The America Series

Edmund Ross didn’t like President Andrew Johnson. By the time you get to the end of the story, get through all the feuding, the thundering speeches, the death threats, the spectators on the edge of their seats in the
Senate gallery, your mind is still stuck on this amazing and maddening fact: Edmund Ross didn’t like the President of the United States. They were political enemies.

Senate Republicans knew that back in 1868. They knew that as soon as Ross took office. They knew that when they met in a back room during a recess of the President’s Senate impeachment trial. To them, the trial itself wasn’t that 
important – a lot of lawyers talking to themselves at the top of their lungs.
Windbags. Let’s get down to business, they said. We want President Johnson 
gone, and we can do it by finding him guilty of whatever it was the House Republicans had cooked up and impeached him for. There’s 42 of us in a 
Senate of 54. All we need is a two-thirds majority of 36 votes. Let’s go around
the circle and to the math.

To their astonishment, they were short. Only 35 “guilty” votes. Thirty-five? Is everybody here? Everybody was there. There were six traitors. Six Republicans refused to jump on the party bandwagon. They were voting “not guilty.” Not guilty? How dared they go against the flow? 

Well, this is politics, after all. Removing President Johnson would open the door for Senate President Pro Tempore, Ben Wade to assume his duties, since there was no vice president. Wade was a Republican, but not a popular one. One Republican dissenter in the House of Representatives said the thought of Wade waiting at the White House door  was enough to make you keep the current president, Andrew Johnson, a warm body who, at the very least, wasn’t Wade. “I would rather have the President than the shallywags of Ben Wade,” he said.

Six Republican Senators agreed. But wait. Six? Thirty-five plus six is 41. There were 42 Senate Republicans. Someone hadn’t voted. Who hadn’t voted?

It was Edmund Ross.

He was undecided. Edmund Ross, undecided? Since when? Used to be there weren’t enough hours in the day for Ross to complain about the president. After all, Johnson was a Democrat, for crying out loud! Whaddya mean, undecided?

But Ross refused to announce his vote until the trial was over. He was keeping his mouth shut. Ben Wade and the others wouldn’t have minded so much, except they were just one $%!@ vote short. This one man, Edmund Ross, represented their hopes for the biggest political knockout in the nation’s history – the conviction and Constitutionally mandated ouster of Andrew Johnson from the office of President of the United States. Edmund Ross held the President’s fate in his hands. 

Ross wouldn’t speak until called on, along with everybody else, in the Senate gallery, when the trial was over and the roll was taken.  He would announce his vote then.


Ross wouldn’t speak 
until called on, along
with everybody else, 
in the Senate gallery, 
when the trial was over

Without Lincoln to 
restrain them, the 
hunting dogs in 
Congress were let 
loose. Time to show 
the South what it 
means to lose a war.
It had been just three years since Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre, and just look at the mess the country was without him. The Civil War was over, thank God, but oh, for the cleanup.

To start with, the country still hated each other. The blood was still warm on the bodies, and some of those bodies were brothers and boyfriends and sons. 

If you thought the country hated each other, you should have seen the Congress. It was still controlled by the Republicans, the banner-carriers for the victorious North, and if the war was fought to bring the renegade Southern Democrats back under their wing, peace meant punishing them for their trouble. They wanted to manhandle the smoldering South – station soldiers and slice it up into military zones. 

Not so fast, said the president. The president was Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s vice president. Let’s put it this way: if there had been vice presidential candidate debates back then as there are today, a wisecracking opponent would have sneered at Johnson, “Senator, you’re no Abe Lincoln.”

He wasn’t. Lincoln embodied grace, wisdom, and tact, whose sheer presence kept his red-eyed fellow Republicans in check. Johnson didn’t have the seniority, the skill, and the soothing presence of his former boss.  On Capitol Hill, Johnson was treated like the kid brother put in charge while Mom runs to the store – where does this guy get off bossing us around? 

Johnson just couldn’t command respect and make people listen like Lincoln did. Worse, he was a Democrat. A Democrat! He was tossed onto the ticket in the 1864 presidential election because, let’s face it, when the country is coming apart at the seams, you need to, well, branch out to get elected.  Johnson even owned slaves, although he was firmly on the North’s side. After all, the Civil War was as much about borders as about slaves, and Johnson hailed from the crucial border state of Tennessee.

But without Lincoln to spiritually (if not verbally) restrain them, the hunting dogs in Congress were let loose. Time to show the South what it means to lose a war.

Any hope the Republicans had of Johnson giving them an easier time with their agenda than his predecessor disappeared almost overnight.  He vetoed almost everything Congress sent to him - in fact, Johnson became the first president to have major bills passed over his veto, with two thirds of both chambers voting to override him.  Few such bills were more significant than the Reconstruction Act of 1867, passed over a veto, which divided ten southern states into five military zones under the command of an army officer. 

Another big issue was civil rights. Republicans wanted to give freed slaves the right to vote and own land, but Johnson vetoed it. Historians have slammed him for this, and perhaps rightly so, but Johnson’s vision was directly in line with that of Lincoln himself - don’t dominate the South and tell them what to do; simply oversee their own rebuilding efforts.  Denying freed slaves the right to vote might have seemed funny for the successor to the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, but Johnson thought it was what Lincoln would have wanted – the South has to make its own postwar decisions. Johnson may even have been looking at Republicans political motives on the issue – opening the voting booth to freed slaves was their only hope to keep a majority in Congress. 

Republicans had already begun calling the president “an outlaw undeserving of quarter,” a drunk, an adulterer and even a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination – and Johnson had in turn begun blasting his political opponents as traitors and blasphemers – by the time Congress passed the fateful Tenure of Office Act in 1867. It was written for the direct benefit of exactly one man: Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War since the days of Lincoln and most outspoken Johnson opponent in Johnson’s own cabinet. The act said Johnson couldn’t kick anyone out without the Senate’s approval if the man had originally been confirmed by the Senate. 

Johnson was getting sick of Stanton, and reached the boiling point when he found out that Stanton had kept an important letter from reaching his desk. The letter was from five military officers asking the president to commute their death sentence of the wife of Lincoln assassination conspirator John Surratt. The letter never got to the president, and Mary Surratt was executed as a conspirator. When Johnson found out he demanded Stanton resign. Stanton refused, and Johnson suspended him, as he was allowed to do under that Tenure of Office Act if Congress wasn’t in session. Johnson appointed Union war hero Ulysses S. Grant to replace him. 

When the Senate reconvened in January it rejected Stanton’s removal by a vote of 35 to 16. Grant heard this and promptly abandoned his office, and Stanton triumphantly took it back. Johnson was furious at Grant – he wanted Grant to stay so he could mount a legal challenge to the Tenure of Office Act.  In February, Johnson, still seeking a legal hearing for the new law, kicked Stanton out again, even though Congress was in session. 

House Republicans heard this and knew it was their moment.  Time to extract the thorn from their side and carry on with their radical Reconstruction agenda. For over a year, they had been working on a draft of impeachment based on Johnson’s “high crimes and misdemeanors, and whether such acts were designed or calculated to overthrow, subvert, or corrupt the government of the United States.” At the time, they just didn’t have enough to go on. Of course, as one Johnson cabinet member pointed out, Johnson would eventually have been impeached “had he been accused of stepping on a dog’s tail.” Now the House could do even better. They wrote their final draft of eleven articles of impeachment – eight dealing with the Tenure of Office Act, two addressing inflammatory speeches Johnson had made, and one grand finale article that sort of combined all the charges. Less than a week later, on February 26, 1868, Johnson was impeached by the House by a vote of 126 to 47. On to the Senate. NEXT>

© 2001