President Andrew Johnson died 135 years ago this month, and is best known for surviving in office by just one vote. He was impeached by the House of Representatives for violating the Tenure of Office Act when he tried to replace his Secretary of War. This politically motivated legislation was approved over Johnson’s veto.
It denied the President the power to remove anyone who had been appointed by a past President with the approval of the Senate. The Tenure of Office Act was specifically aimed at Johnson and it was designed to make sure he did not replace Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet.
Johnson, a Democrat, wanted to get rid of the Republican Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, because they disagreed on reconstruction. The Tenure Act prevented him from doing so, and the legislation was repealed in 1887. It was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1926.
Johnson was the first President to be impeached and a trial to remove him from office was held in the U.S. Senate. Opponents of the President needed the support of two-thirds of the membership in the upper body to oust Johnson.
Who Was Edmund Ross?
The Senate in 1868 had 54 members, and 42 of them were Republicans. The Senator who saved Johnson was Edmund Ross of Kansas, and the lawmaker who made him a hero a century later was John F. Kennedy. Senator Kennedy (D-MA) said Ross’ statesmanship inspired him to write his 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage.
Ross supported Secretary Stanton and strongly disagreed with Johnson’s legislative agenda. In fact, he had never once voted with the administration. Ross did not announce his decision during the Senate trial, and was under intense pressure to vote against the President.
Johnson had served as a Tennessee Governor and Senator, and was a former slave owner. He wanted a more lenient path for reconstruction after the Civil War. The President was also obstinate, stubborn, and unwilling to compromise.
Senator Ross was one of the Radical Republicans who wanted to make sure the South paid a high price for the war, and that civil rights would be guaranteed. Ross ended up saving Johnson because he saw Constitutional dangers in partisanship, and believed a President had the right to replace cabinet members. This power is taken for granted today.
In the years before the Civil War, Ross had established himself as a vigorous opponent of slavery, and was one of the first to join the Republican Party when it was formed in 1854. He campaigned vigorously against that year’s Kansas-Nebraska Act which was seen as a vehicle to spread slavery to the territories.
The legislation prompted Ross to move to Kansas and start an abolitionist newspaper to keep slavery out of the territory. Ross later served on the committee which drafted a constitution admitting Kansas to the union as a free state, and enlisted when the war broke out and rose to the rank of major.
At the age of 39, Ross was appointed to the Senate by the Governor of Kansas who had been his commanding officer during the war. The Governor said Ross would be a firm supporter of the Radical Republicans. Voting to convict President Johnson would have been politically popular, and would certainly have kept Ross in office.
In Profiles in Courage, Kennedy began his chapter about Senator Ross by saying:
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 Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, David Dewitt described the final day of the proceedings. Dewitt was in the Senate gallery and said national attention was solely focused on Ross, who was the ultimate decision maker. No one had a clue how the Kansas Senator would vote:
‘Mr. Senator Ross, how say you?’ the voice of Chief Justice Salmon Chase 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.
Andrew Johnson is now regarded as one of America’s worst Presidents, but he never should have been impeached. Johnson made foolish decisions but they were not “high crimes.”
Respect for the Constitution, Not Partisan Politics
The President’s opponents were trying to drive him from office for purely political reasons, but fortunately for the nation, a few statesmen had the courage to do the right thing. If Johnson had been forced out because of political considerations, the presidency could have always been under control of the Congressional majority.
Neither Ross nor the other six Republicans who voted “Not Guilty” were returned to the Senate. The impeachment vote ended their political careers. They saved America’s Constitutional government and John Kennedy was correct in describing Senator Edmund Ross as a profile in courage.