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A Breach of Privileges

January 01, 1796
A Breach of Privileges Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Jonathan Dayton served as the third Speaker of the House and was previously a member of the Continental Congress.
On this date, the House met in a rare New Year’s Day session to deliberate the trial of two private citizens in the House of Representatives for attempted bribery of Members of Congress. Four days earlier, James Madison of Virginia and several other Representatives had submitted evidence to the House that Robert Randall of Philadelphia and Charles Whitney of Vermont had approached them with promises of future funds or land grants should the Members back a scheme to acquire pre-emption rights in the Northwest Territory. On the order of Speaker Jonathan Dayton, Sergeant-at-Arms Joseph Wheaton apprehended the gentlemen at their Philadelphia lodging and held them in his custody. The House appointed a Committee on Privileges to issue a report on how to proceed. On December 29, Members accepted the committee’s suggestion that Randall and Whitney be interrogated by the Speaker at the bar of the House. After the first day of questioning, both defendants denied the charges. Randall requested a delay to speak with legal counsel. While awaiting this legal counsel over the holiday, Members debated the ability of the House to preside over a legal trial at all. The lack of precedent for such a case unsettled several Members, who insisted the accused—once charged in open court—were entitled to a public trial. “We seem to consider ourselves as bound by the rules and usages of Common Law Courts,” Isaac Smith of New Jersey said in debate. “If we are, I am free to say that we have begun wrong, we have progressed wrong, and we will end wrong.” At the conclusion of debate, Members decided to send for a federal judge from the district of Pennsylvania to hear oaths and sit in on the trial, though the Speaker would still preside. The proceedings decided, the House hastily conducted the trial, found Randall guilty of contempt by a vote of 78 to 17, and issued a formal reprimand on January 5, 1796. A week later, Charles Whitney was released from the Sergeant-at-Arms’ custody on the basis that the target of his attempted bribery had been merely a Member-Elect who had not yet taken his seat in Congress. The Supreme Court affirmed the right of the House of Representatives to arrest and try citizens for contempt of Congress in the 1821 decision Anderson v. Dunn.

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