The impeachment of President Donald Trump has inevitably led to discussion of historical presidential impeachments, and the very first impeachment to take place was that of President Andrew Johnson.
A Southern conservative Abraham Lincoln had put on his ticket in hope of unifying the warring North and South, Johnson believed America must remain a “white man’s government,” and moved to fire every public official who was trying to enforce the civil rights and safety of freed slaves. His intent was to force the government to stand down against terrorist groups like the newly-founded Ku Klux Klan, as they used mob rule and violence to reassert white supremacy in the South.
Horrified, Republicans in Congress hastily created a federal law, the Tenure of Office Act, to stop this white supremacist purge — and when he simply ignored this law, they impeached him. He escaped conviction by one vote due to the defections of several “moderate” (and white) GOP senators.
Yet in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Vice President Mike Pence argued the real hero of this story was one of those contrary Republicans, Sen. Edmund Ross (R-KS), who, in the face of “pressure,” stuck to his principles, “bucked his party and voted to acquit Andrew Johnson.”
In a USA TODAY editorial, attorney and Johnson biographer David Stewart smashed Pence’s historical revisionism, pointing out that, far from voting his principles, Ross was a corrupt grifter who essentially sold his impeachment vote to the highest bidder.
“Edmund Ross owed his seat in the Senate to the leading scoundrel in Kansas politics in the 1860s, Perry Fuller,” wrote Stewart. “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.”
“As the time for voting drew nigh, Johnson needed a few more Republican votes to save his job,” wrote Stewart. “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.”
“Then Ross moved to cash in,” wrote Stewart. “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 … 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,” concluded Stewart. “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.”
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