Who was United States Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas? I suppose you could call him a “Mr. Nobody.” No law bears his name. Not a single list of Senate “greats” mentions his service. Yet when Ross entered the Senate in 1866, he was considered the man to watch. He seemed destined to surpass his colleagues, but he tossed it all away by one courageous act of conscience. Lets set the stage.
Conflict was dividing our government in the wake of the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson was determined to follow Lincolns policy of reconciliation toward the defeated South. Congress, however, wanted to rule the downtrodden Confederate states with an iron hand. Congress decided to strike first. Shortly after Senator Ross was seated, the Senate introduced impeachment proceedings against the hated President. The radicals calculated that they needed thirty-six votes, and smiled as they concluded that the thirty-sixth was none other than Ross.
The new senator listened to the vigilante talk. But to the surprise of many, he declared that the president “deserved as fair a trial as any accused man has ever had on earth.” The word immediately went out that his vote was “shaky.” Ross received an avalanche of anti-Johnson telegrams from every section of the country. Radical senators badgered him to “come to his senses.”
The fateful day of the vote arrived. The courtroom galleries were packed. Tickets for admission were at an enormous premium. As a deathlike stillness fell over the Senate chamber, the vote began. By the time they reached Ross, twenty-four “guilties” had been announced. Eleven more were certain. Only Ross vote was needed to impeach the President. Unable to conceal his emotion, the Chief Justice asked in a trembling voice, “Mr. Senator Ross, how vote you? Is the respondent Andrew Johnson guilty as charged?”
Ross later explained, at that moment, “I looked into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, and everything that makes life desirable to an ambitions man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.” Then, the answer cameunhesitating, unmistakable: “Not guilty!” With that, the trial was over. And the response was as predicted.
A high public official from Kansas wired Ross to say: “Kansas repudiates you as she does all perjurers and skunks.” he “open grave” vision had become a reality. Ross political career was in ruins. Extreme ostracism, and even physical attack awaited his family upon their return home.
One gloomy day Ross turned to his faithful wife and said, “Millions cursing me today will bless me tomorrow though not but God can know the struggle it has cost me.” It was a prophetic declaration.
Twenty years later Congress and the Supreme Court verified the wisdom of his position, by changing the laws related to impeachment. Ross was appointed Territorial Governor of New Mexico. Then, just prior to his death, he was awarded a special pension by Congress. The press and country took this opportunity to honor his courage which, they finally concluded, had saved our country from crisis and division.