Warren Hastings, the guy caught in the middle

March 20, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism.

What do the British East India Company and the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump have to do with each other?

To answer that question, we need to take a quick romp through 500 years of history with a short side trip to Boston. The man caught in the middle of all of this is a fella named Warren Hastings, but we will get to him in a moment.

The British East India Company was formed in 1600. It was a group of investors who decided that there was money to be made in overseas trade, particularly in commodities such as salt, ivory, silk, spices, opium, and slavery. The company received generous monopoly powers from the British monarchy and returned a great deal of wealth and goods to government coffers and to English society.

But to do this, the company’s methods were often harsh, and as the power of the company grew, its methods of procuring trade and goods became increasingly unsavory. This was especially true on the Asian subcontinent of India. The company had formed and funded its own private army, and that army was often ruthless in subjugating the people it wanted to be its trading partners.

By the middle of the 18th century, there were growing doubts within the British government and throughout the British Empire – which included the American colonies – about the British East India Company and its methods. In America, there was a widespread and not unfounded fear that the British East India Company could do to Americans what it had done to the native peoples of India.

In the 1770s, one of the favors that the company had been granted by the British crown was something close to a monopoly on the importation of tea to America. It was to protest these conditions that a group of American patriots, supposedly disguised as Native Americans, boarded a ship loaded with British East India tea in 1773 and tossed the tea overboard. This incident we know today, of course, as the Boston Tea Party. It was as much of a protest against the British East India Company as it was against King George III.

One of the last great administrators of the British East India Company in India was a man named Warren Hastings. Unlike previous administrators, Hastings was genuinely interested in India and Indian culture. He learned the native language, and he preserved and used Sanskrit and Arabic texts. Where he could, Hastings attempted to minimize the conflict between the native inhabitants and the company. He also integrated Native Indians into the administration of the company and the country. By most accounts, Hastings did what he could to govern India simply and reasonably.

Hastings was not a perfect administrator, however. He used his position to enrich himself, something his predecessors had always done. And he made enemies. His chief antagonist was Philip Francis, a man with whom he had fought an inconclusive duel and someone who had influence in Parliament back in London.

The stories of the atrocities and other misuses of power had left a stench on the reputation of the company that Hastings could not avoid. Hastings resigned his position and return to London in 1785. He expected he would be criticized but believed this criticism would die away. Philip Francis would not let it do so, and he had the ear of members of parliament such as Edmund Burke. By 1787 Hastings had been brought before Parliament on impeachment charges.

Impeachment was a rarely-used process, but the charges against Hastings gained a worldwide audience. Part of that audience was in America, which at that point was forming and debating a new constitution. Political leaders in America took a keen interest in what was happening in London.

One of the early issues the parliament dealt with was whether or not Hastings could be impeached in light of the fact that he had already left office. Parliament decided that Hastings could be impeached even after leaving office.

While the impeachment of Warren Hastings generated great excitement initially, that excitement died away because the trial lasted much longer than anyone had anticipated. Hastings was finally acquitted of all charges by the House of Lords in 1795.

Now, we fly over two centuries and land in 2021 with the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

Trump’s supporters argued that he should not be impeached because he had already left office. The prosecutors countered with the precedent set by the impeachment of Warren Hastings, and the trial continued. Although there was a bipartisan majority of senators who voted to find Trump guilty, that majority fell short of the two-thirds vote necessary for conviction. 

 

 

 

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