Edmund G. Ross: American Hero or American Zero?
Senator Edmund Ross
In the Spring of 1868, the United States was at a crossroad.
To the right, the Radical Republicans led by the likes of Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and Benjamin Wade were seeking, not only, to harshly punish the South for its succession from the Union, but also to permanently ensure a substantial majority and thus everlasting power for their political party.
To the left the President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, who wanted a more lenient path for the country’s reconstruction after the Civil War tempering harsh policies towards the South and continuing the legacy commenced by Abraham Lincoln.
And standing in the middle was a forty-one year old freshman Senator from the State of Kansas named Edmund G. Ross.
Lincoln is Shot
"Andy ain't a drunkard!"
It was indeed a dark time in America. Despite the fact that the Civil War was over the wounds were still deep and very fresh.
A few years back in 1864, the Republicans who were now calling themselves the National Union Party, (the name was short lived and disappeared after the election of 1864), replaced Hannibal Hamlin who was from Maine and was Lincoln’s first term Vice President with a Democrat from Tennessee named Andrew Johnson. The party thought that Lincoln’s re-election bid was going to be close (even though Lincoln eventually won in a landslide) and they thought he needed help. So they tapped Johnson to garner favor with pro-war Democrats. He was pro-union, from a border state, and had once pronounced succession as treason.
Johnson campaigned furiously for Lincoln and was a huge supporter, but once Lincoln was re-elected, the Republicans had little use for Johnson and widely discarded him as a drunk and a buffoon. Johnson did not really help his cause when showed up to the inauguration inebriated. During his acceptance speech, he rambled on incoherently needing help to get off the stage. Later in the ceremonies, spectators could not believe their eyes when the vice president stood up to address the audience for a second time, obviously forgetting that he had already done it several minutes earlier.
Johnson, however, was sick on inauguration day. He was exhausted and possibly suffering from typhoid fever. He did not even want to attend the ceremony but Lincoln insisted. A doctor gave Johnson three shots of “medicinal” whiskey prior to the event which along with his already weakened state contributed to his less than sober condition.
The Republicans didn’t care. They called Johnson a “drunken tailor” claiming that he had disgraced himself and the Senate by his foolish speech. Lincoln, to his credit, stood by Johnson saying after the event, "I have known Andrew Johnson for many years. He made a slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain't a drunkard."
As Vice President, Andrew Johnson rose to prominence by the fateful events at the Ford Theater on April 14th, 1865. Lincoln was not the only public figure targeted for assassination that night by John Booth. Ulysses S. Grant, the Union General, was also on Booth’s hit list as he was planning on accompanying Lincoln to the theater but canceled at the last minute because he wife made other plans. Booth co-conspirators set their sights on Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Seward survived an attack by Lewis Powell, and George Atzerodt, whose assignment was to murder Johnson, did not go through with Booth’s plan. Lincoln died that night and Johnson was sworn in as President the next morning becoming the third Vice President to ascend due to the death of a sitting President.
Initially the Republicans, many of whom were growing weary of Lincoln, saw this as a good thing. They saw Johnson as weak and easily pliable, but they quickly learned that Johnson would not be their puppet as the new President vetoed almost every Bill congress sent his way. The battles between Congress and Johnson intensified. In addition to calling him a drunk, the Republicans called him an outlaw, an adulterer, and insinuated that he was a principal in the plot to kill Lincoln. Johnson fought back. He described the Republicans as “traitors” and “blasphemers”. Unfortunately for Johnson, the Republicans had the support of the people and the numbers in Congress to override many of the President’s vetoes.
Impeachment Resolution Signed by House
The Tenure of Office Act
Johnson could also be his own worse enemy. He was obstinate, stubborn, and unwilling to compromise. Hence pushing many moderate Republicans, who were willing to work with him, into the camp of the radicals making it almost impossible for Johnson to fight back. Johnson became virtually powerless as the radicals seized more and more control mapping Reconstruction to fit their vision.
