David O. Stewart
Although some proclaim that we now live in a post-truth society, we cannot afford to garble our history, nor leave egregious statements uncorrected. That’s especially true on impeachment. We have few historical precedents, and we should be sure to learn the right lessons from them.
Unfortunately, Vice President Mike Pence has perpetuated an appalling misunderstanding of President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial of 1868. He did it by parroting the account of the Johnson trial in John F. Kennedy’s popular but sloppy history, “Profiles in Courage” — exalting Kansas Sen. Edmund Ross’ supposedly valiant vote to acquit Johnson.
Kennedy adopted the view of a Kansas historian who called it “the most heroic act in American history.” But both Kennedy in his book, and Pence in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, got their facts totally wrong. Ross’ vote was bought and paid for with patronage promises and, very likely, cold cash. It was crooked business as usual, not heroism.
Edmund Ross owed his seat in the Senate to the leading scoundrel in Kansas politics in the 1860s, Perry Fuller. Fuller stole most of his money from Indian tribes and government programs designed to help them. He illegally cut timber from reservations and rustled tribes’ cattle, covering his tracks by paying off officials in the federal Indian service. State investigations later concluded that in 1867, Fuller bribed enough Kansas legislators to win U.S. Senate seats for Ross and Samuel Pomeroy.
Johnson was racist to his core
When the impeachment trial began a year later, Ross repeatedly assured fellow Republicans that he would vote to convict President Johnson. Four years into the bitter, vituperative Johnson era, most Republicans wanted to remove the president. Johnson had been elected vice president on the Republican ticket in 1864 with Abraham Lincoln, but he was a Southern Democrat and a racist to his core.
“I am for a white man’s government,” Johnson, then governor of Union-controlled portions of Tennessee, said in a January 1864 speech on “restoration of the state government.”
Two decades earlier, as a new House member, Johnson had said black Africans were “inferior to the white man in point of intellect — better calculated in physical structure to undergo drudgery and hardship — standing, as they do, many degrees lower in the scale of gradation … than the white man.”
As president, Johnson aggressively opposed efforts to assist the freed slaves and halt the vicious murders and violence against them throughout the former Confederacy.
To survive the impeachment vote, Johnson turned to the money men. Three of Johnson’s Cabinet officers — Secretary of State William Seward, Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch and Postmaster General Alexander Randall — raised an “acquittal fund” for bribing senators. Johnson’s senior White House aide, William Moore, recorded negotiations to purchase the votes of several senators, though Moore never named the targets.
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As the time for voting drew nigh, Johnson needed a few more Republican votes to save his job. Enter Perry Fuller, who was pressing to be named commissioner of the national revenue, a position that presented opportunities for corruption on a scale that only Fuller could realize. Fuller turned to a man whose Senate seat he bought, Edmund Ross.
Fuller and Ross were together for much of the last 24 hours before the Senate vote. When the roll call on the first impeachment vote reached Ross on May 16, the Kansan flipped his position, casting the vote that won Johnson’s acquittal.
Ross vote to acquit paid off for friends
Then Ross moved to cash in. Within a week, he asked the president to appoint Fuller to lead the federal revenue service. Dutifully, Johnson made the appointment. To its credit, the Senate refused to approve it.
But Johnson could not allow Fuller and Ross to go unrewarded. The president appointed Fuller chief collector of revenue in New Orleans. In seven months in that position, according to a grand jury indictment, Fuller stole $3 million of federal tax revenue. When Fuller won pretrial release in the case, Sen. Ross guaranteed his bond.
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Ross’ impeachment vote secured other lucrative appointments for the senator’s friends. And although cash was largely untraceable in 1868, a fair chunk of the Johnson “acquittal fund” almost certainly ended up in Ross’ pocket.
It is depressing that our vice president does not know that the man he champions as a model was, to use 19th century terms, a blackguard and a villain. Equally disappointing, John Kennedy didn’t know that, either.
Yet the blunder is especially telling in 2020. The core of today’s impeachment crisis is corruption: Has our president abused the powers of his office to win personal gain? Exalting such a thoroughly corrupt figure as Sen. Edmund Ross is both a bizarre way to defend this president, and raises the question of whether those in this administration understand what is corrupt, and what isn’t.
David O. Stewart, a lawyer who has defended an impeachment case before the Senate, is the author of “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy.”