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Investigating the President: James Buchanan and the Covode Committee

This month's theme will be about Congressional oversight of the President. We will look at a number of instances when Congress has either directly or peripherally investigated the President of the United States. It may seem inconceivable that this would have occurred enough to fill up a month's worth of entries, but in fact every President has come to expect some second-guessing from Congress, beginning with George Washington (who was asked by Congress to produce his records concerning a failed expedition into the Ohio territory by General Arthur St. Clair) to the current incumbent. Since today is the sesquicentennial anniversary of the passing of James Buchanan, let's begin this series with a look at the 1860 Covode Committee which looked into Buchanan's possible impeachment.

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Its formal name was "The Select Committee to Investigate Alleged Corruptions in Government". It was as select committee of the United States House of Representatives which operated during the spring and summer of 1860 during the 36th Congress. The committee's mandate was broadly described as conducting an investigation of the administration of President James Buchanan, including possible impeachment.The committee became known as the Covode Committee, named after its chairman, John Covode of Pennsylvania. The committee was established March 5, 1860 when the House adopted a resolution offered by John Covode, to investigate the president. The motion passed by a vote of 115 to 45. It read as follows:

Resolved, That a committee of five members be appointed by the Speaker for the purpose of investigating whether the President of the United States, or any other officer of the government, has, by money, patronage, or other improper means, sought to influence the action of Congress, or any committees thereof, for or against the passage of any law appertaining to the rights of any State or Territory; and also to inquire into and investigate whether any officer or officers of the government have, by combination or otherwise, prevented and defeated, or attempted to prevent or defeat, the execution of any law or laws now on the statute-books; and whether the President has failed or refused to compel the execution of any law thereof; that said committee shall investigate and inquire into the abuse at the Chicago or other post offices, and at the Philadelphia and other navy yards, and into any abuses in connection with the public buildings, and other public works of the United States.

Resolved, further, That as the President, in his letter to the Pittsburgh centenary celebration of the 25th November, 1858, speaks of "the employment of money to carry elections," said committee shall inquire into and ascertain the amount so used in Pennsylvania, and any other State or States, in what districts it was expended, and by whom, and by whose authority it was done, and from what sources the money was derived, and report the names of the parties implicated; and for the purpose aforesaid, said committee shall have power to send for persons and papers, and to report at any time.

Covode was a Pennsylvania Congressman who was born in Fairfield Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, the same state as Buchanan. After serving an apprenticeship to a blacksmith, he became involved in the Westmoreland Coal Company, serving as the first president of the company in 1854. In 1854, he was elected to Congress as a candidate for the "Opposition Party". He soon joined the newly formed Republican Party and was re-elected to the 35th Congress in 1856. He was an abolitionist who would go on to become a strong supporter of the Freedmen's Bureau, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Reconstruction Acts. He would also go on to introduce a resolution in the House of Representatives to impeach President Andrew Johnson. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Covode served as chairman of the United States House Committee on Public Expenditures from 1857 until 1859 and the United States House Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds from 1867 until 1869. He also served on the United States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. In March 1860, the House created the Covode Committee to investigate the Buchanan administration for evidence of offenses. Some of these were impeachable offences, such as bribery and extortion of representatives in exchange for their votes. The committee was made up of three Republicans and two Democrats.

Buchanan's supporters accused the committee of being blatantly partisan. It was said that Covode was acting on a personal grudge. Buchanan had recently vetoed a bill that was fashioned as a land grant for new agricultural colleges, but was said to be designed to benefit Covode's railroad company. Whether or not this is true, by this time Buchanan had made quite a few enemies. Even the Democratic committee members wanted to see Buchanan out as President. Many of the witnesses before the committee were Democrats and it seemed as if they hated Buchanan as much as the Republicans.

Still, The committee was unable to establish grounds for impeaching Buchanan. The majority of the committee issued its report on June 17 that alleged corruption and abuse of power among members of Buchanan's cabinet. The Republican members of the Committee went so far as to accuse Buchanan of attempting to bribe members of Congress in connection with the Lecompton constitution (referring to Buchanan's support of the pro-slavery faction in Kansas, ignoring the wishes of the majority there).

The Democratic members issued a minority report, issued separately the same day. In that report, they pointed out that evidence was scarce, but did not refute the allegations. One of the Democratic members, Representative James Robinson of Illinois, stated publicly that he agreed with the Republican report even though he did not sign it. Robinson was a supporter of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, an opponent of Buchanan's within the Democratic Party and a candidate for the party's presidential nomination in 1860.

Buchanan later wrote that he had "passed triumphantly through this ordeal" with complete vindication. But in reality, the accusations in the report stuck in his craw. Republicans distributed thousands of copies of the Covode Committee report throughout the nation as campaign material in that year's presidential election. Buchanan sent two formal messages to Congress with a lawyerly response complaining that the Covode Committee report was making vague accusations which were too broad and far-reaching to allow him to exercise his Constitutional right to prepare a defense or cross-examine witnesses. He called the committee's report a secret inquisition and one-sided smear campaign, produced from the minds of a large group of unsuccessful applicants for coveted government jobs. Buchanan wrote that that this type of committee set a dangerous precedent that threatened to undermine the independence of the office of the president. He said that a small committee of Congress was usurping the power of the people who elected him, and it was to the voters that he was answerable and not to Congress.

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In the end, the committee found that Buchanan had not done anything to warrant impeachment, but that his was "the most corrupt administration since the adoption of the US Constitution in 1789." Buchanan took his resentment against the committee to his grave. In 1868 Buchanan published a book defending himself against the myriad of criticisms against him, including blame for the Civil War. The book is entitled Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion and in it he once again argues that the Covode Committee was purely a political smear tactic and had no legitimate congressional purpose.

The committee report can be found online here.
Tags: andrew johnson, civil war, james buchanan, stephen douglas
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