Despite his weakness, Johnson was still a thorn in the side of the radical Republicans, and they wanted him out. In the Fall of 1867 the first attempt to impeach the President failed miserably. After vigorous debate, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly not to impeach. Despite many complaints against him, Johnson had not violated the law, and the House could not see fit to vote to commence ouster proceedings.
The Republicans had learned their lesson and came back at Johnson in the Winter of 1868 this time with “hard” evidence in the form of Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act which Congress had passed the year before overruling Johnson’s veto to do so. The act forbid the President from removing any previously confirmed cabinet member without Senate approval. The Tenure of Office Act originally passed in order to protect Edwin Stanton who was Lincoln’s Secretary of War and stayed in office after the assassination. Despite being in the President’s cabinet, Stanton opposed Johnson’s policies and supported the Congressional vision of Reconstruction.
At first in the Summer of 1867, Johnson suspended Stanton while the Congress was out of session. A provision allowed by the law, but when Congress came back into session Johnson fired Stanton outright in direct violation of the Act. Johnson believed the Act was unconstitutional and refused to acquiesce to his enemies in Congress. For his part, Stanton allegedly locked himself in his office and refused to come out.
Congress had the ammo it needed and impeachment proceedings against the President commenced almost immediately this time passing through the House easily. For the first time in its still relatively brief history, the United States President would stand trial and if convicted, face expulsion from office along with humiliation and sure disgrace.
Young Edmund Ross
A Young Abolishionist Becomes Senator
Edmund G. Ross was born in a small town in Ohio in 1826. At the early age of ten, he started an apprenticeship program at a print shop, and upon completion bounced around working for several different printers in several different states. He married his wife, Fanny, in 1848; and the couple eventually would parent seven children. Ross jumped into the political fray while working for a newspaper in Wisconsin around 1854 when he joined a mob that rallied to help get a captured slave released.
Around the same time, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which in effect repealed the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1820 allowing the new territories to decide the fate of slavery rather than the Federal Government. The Act angered the nation and inched it ever closer to Civil War. Ross packed up his family, joined a group of carpetbaggers, and moved to Kansas in direct response to the Act. Once there, he started an abolitionist newspaper, joined the newly formed Republican Party, and helped draft a constitution that would eventually certify Kansas as a free state. The Republican Party formed in direct opposition to the Act with the aim of stopping the spread of slavery. It quickly spread through the North and became a dominant political force.
When war broke out in 1862, Ross joined the Kansas regiment to fight for the Union. He would rise to the rank of Major, fighting heroically in several battles. After the war, he went back to his family in Kansas and became editor of the Lawrence Tribune. In the Summer of 1866 Ross’s life took a significant turn when Kansas Senator James Lane succumb to the pressures of the office and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
The Governor of Kansas, Samuel Crawford was Ross’s commanding officer during the war. After Lane’s suicide, Crawford was in a bind. Lane had become a problem in the Senate because he was starting to vote with the President and against the Radical Republicans. It was embarrassing for Crawford and his young state that found itself right smack in the middle of post-war Reconstruction turmoil. It was important for Crawford to pick someone who could be an ally with the other Kansas Senator, Samuel Pomeroy, in opposing Johnson and keeping Kansas in favor with the Republicans.
Governor Crawford thought he had his man in Edmund Ross who was a young up and comer in the party and a war hero to boot. Crawford appointed Ross to Lane’s vacant Senate seat in July of 1866 despite the fact that Ross had no actual political experience, and at first, it looked like Crawford was a genius. Upon his arrival in Washington, Ross quickly denounced President Johnson on the Senate floor and for the next two years would vote against the President and with the party every chance he could.
The Hottest Ticket in Town
The impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson began in the Senate on March 30th, 1868. The Senate gallery could only accommodate about 900 spectators, and an estimated 5000 people wanted to attend on a daily basis. For the fist time, the Senate instigated a ticket system to preserve order.
