Andrew Johnson: Saved by a Scoundrel

The history behind current events.
Jan. 21 1999 3:30 AM

Andrew Johnson: Saved by a Scoundrel

Edmund Ross cast the deciding vote to acquit, but his was no "profile in courage."

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Every impeachment junkie has by now heard the tale of the valiant Edmund Ross, the Republican senator who in 1868 broke party ranks to acquit the impeached President Andrew Johnson. Last Sunday's New York Times ran a long paean to Ross, and pundits left and right sing his praises. The New York Times' Anthony Lewis, an anti-impeachment stalwart, endorses the expert judgment of John F. Kennedy, who wrote in Profiles in Courage (1956) that Ross' "heroic" vote "may well have preserved ... constitutional government in the United States." Meanwhile, George Washington University's Jonathan Turley, a devout Clinton foe, recalled wistfully in a recent Wall Street Journal column that for his "selfless act," Ross was "shunned, physically assaulted and ruined both politically and financially." Turley proposes erecting a statue in the Capitol of the otherwise obscure Kansan.

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Most historians agree that in voting to acquit Johnson, Ross did the right thing--but, they would add, for the wrong reasons. (Click for a little more on Johnson's record.) Those who have researched the issue conclude that, contrary to legend, Ross acted for motives anything but high-minded. That popular wisdom holds otherwise testifies not to Ross' integrity but to his talent for self-promotion.

Edmund Ross was a little-known newspaperman with no political experience when the governor of Kansas named him to fill a vacant Senate seat in July 1866. (The incumbent had committed suicide.) Six months later, Ross won re-election with the financial help--some believe bribes--of a businessman named Perry Fuller. Once in Washington, the newcomer copied many of his peers and took up the cause of controlling his state's patronage--then the coin of politics. With a federal government that was tiny compared with today's, a senator's power lay largely in deciding who would receive plum jobs with the postal service or, in the West, the Indian affairs bureau. Hungry for power, Ross tangled with Kansas' senior senator, Samuel Pomeroy, and its congressman, Sidney Clarke, eschewing the era's weightier battles over rights for freed slaves and reconstructing the Union.

Meanwhile, the Radical Republicans were impeaching President Johnson, a stubborn Democrat, who was consistently defying their will on various Reconstruction-related measures. (For more on the issues surrounding the impeachment, see September 1998's " Backstory.") Observers naturally assumed Ross would vote with his party, but when it became clear in February 1868 that the Radicals wanted to replace Johnson with Benjamin Wade of Ohio, the president pro tem of the Senate, Ross began to think twice. Wade was likely to grant Pomeroy the control over Kansas appointments that had been Ross'. Wanting neither to alienate his party-mates nor lose his meal ticket in Johnson, Ross tried to avert a vote altogether. He pressed Johnson for concessions on certain Reconstruction issues in exchange for his vote and those of other fence sitters.

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W hen judgment day came on May 16, Johnson survived by a vote of 35-19, one shy of the two-thirds needed to convict. Since the other six pro-Johnson Republicans had declared their intentions before voting, the ensuing attention focused on the apostasy of Ross, whose vote came as the biggest surprise. But Ross' vote wasn't the lone act of bravery it was later made out to be. At least four other senators were prepared to oppose conviction had their votes been needed--a fact that has been forgotten, maybe, because it doesn't square with the High Noon portrait of Ross as the man of principle facing down the mob.

Ross 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. ("Nice little presidency ya got here--hate to see anything happen to it.") 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.

The legend about Ross is correct in that his stand earned him enemies. Newspapers compared him to Benedict Arnold, Jefferson Davis, and Judas. And he did lose his re-election bid, as did the other pro-acquittal Republicans. But so did many anti-Johnson Republicans from the same states, and there's little evidence to suggest the impeachment votes turned the elections in any of these cases. All "seven martyrs," as they've been lionized, stayed Republicans and campaigned for Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. Their troubled fortunes in the years that followed are most plausibly chalked up to the turbulent climate of the 1870s, when the makeup of both parties--and of the country itself--was in constant flux.

Ross didn't see it that way. Stung by charges that his vote was bought, he turned the tables on his accusers and charged them with orchestrating the whole impeachment campaign so as to get their hands on the controls of patronage. He got the House to investigate charges of bribery involving his rivals Pomeroy and Clarke--which in fact turned up some damning evidence against them.

T ill his dying day, Ross continued to paint himself as a martyr. He wrote numerous articles as well as a book etching his self-serving version of events into the historical record. In a passage later quoted by Kennedy, Ross wrote in his 1896 memoir: "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." This grandiose account was adopted almost uncritically by his biographer, Edward Bumgardner, and then by Kennedy, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning sampler of hagiographies cemented it in the public mind. (Click for more on Kennedy's warped portrayal of Ross and the impeachment.)

Perhaps in an unconscious act of denial--an inability to face up to his complicated but altogether human motives for voting as he did--the week after his vote, Ross wrote to his wife: "This storm of passion will soon pass away, and the people, the whole people, will thank and bless me for having saved the country by my single vote from the greatest peril through which it has ever passed, though none but God can ever know the struggle it has cost me." Of course, in a funny way, he turned out to be right.

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