As Robert Mueller’s pending report looms heavily over Washington, many are darkly speculating about a new era in our history. When have there been so many investigations, such rank partisanship, such indifference to justice and the rule of law?
Actually we have been here before.
The myth that our present moment is somehow more scandalous than any other is easily dispelled by reading John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage, which details the political bravery of eight largely unsung individuals from congressional history.
One story in particular stands out as the perfect antidote for our time: that of Edmund G. Ross, senator from Kansas. In 1868, the United States came perilously close to impeaching its seventeenth president, Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, because the Republican majority in Congress was at odds with him over how to handle the defeated Southern states. Ross bucked his party, followed his conscience, and cast a vote against articles of impeachment. He was vilified at the time; decades later, he would be hailed as having saved the republic.
While previous impeachment efforts had been defeated, on February 24, 1868, the House of Representatives adopted articles of impeachment by a tremendous margin—every single Republican voted in the affirmative. With that hurdle cleared, the charges moved to the Senate, where they were presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Ross was a Republican, and was naturally expected to support Johnson’s impeachment.
“Public opinion in the nation ran heavily against the President; he had intentionally broken the law and dictatorially thwarted the will of Congress!” writes Kennedy.
After the president was effectively indicted by the House, the Senate trial proceeded and high drama riveted the nation. “It was a trial to rank with all the great trials in history—Charles I before the High Court of Justice, Louis XVI before the French Convention, and Warren Hastings before the House of Lords,” writes Kennedy. Yet there were two elements missing: “the actual cause for which the President was being tried was not fundamental to the welfare of the nation; and the defendant himself was at all times absent.”
The actual causes for impeachment sound somewhat obscure to today’s ears, although the tenth article, which alleged that Johnson had delivered “intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues…against Congress [and] the laws of the United States,” sounds positively Trumpian. The first eight articles concerned the removal of Edwin M. Stanton as secretary of war in supposed violation of the Tenure of Office Act. The ninth article alleged that Johnson’s conversation with a general had violated an Army appropriations act. The eleventh was something of a catch-all for the rest.
The counsel for the president argued convincingly that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional. And even if there had been a violation of the law, Stanton would have needed to submit to being dismissed and then sued for his rights in the courts—something that had not happened.
From Profiles in Courage:
…as the trial progressed, it became increasingly apparent that the impatient Republicans did not intend to give the President a fair trial on the formal issues upon which the impeachment was drawn, but intended instead to depose him from the White House on any grounds, real or imagined, for refusing to accept their policies. Telling evidence in the President’s favor was arbitrarily excluded. Prejudgment on the part of most Senators was brazenly announced. Attempted bribery and other forms of pressure were rampant. The chief interest was not in the trial or the evidence, but in the tallying of votes necessary for conviction.
At the time, there were 54 members of the Senate, which meant 36 votes were required to secure the two thirds necessary for Johnson’s conviction. There were 12 Democratic senators, so the 42 Republicans could afford only six defections.
The mood and tenor in Washington, according to David Miller DeWitt’s The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson, was that of a city under siege. “The dominant part of the nation seemed to occupy the position of public prosecutor, and it was scarcely in the mood to brook delay for trial or to hear the defense.”
The city was thronged by the “politically dissatisfied and swarmed with representatives of every state of the Union, demanding in a practically united voice the deposition of the President,” writes Kennedy. “The footsteps of anti-impeaching Republicans were dogged from the day’s beginning to its end and far into the night, with entreaties, considerations, and threats.”
Ross and other doubters were “daily pestered, spied upon, and subjected to every form of pressure. Their residences were carefully watched, their social circles suspiciously scrutinized, and their every move and companions secretly marked in special notebooks. They were warned in the party press, harangued by their constituents, and sent dire warnings threatening political ostracism and even assassination.”
The New York Tribune reported that Ross in particular was “mercilessly dragged this way and that by both sides, hunted like a fox night and day and badgered by his own colleagues….”
While both sides publicly claimed Ross as their own, the senator himself kept a careful silence. His brother received a letter offering $20,000 if he would reveal Ross’ mind. The morning of the fateful vote, spies followed Ross to breakfast, and 10 minutes before the vote, a colleague from Kansas warned him that support for “acquittal would mean trumped up charges and his political death.”
That day in the Senate, as Ross would later write, “the galleries were packed. Tickets of admission were at an enormous premium. The House had adjourned and all of its members were in the Senate chamber. Every chair on the Senate floor was filled….”
The broad eleventh article of impeachment would command the first vote. By the time the call came to Ross, 24 “guilty” votes had already been pronounced. As Kennedy writes, “Ten more were certain and one other practically certain. Only Ross’s vote was needed to obtain the thirty-six votes necessary to convict the President. But not a single person in the room knew how this young Kansan would vote.”
“I almost literally looked down into my open grave,” writes Ross. “Friendships, position, fortune, everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever. It is not strange that my answer was carried waveringly over the air and failed to reach the limits of the audience, or or that repetition was called for….”
“Then came the answer again in a voice that could not be misunderstood—full, final, definite, unhesitating and unmistakeable: ‘Not guilty.’ The deed was done, the President saved, the trial as good as over and the conviction lost. The remainder of the roll call was unimportant; conviction had failed by the margin of a single vote and a general rumbling filled the chamber….”
When the second and third articles of impeachment were read 10 days later, Ross also pronounced the president “not guilty.”
Neither Ross nor any of the other six Republicans who voted for Johnson’s acquittal were ever reelected to the Senate. When they returned to Kansas, Ross and his family were ostracized, attacked, and impoverished.
Who was Edmund G. Ross? Practically nobody. Not a single public law bears his name, not a single history book includes his picture, not a single list of Senate “greats” mentions his service. His one heroic deed has been all but forgotten. …Ross…chose to throw [his future in politics] away for one act of conscience.
Yet even if he fell into obscurity, history would vindicate Ross. Twenty years after the fateful vote, Congress repealed the Tenure of Office Act, and the Supreme Court later held that “the extremes of that episode in our government” were unconstitutional.
Prior to Ross’s death, the American public realized its errors too, and the same Kansas papers that had once denounced and defamed Ross declared that his “courage” had “saved” the country “from calamity greater than war, while it consigned him to a political martyrdom, the most cruel in our history….”
Kennedy does a wonderful job recounting this momentous episode, with the rich suspense and colorful imagery that it deserves. Ross’s words jump from the page as if they were written for our own age, and his bravery in the face of partisan political pressure has withstood the test of time.
To end with Ross’s own words:
In a large sense, the independence of the executive office as a coordinate branch of the government was on trial…. If…the President was to step down…a disgraced man and a political outcast…upon insufficient proofs and from partisan considerations, the office of President would be degraded, cease to be a coordinate branch of the government, and ever after be subordinated to the legislative will. If Andrew Johnson were acquitted by a nonpartisan vote… America would pass the danger point of partisan rule and that intolerance which so often characterizes the sway of great majorities and makes them dangerous.
We should bear that in mind today.
Barbara Boland is the former weekend editor of the Washington Examiner. Her work has been featured on Fox News, the Drudge Report, HotAir.com, RealClearDefense, RealClearPolitics, and elsewhere. She’s the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General Patton in World War II. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.