The Chief Justice of the United States, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, presided over the trial. Chase was a Republican and had attempted to gain the party’s nomination for President several times, but never succeeded. During the Civil War, he was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury where he established a national banking system and the IRS. Despite the fact that he opposed many of Lincoln’s policies, the President appointed him Chief Justice in October of 1864.
The trial would stretch for almost three months and, for the most was just a lot of political grandstanding and pontification. There were fifty-four Senators at the time with two-thirds needed in order to convict the President. Since forty-two of the fifty-four Senators were Republicans, it seemed like impeachment would be a slam-dunk against the President.
One of the problems facing the Republicans, however, was Benjamin Wade who was the Senate President Pro Tempore. Since Johnson took over the Presidency after the assassination of Lincoln, there was no Vice President; and as a result, Wade was next in line to succeed the Presidency. Wade was not well liked. He was one of the most radical of the Radicals and Republicans considered him a dangerous demagogue. He was one of the Senators sitting in judgment of Johnson. Because of his obvious conflict of interest, he received criticism for not recusing himself from the proceedings. One newspaper summed up the feelings about Wade at the time, “Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor."
"As fair a trial as an accused man ever had on this earth.”
Even though he opposed Johnson and disapproved of the removal of Stanton, Edmund Ross wanted Johnson to have a fair trial. Before the trial started, Ross said to another Senator, “The thing is here, and so far as I concerned, though a Republican and opposed to Mr. Johnson and his policy, he shall have as fair a trial as an accused man ever had on this earth.” This was also a problem for the Republicans who had no use for a fair trial based on examination of the facts of the case.
As the trial wore on more and more attention focused on Ross. Throughout the trial, the Republicans would meet and poll their members. The straw poll revealed that six Republican Senators were planning on voting with the Democrats acquitting the President. Ross, however, would not participate in the polls. In fact, he remained silent through much of the trial claiming to be undecided.
The party started pressuring Ross. His residence was watched, and his every move secretly marked in special notebooks. The Philadelphia Press reported "a fearful avalanche of telegrams from every section of the country," a great surge of public opinion from the "common people" who had given their money and lives to the country and would not "willingly or unavenged see their great sacrifice made naught."
The New York Tribune reported that Edmund 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 colleague, like the bridge at Arcola now trod upon by one Army and not trampled by the other." His background and life were investigated from top to bottom, and his constituents and colleagues pursued him throughout Washington to gain some inkling of his opinion. He was the target of every eye; his name was on every mouth, with his intentions discussed in every newspaper.
"How say you?"
Republican Congressmen sent an open telegram to the people of Kansas: "Great danger to the peace of the country and the Republican cause if impeachment fails. Send to your Senators public opinion by resolutions, letters, and delegations." A member of the Kansas legislature called upon Ross at the Capitol. Ross’ brother even received a bribe offer just for the revelation of the Senator’s intentions. Benjamin Butler, who was one of the Republican prosecutors, was getting frustrated by Ross’s silence, "There is a bushel of money! How much does the damned scoundrel want?"
The night before the Senate was to take its first vote for the conviction or acquittal of Johnson, Ross received a telegram from home, “Kansas has heard the evidence and demands the conviction of the President. Signed D.R. Anthony and 1,000 others”
The next morning Ross replied, “To D.R. Anthony and 1,000 others: I do not recognize your right to demand that I vote either for or against conviction. I have taken an oath to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, and trust that I shall have the courage to vote according to the dictates of my judgment and for the highest good of the country. Signed E.G. Ross.”
