MGA Faculty Member’s Research Takes Historical Look at U.S. Impeachments

Author: Sheron Smith
Posted: Monday, November 11, 2019 12:00 AM
Categories: School of Arts and Letters | Faculty/Staff | Pressroom | In the News

Macon, GA

Dr. Buckner Melton Jr., MGA history lecturer, with a copy of his book about the U.S. first impeachment - that of Sen. William Blount of Tennessee in 1798. Photo by Anna Lipson.

One of the first big national news events Dr. Buck Melton Jr. remembers is Watergate, a catchall term describing a web of political scandals that likely would have led to President Richard Nixon’s impeachment had he not resigned in 1974.

Melton was a bookish kid, insatiably curious about history and politics. His father, Buck Melton Sr., was at the time a Macon lawyer who would soon be elected to his first term as the city’s mayor.

“My dad and I started having discussions about Watergate and impeachment, so I probably knew more about those topics than any other 12-year-old around,” said the younger Melton, now a lecturer of history at Middle Georgia State University (MGA). 

Those conversations with his father were part of the foundation upon which Melton later built a career as a constitutional and legal historian, with impeachment as one of his research specialties. Despite Watergate, and Nixon’s close brush with impeachment, the topic was relatively obscure, at least from a historical perspective.

Fast forward to 1998.

That was the year Congress impeached President Bill Clinton in the wake of a scandal that stemmed from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by one woman and his lying about a sexual relationship with another, White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was the second American president to be impeached, the first being Andrew Johnson in 1868.*

Shortly before the Clinton scandal surged into public view, Melton had finished writing a book about Congress’s first impeachment ever – that of Sen. William Blount of Tennessee in 1798. Practically overnight, the book’s niche topic propelled Melton into the spotlight as certain members of the House of Representatives, as well as some senators, sought out anyone who could provide legal and historical insight into what exactly impeachment entails. In addition to consulting with lawmakers of both major parties, Melton gave interviews to newspapers and provided analysis for NPR, MSNBC, and CSPAN.  

Though not yet as prolifically as 21 years ago, Melton is once again providing expert takes to media in the wake of an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. The latest inquiry is related to allegations that, in order to advance his political interests, Trump pressured the leader of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 presidential election opponent, and his son Hunter.

The issue is dominating the highly polarized environment of U.S. politics, leaving Melton with mixed feelings. He is proud to be one of the relatively few U.S. scholars with extensive knowledge of impeachment, but also concerned about deep political and cultural rifts fueling the starkly different ways people view the process.

“I happened to be in the right place at the right time” during the Clinton impeachment, he said. “I did not think I would be here again.”

A Macon native, Melton graduated from Tattnall Square Academy and enrolled at Mercer University, where he earned a B.A. in history and political science. He moved on to Duke University and earned a master’s degree and PhD in history. Duke is also where he met his wife, Dr. Carol Melton, now an MGA history professor.

In the late 1980s, Melton was scouting around for his PhD dissertation topic when the Iran-Contra affair burst into the news. As described by The History Channel’s website, Iran-Contra was a secret U.S. arms deal that traded missiles and other arms to free some Americans held hostage by terrorists in Lebanon, but also used funds from the arms deal to support armed conflict in Nicaragua. The controversial dealmaking and subsequent political scandal drove debate over whether President Ronald Reagan committed an impeachable offense.

Reagan ultimately never faced an impeachment inquiry. But Iran-Contra did provide Melton with his research focus: Under the Constitution, exactly what kind of offenses by federal officials are subject to impeachment; that is, the filing of formal charges. Melton discovered there was little published scholarship about historical precedents, which inspired him to take his groundbreaking deep dive into the 1798 impeachment of Blount.

To Melton, what makes that first U.S. impeachment so significant is that it took place only 10 years after the Constitution was drafted. Many of the framers were still around; some were members of Congress. How they wrestled with questions about the impeachment process perhaps offers clues as to their original constitutional intent.

Anyone curious about the whole affair can read Melton’s book, but here’s the crux: The House of Representatives impeached Blount, a land speculator who routinely used his political position to expand his wealth, on charges related to a financially motivated scheme to help the British gain control of part of Florida and Louisiana from the Spanish – basically an attempt to break up the U.S.  

“That’s about as dramatic as it can get,” Melton said. Then, as now, one of the central issues was whether the alleged offense “was an indictable crime, or something else.”

After completing his PhD, Melton went on to earn a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He joined the law school’s faculty and began working to adapt his dissertation into the aforementioned book. Mercer University Press ended up publishing Melton’s The First Impeachment: The Constitution’s Framers and the Case of Senator William Blount.

A few years after his 15 minutes of Clinton impeachment fame, Melton relocated back to Macon to care for his aging parents. His wife joined the faculty of Middle Georgia State, and a bit later Melton joined her at the University as a full-time lecturer.   

In addition to teaching, Melton researches and writes books on various historical topics. He’s published eight, including the Blount book. His fields of interest, besides American constitutional and legal history, include naval history, which is the subject of his currently-on-hiatus podcast:

Melton plans to revive the podcast soon but he might be busy for a while. In recent weeks he has provided analysis and historical context of the current impeachment inquiry to Georgia Public Broadcasting, a San Francisco-based radio news show, and most notably, through his comprehensive article published by The Atlantic magazine.

Regardless of the current inquiry’s outcome, Melton somberly predicts that the nation’s ongoing political divisions will result in more frequent attempts by Congress to use the impeachment process.

“In the first two hundred years of our history, we impeached exactly one president,” he said. “In the last 50, we almost impeached Nixon, we did impeach Clinton, and we’re probably about to impeach Trump. I don’t think that’s a trend that bodes well for the country.”  


*What exactly is impeachment? Here’s the description from the U.S. Senate’s official website: “If a federal official commits a crime or otherwise acts improperly, the House of Representatives may impeach - formally charge - that official. If the official subsequently is convicted in a Senate impeachment trial, he is removed from office.” Both Clinton and Johnson were acquitted in their subsequent Senate trials.