With the House poised to impeach President Clinton and send the case to a trial in the Senate, renewed interest is sure to focus on a Republican senator from Kansas who changed history’s course 130 years ago by breaking party ranks and casting the vote that saved President Andrew Johnson from conviction.
Historians to this day debate why Edmund G. Ross cast his vote the way he did in the nation’s only presidential impeachment trial. But no one disputes what happened to Ross afterward. He was vilified by associates and constituents and saw his political future in Kansas demolished.
Ross, only 41 when Johnson came to trial in 1868, was a well-spoken former newspaper editor who seemingly faced a bright future in public life. An anti-slavery crusader who had fought in the Civil War as a Union Army officer, he was appointed to a Senate seat in 1866 by Kansas Gov. Samuel Crawford, replacing a senator who had committed suicide.
Johnson, meanwhile, was getting into deep trouble with the so-called “radical Republicans” who largely controlled the House and opposed his policies of reconstructing the post-war South. The struggle came to a head when Johnson defied Congress by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, p1634890784of the Cabinet he inherited when he assumed the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
It was a dismissal that violated the federal Tenure of Office Act that the anti-Johnson faction had passed to prevent him from replacing Lincoln appointees. This conflict ultimately led to articles of impeachment voted against Johnson in a highly partisan atmosphere. Legislators threw in a few other charges, including conspiracy and bringing Congress into disrepute.
Congressional rhetoric reflected the bitter feelings of the times. One congressman said Johnson had “dragged the robes of his office through the . . . filth of treason.” Another called the president’s advisors “the worst men that ever crawled like filthy reptiles at the footstool of power.”
Because presidential scholars of all stripes generally agree that Johnson’s impeachment was ill-advised, the role of Ross in preventing his conviction looms large.
Refusing to disclose his position until it came time for him to speak, Ross cast the crucial “not guilty” vote that saved Johnson by a one-vote margin (six other Republicans earlier had c1634956320similar votes).
He explained that he found the evidence insufficient to remove a president. In a letter to his wife a week later, he wrote: “Millions of men are cursing me today but they will bless me tomorrow. But few knew of the precipice upon which we all stood.”
Some historians believe that Ross’ motive was not entirely high-minded. They say that he had a more self-serving agenda, hoping that a grateful Johnson would allow him to control patronage in Kansas.
Some Republicans of that time accused the handsome, bearded senator of being unduly influenced by an attractive young sculptress, Vinnie Ream, with whose family he shared a home.
“They blamed her because they said she had used her wiles as a woman to influence Ross,” according to Missouri state archivist Kenneth Winn, who is writing a book about Ream. “It’s somewhat murky as to what she actually did but Republicans felt she had influence.”
For his part, Ross said in his memoirs that he knew his vote would be political suicide because Johnson was grossly unpopular.
“I almost literally looked down into my own grave,” he wrote years later. “Friends, 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.”
Ross lost his Senate seat three years after his historic vote and moved back to Kansas to start a newspaper. Ten years later he left the Republican Party, ran for governor as a Democrat and was defeated.
On his deathbed in 1907, he finally received some measure of praise from Kansas officials. However, after his death, a legislative effort to erect a plaque in his honor failed.