It was time for the vote. Historian David Dewitt was in the chamber that day and here is how he described it:
“Thirty-six votes are needed, and with this one vote the grand consummation is attained, Johnson is out and Wade in his place. It is a singular fact that not one of the actors in that high scene was sure in his own mind how his one senator was going to vote, except, perhaps, himself. 'Mr. Senator Ross, how say you?' the voice of the Chief Justice rings out over the solemn silence. 'Is the respondent, Andrew Johnson, guilty or not guilty of a high misdemeanor as charged in this article?' The Chief Justice bends forward, intense anxiety furrowing his brow. The seated associates of the senator on his feet fix upon him their united gaze. The representatives of the people of the United States watch every movement of his features. The whole audience listens for the coming answer as it would have listened for the crack of doom. And the answer comes, full, distinct, definite, unhesitating and unmistakable. The words 'Not Guilty' sweep over the assembly, and, as one man, the hearers fling themselves back into their seats; the strain snaps; the contest ends; impeachment is blown into the air."
President Andrew Johnson
The Ladies Gallery
"I ran all the way from the Capital to the White House."
Andrew Johnson was not in the chamber that day. He refused to appear at the Capitol; instead choosing to stay at the White House. He did dispatch some of his aids to attend. One of those aids was bodyguard William H. Cook who later wrote:
“The tension grew. There was a weary number of names before that of Ross was reached. When the clerk called it, and Ross stood forth, the crowd held its breath. 'Not guilty,' called the Senator from Kansas. It was like the babbling over of a caldron. The Radical Senators, who had been laboring with Ross only a short time before, turned to him in rage; all over the house people began to stir. The rest of the roll call was listened to with lessened interest, although there was still the chance for a surprise. When it was over, and the result - thirty-five to nineteen -was announced, there was a wild outburst, chiefly groans of anger and disappointment, for the friends of the President were in the minority. I ran all the way from the Capitol to the White House. I was young and strong in those days, and I made good time. When I burst into the library, where the President sat with Secretary Welles and two other men whom I cannot remember, they were quietly talking. Mr. Johnson was seated at a little table on which luncheon had been spread in the rounding southern end of the room. There were no signs of excitement. 'Mr. President,' I shouted, too crazy with delight to restrain myself, 'you are acquitted!'
“All rose. I made my way to the President and got hold of his hand. The other men surrounded him, and began to shake his hand. The President responded to their congratulations calmly enough for a moment, and then I saw that tears were rolling down his face. I stared at him; and yet I felt I ought to turn my eyes away. It was all over in a moment, and Mr. Johnson was ordering some whiskey from the cellar. When it came, he himself poured it into glasses for us, and we all stood up and drank a silent toast. There were some sandwiches on the table; we ate some and then we felt better. In a few minutes came a message of congratulation from Secretary Seward to 'my dear friend.' By that time the room was full of people, and I slipped away."
"A poor, pitiful, shriveled wretch."
Ross knew the ramifications of his action. The next day he sent a letter to his wife, “Millions of men cursing me today will bless me tomorrow for having saved the country from the greatest peril through which it has ever passed, though none but God can ever know the struggle it had cost me”.
Later in life he wrote of the vote, “I almost literally looked down into my open grave. 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 that repetition was called for by distant Senators on the opposite side of the Chamber."
After the vote, Kansas Supreme Court Justice L.D. Bailey sent a telegram to Ross, "the rope with which Judas Iscariot hanged himself is lost, but Jim Lane’s pistol is at your service." A Kansas newspaper editorial read, “On Saturday last Edmund G. Ross, United States Senator from Kansas, sold himself, and betrayed his constituents; stultified his own record, basely lied to his friends, shamefully violated his solemn pledge and to the utmost of his poor ability signed the death warrant of his country’s liberty. This act was done deliberately, because the traitor, like Benedict Arnold, loved money better than he did principle, friends, honor, and his country, all combined. Poor, pitiful, shriveled wretch, with a soul so small that a little pelf would outweigh all things else that dignify or ennoble manhood.”
To the New York Tribune, he was nothing but "a miserable poltroon and traitor." The Philadelphia Press said that in Ross "littleness" and "simply borne its legitimate fruit," and that he and his fellow recalcitrant Republicans had "plunged from a precipice of fame into the groveling depths of infamy and death." The Philadelphia Inquirer said, "They had tried, convicted and sentenced themselves." For them there could be "no allowance, no clemency."
