtain the services of a high-class lawyer,” retorted Marshall, handing the writ to Gordon, “he will be needed.” Marshall was free to go.
When a judge threw out Marshall’s writ of habeas corpus the following month and ruled that his arrest was lawful, Marshall appealed his case to the Supreme Court. What were the limits of Congress’s contempt power? Did the House have the right to punish Marshall for writing a critical letter? When the Supreme Court delivered its ruling in April 1917, Chief Justice Edward White wrote in the majority opinion that the power to punish for contempt rests “solely upon the right of self-preservation.” The case, known as Marshall v. Gordon, affirmed Congress’s implied power to punish contemnors, but only if they directly “prevent or obstruct the discharge of legislative duty.” Marshall’s letter did not affect the House’s ability to legislate. Therefore, White determined, the House had no right to punish him for it. Those parameters restricting the contempt power continue to stand and have been reaffirmed in subsequent court rulings.
A month later, in May 1917, Frank Buchanan, now out of Congress after failing to win re-election in 1916 and having failed to impeach his prosecutor, went on trial. Several of von Rintelen’s associates testified that the German agent paid out more than $500,000 to recruit labor leaders, such as Buchanan, to support an arms embargo and encourage labor strikes—accusations largely confirmed in the Peace Council’s own records. Jurors found Franz von Rintelen guilty of conspiracy but disagreed over Buchanan’s role in the plot. After 31 hours of deliberation, they remained deadlocked over Buchanan’s case and the trial ended. Buchanan returned to his old job as an ironworker and was never tried again.
Throughout his legal saga, Buchanan continued to oppose the war and maintained the support of his organized labor base. The last piece of legislation he introduced in the House in February 1917 sought to bar Congress from declaring war unless the question was approved by a public referendum. A month after he left office, and without such a referendum, Congress formally declared war against Germany.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 64th Cong, 1st sess. (14 December 1915): 240; Congressional Record, House, 64th Cong., 1st sess. (11 January 1916): 913–914, 916; Congressional Record, House, 64th Cong., 1st sess. (12 January 1916): 962–963, 967, 969; Congressional Record, House, 64th Cong., 1st sess. (27 January 1916): 1658; Congressional Record, House, 64th Cong, 1st sess. (20 June 1916): 9638, 9639, 9659, 9670; Congressional Record, Index, 64th Cong., 2nd sess. (1917): 27; Hearings before the House Committee on the Judiciary, H. Snowden Marshall, 64th Cong., 1st sess. (1916); House Select Committee appointed pursuant to House Resolution 193, H. Snowden Marshall, 64th Cong., 1st sess., H Rept. 544 (1916); H. Res. 498, 64th Cong. (1917); “Frank Buchanan,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=B001001; Supreme Court Of The United States, U.S. Reports: Marshall v. Gordon, 243 U.S. 521, (1916); Supreme Court of The United States, U.S. Reports: Jurney v. MacCracken, 294 U.S. 125 (1935); Atlanta Constitution, 20 June 1915; Boston Daily Globe, 10 July 1915, 22 July 1916; Champaign Daily Gazette, 9 February 1918; Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 July 1910, 8 and 10 June 1915, 15 December 1915, 9 November 1916, 2 May 1917, 19 April 1930; Detroit Free Press, 2 May 1917; Hartford Courant, 30 December 1915; Indianapolis Star, 9 May 1917; Los Angeles Times, 12 January 1916, 3 May 1917; New York Times, 7 December 1915, 18 January 1916, 22 January 1916, 29 February 1916, 3 March 1916, 20 and 27 June 1916, 4 December 1916, 2 and 8 May 1917, 8 September 1919, 30 May 1931; New York Tribune, 29 February 1916, 4 March 1916, 27 June 1916, 21 May 1917; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2 May 1917; Washington Post, 23 June 1915, 8 December 1915, 29 December 1915, 18 June 1916; Waukegan News-Sun, 17 November 1916; Todd Garvey, “Congress's Contempt Power and the Enforcement of Congressional Subpoenas: Law, History, Practice, and Procedure,” Report RL34097, 12 May 2017, Congressional Research Service; Jennifer Luff, Commonsense Anticommunism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Franz von Rintelen, The Dark Invader (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1936).Follow @USHouseHistory