Belknap’s downfall was his decision to abuse his authority to appoint “sutlers” or civilian merchants who ran trading posts that served military outposts. At the urging of his second wife, Carita, Belknap named a New York businessman who was married to Carlita’s close friend, Caleb Marsh, to run the trading post at Fort Sill in the Oklahoma territory. However, Fort Sill already had a trader, John Evans, who did not want to relinquish the post. A compromise was reached via a generous kickback. Evans was to pay Marsh for the privilege of sharing the post. Since Marsh was indebted to the Belknap’s for giving him the lucrative job, he agreed to split the pay-off money with Carita.
“Carita engineered the plan that would ultimately bring about Belknap’s downfall,” says says Cecily N. Zander, assistant professor of history at Texas Woman’s University.
Belknap’s blatantly corrupt actions epitomized what Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded Age. His $8,000 a year salary (roughly $230,000 in today’s dollars) was not enough to maintain the luxury lifestyle that either his second wife Carita or his third wife Amanda desired. After Carita died in 1870, her sister Amanda Bowers became Belknap’s third wife and the kickback payments continued. Prior to her marriage to Belknap, she took an 18-month trip to Europe where she acquired expensive furniture and a trousseau from a Paris designer. She was known in Washington’s high society for her extravagant taste and beauty. A newspaper article noted that she was “dainty from head to foot” and claimed “her foot is the smallest in Washington.” The Belknap’s lifestyle clearly was not supported by his government salary alone, as the couple gained a reputation for their lavish parties.
Then, as now, “party politics did matter, and Democrats certainly aimed to make an example of Belknap to expose broader Republican corruption in the aftermath of the Civil War,” says Zander. In early 1876 with a presidential election nearing, the opposition party was eager to highlight scandals involving President Grant’s Republican Party. There were plenty of targets. In addition to Belknap’s bribery scandal there was Credit Mobilier and the Whiskey Ring (whiskey distillers bribed Treasury agents to avoid paying the whiskey tax), and embarrassing stumbles Grant encountered when selecting a chief justice of the Supreme Court.
While politics may have played a role, Belknap “undeniably engaged in activities that constituted ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ by using his office to line his own pockets,” says Zander. That’s a distinction from what House Republicans are pursuing in 2024.
“In the case of Secretary Mayorkas,” she says, “the charges stem from a disagreement about how a cabinet official ought to do his or her job – rather than conclusive findings that there was some abuse of office.”