Ross would finish his term alone in Washington ostracized by his colleagues in the Senate. He was subject to verbal attacks as he walked the halls of Congress. Ross lost his bid for reelection in 1870 and headed back to Kansas. He switched parties in 1872 and ran for Governor as a Democrat but was badly defeated.
Andrew Johnson served the remainder of his Presidency (Grant was elected in the Fall of 1868) for the most part as a lame duck. He unsuccessfully ran for Senate and then the House. He did win election back to the Senate in 1874, but died a few months after taking office of a stroke at the age of sixty-seven.
Ross spent much of the rest of his life justifying his vote on the Johnson impeachment. He wrote articles and a book in the 1890’s claiming his vote, despite being political suicide, was an act of courage done to save the nation from the Radical Republicans and uphold the strength and integrity of the executive branch of the government.
Ross later wrote, ““For the first time in the history of the government, the President of the United States was at the bar of the Senate…The dominant party of the country was aroused and active for the deposition of the President…It would have practically revolutionized our splendid political fabric into a partisan Congressional autocracy. A political tragedy was imminent…It was plain that a single vote would be sufficient to turn the scales either way—to evict the President from his great office or keep the honorable roll of American Presidents unsmirched before the world, despite the action of the House.”
"A heroic act, a valiant soldier, and an honest man."
Ross’s campaign began to take hold. In 1889, The Chicago Times wrote, "…it was judicious, courageous, and disinterested. These men saved the country from the commission of a colossal blunder."
After Ross’ death in 1907 F. H. Hodder, of the University of Kansas, wrote to the Nation, "No man was ever more foully abused…If the people of Kansas wish to atone for the injury they did Mr. Ross during his lifetime they can scarcely do better than place his statue in the capitol at Washington, in the hall reserved for notable men of the states. Such a statue would commemorate an heroic act, a valiant soldier, and an honest man."
William Carruth, also of the University of Kansas, says: "It goes hard with us to admit that he was wiser than the majority of us…Major Ross returned to his state, faced obloquy and slander, and earned the living of a poor but honest man, with the same silent endurance with which he met the stress of the great impeachment trial."
Foster D. Coburn, secretary of the Kansas state board of agriculture, said on May 13, 1910: "For the vote cast by Senator Ross against the conviction of President Andrew Johnson, I was, at the time bitter and indignant beyond expression. Now, forty-odd years after, I am firmly of the opinion that Senator Ross acted with a lofty patriotism, regardless of what he knew must be the ruinous consequences to himself."
After Ross’s print shop burned down in 1882, he once again packed up his family and moved west to New Mexico where he went back into the printing business and once again thrust himself into the local political scene. He opposed the notorious Sante Fe Ring, which controlled territorial politics, and for his efforts, Grover Cleveland, the first Democratic President of the United States since Andrew Johnson, appointed him Territorial Governor in 1885. Ross spent the rest of his life in New Mexico and was instrumental in setting up the public school system. Today an elementary school in Albuquerque bears his name.
Senator John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize winner featuring the story of Edmund Ross and others.
"He acted right."
Ross might have just been a footnote in history if it wasn’t for John F. Kennedy. Senator Kennedy included Ross in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage released in 1955.
Kennedy wrote, “In a lonely grave, forgotten and unknown, lies the man who saved a President, and who as a result may well have preserved for ourselves and our posterity constitutional government in the United States. By the firmness and courage of Senator Ross the country was saved from calamity greater than war, while it consigned him to a political martyrdom, the most cruel in our history…Ross was the victim of a wild flame of intolerance which swept everything before it. He did his duty knowing that it meant his political death….It was a brave thing for Ross to do, but Ross did it. He acted for his conscience and with a lofty patriotism, regardless of what he knew must be the ruinous consequences to himself. He acted right.”
In the late 1990’s the Ross name resurfaced when the House was considering the impeachment of President Bill Clinton when comparisons were made to the Johnson impeachment because of the partisan and perceived political nature of the attempt. The implication was that the country needed another Edmund Ross to cross party lines for the good of the country.
So close the book on Edmund Ross a man who sacrificed his own future in the name of fairness and for the future of the Republic. Edmund Ross is an American hero, right?
There is now evidence that show’s there were other Republican Senators prepared to acquit Johnson had Ross voted guilty. Okay, but Ross still is the one who did stand up and make the vote.
Unfortunately, Ross’s motives have not stood the test of time either.
Historians have since claimed that Ross voted the way he did in order to maintain his advantage in patronage matters. Benjamin Wade, the man next in line for Johnson’s office, favored the other Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy. Apparently, Wade was going to remove Ross supporters from office and replace them with Pomeroy supporters. A move that would have significantly reduced Ross's income.
A 1999 Slate magazine article went as far to call Ross a scoundrel claiming, he “wasted no time exploiting Johnson's debt to him. On June 6, he wrote to Johnson to have him install one of his cronies as Southern superintendent of Indian affairs, and Johnson agreed to oust his own friend in order to comply. Sensing opportunity, Ross kept upping the ante, like a Mafia henchman running a protection racket. On June 23, he wrote to Johnson to secure a position for Perry Fuller, his 1867 election sponsor. On July 1, he asked Johnson to make his brother a federal mail agent. On July 10, he pressed the president for jobs for three more friends, invoking his impeachment vote, just in case Johnson had forgotten.”
So what are we to make of Edmund Ross? Was he man guided by principle or by self-interest? Did he act with the country’s future in mind, or was he just another corrupt politician looking to line his pockets?
Ross certainly would have suffered less and probably would have benefited more financially in the long run had he voted the other way. And yes, Ross used his vote to leverage favor from the President, but it was the late 1860s, when corruption ran rampant throughout American politics and considered the norm of the day.
For his part, Ross spent most of his adult life fighting for the rights of others. His opposition to slavery was constant and strong.
History now considers Andrew Johnson one of the worst Presidents the United States has ever had, but most agree that he did not deserve removal from office for political reasons. After Johnson’s term, Congress repealed the Tenure of Office Act and the Supreme Court eventually determined the Act to be unconstitutional as Johnson claimed it was.
Even if Edmund Ross acted for the wrong reasons, he did act the right way. His decision to keep Andrew Johnson in office was an important one in the country’s history, and Ross deserves the credit for it. Edmund Ross is the American hero John F. Kennedy claimed he was. The H on his chest would just might have to have a small asterisk next to it.
Besides, don't all heroes have their tragic flaw?
“Conditions may, and are not unlikely to arise, some day, when the exercise of the power to impeach and remove the President may be quite as essential to the preservation of our political system as it threatened to become in this instance destructive of that system. Should that day ever come, it is to be hoped that the remedy of impeachment, as established by the Constitution, may be as patriotically, as fearlessly, and as unselfishly applied as it was on this occasion rejected.” –Edmund Ross 1868
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Photo of Ross Late in Life
- Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Anecdotes (Oxford University Press 1981)
- Crook, William H., Through Five Administrations (1910)
- Dewitt, David, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (Macmillan 1913)
- Greenberg, David, Slate Magazine (Jan 1999)
- Harper's Weekly: The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson Website
- Kennedy, John F., Profiles in Courage (Harper & Brothers 1955)
- Lynch, John R., The Facts of Reconstuction (The Neale Publishing Co. 1913)
- "Profiles in Courage? Edmund G. Ross and the Impeachment Trial." Midwest Quarterly 27 (Autumn 1985)
- Ross, Edmund G., The History of the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson... (New Mexican Printing Co., 1896) (Reprint: B. Franklin 1965)
- Schroeder-Lien, Glenna R. and Zuczec, Richard, Andrew Johnson: A Biographical Companion (ABC-CLIO 2001)
- Trefousse, Hans L., Benjamin Franklin Wade: Radical Republican From Ohio (Twayne Publishers Inc. 1963)
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