The issue of impeachment, unlike any other political challenge, allows the people of America to truly focus on those principles that they consider essential for the present and future well being of their country. The pressures to stand up and speak up for what you hold near and dear can be immense-especially when you are in the minority. During the recent showdown between the legislative and executive branches of government, there was often the reference to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson as a guide of how to proceed methodically, judiciously, and with an eye towards the end goal.
Let's go back in time and personalize that event of long ago through the life and sacrifice of one individual named Edmund G. Ross. He was the freshman senator from Kansas who cast the pivotal vote of "not guilty" which ultimately derailed any possible conviction of President Johnson. Historian Santyana is often remembered for his famous maxim: "Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them." This is sobering advice to serious students of history and prophecy, recognizing both these elements have a common seam.
In 1955, then Senator John F. Kennedy wrote a book entitled Profiles In Courage. The book contains a number of short stories that depict Americans who made a difference in their time. Kennedy opens this profile by focusing the reader "on a lonely grave, forgotten and unknown, [where] lies 'the man who saved a President.'"
The Die is Cast
Let's understand the times and the man. The Civil War was over. The victorious North through the "Radical Republican" majority of Congress was in the process of imposing a harsh peace on the vanquished Southern Confederacy. Kennedy states that "Lincoln prior to his death had already clashed with extremists in Congress, [which] had opposed his approach to reconstruction in a constitutional and charitable manner and sought to make the Legislative Branch of the government supreme."
The main target was none other than a courageous, if less than tactful, Tennessean (Johnson) who had been the only Southern member of Congress to refuse to secede with his state. Johnson had committed himself to the "policies of the Great Emancipator to whose high station he had succeeded only by the course of an assassin's bullet."
The flash point issue was the recently passed "Tenure-of-Office" bill, which essentially gave Congress the power over the President concerning removal of government personnel. The pivotal act of no return on Johnson's part was the firing of Secretary of War Stanton, whom he had inherited from Lincoln, but whom he considered a tool of the "Radical Republicans" and a near-military dictator of the conquered South. Initially, this act of Congress was not specified to include cabinet members. Stanton, sensing the moment and the mood of Congress and the American people, barricaded himself in his office and there remained. The die was cast.
The political atmosphere was incredibly tense and threatening. Senator Thaddeus Stevens, master of the House of Representatives "with a mouth like the thin edge of an ax" coldly stated, "Let me see the recreant who would vote to let such a criminal escape. Point me to one who will dare do it and I will show you one who will dare the infamy of posterity." As the trial moved forward "the chief interest was not in the trial or the evidence, but in the tallying of votes necessary for conviction."
The numbers game became the all-telling focus. It would take a two-thirds majority to convict. The Democratic senators' vote was taken as lost. The Republicans could only afford to lose six of their own party member's votes. Six Republicans had already stated they would vote "not guilty." "Infamy!" cried the Philadelphia Press; "the Republic has been betrayed in the House of its friends."
But what about Edmund Ross? He was the only man who had not declared his vote, and it would be his vote that would make the difference in American history.
"I Look Down into My Open Grave"
Initially, Ross had been considered a sure vote towards conviction. Here was a "Kansas man" who had been pro-abolition, a major in the army, and had voted negatively towards every Johnson initiative to this point. He had condemned Johnson's treatment of Secretary Stanton. He neither liked the man personally or politically. Yet, he was openly condemned for not announcing his conclusions in a preliminary poll.
Ross generated deep concern with his words to Senator Sprague of Rhode Island. "Well, Sprague, the thing is here; and, so far as I am concerned, though I am Republican and opposed to Mr. Johnson and his policy he shall have as fair a trial as an accused man ever had on this earth."
Kennedy shares the intense pressures by stating, "Ross and his fellow doubtful Republicans were daily pestered, spied upon and subjected to every form of pressure. Their residences were carefully watched, their social circles suspiciously scrutinized, and their every move and companions secretly marked in special notebooks. They were warned in the party press, harangued by their constituents, and sent dire warnings threatening political ostracism and even assassination."
Kennedy quotes from Dewitt's Impeachment of Andrew Johnson: "The full brunt of the struggle turned at last on the one remaining doubtful Senator, Edmund G. Ross." Firing back at a threatening letter by a Kansan constituent, Ross laid the gauntlet down by declaring: "I have taken an oath to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, and trust that I shall have the courage to vote according to the dictates of my judgement and for the highest good of the country."
Then the moment of truth came. Ross would freeze-frame the dramatic moment years later by reminiscing, "It was a tremendous responsibility, and it was not strange that he upon whom it had been imposed by a fateful combination of conditions should have sought to avoid it, to put it away from him as one shuns, or tries to fight off a nightmare.... I almost literally looked down into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever."
Ross' lament reminds one of another time and place when Mordecai warned and encouraged Esther by stating, "Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king's palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this"(Esther 4:13-14). At times like this, one must dig deep, dig true, and yes, seemingly alone.
Ross' hero, Abraham Lincoln, once stated, "I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left and that friend shall be down inside of me."
Lincoln was a reader of the Bible. Perhaps, in the challenging moments of life and leadership he had pondered what Christ had stated in Matthew 16:25-26: "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man exchange for his soul?"
"How Say You?"
In the day of judgment, the Chief Justice finally came down the roll call to Ross and inquired, "How say you? Is the respondent Andrew Johnson guilty or not guilty of a high misdemeanor as charged in this article?"
Kennedy sums up the dramatic moment, "Every voice was still; every eye was upon the freshman Senator from Kansas. The hopes and fears, the hatred and bitterness of past decades were centered upon this one man." In a determined voice, Ross stated, "not guilty!" For all practical purposes the trial was over and the conviction lost.
What were the thoughts behind these two simple words from a man who personally and politically disliked the man on trial? Years later, Ross would write in magazine articles that, "in a large sense, the independence of the executive office as a coordinate branch of the government was on trial... If... the President must step down... a disgraced man and a political outcast... upon insufficient proofs and from partisan considerations, the office of President would be degraded, cease to be a coordinate branch of the government, and ever after subordinated to the legislative will."
One thing was for sure. The vision of the "open grave" was real. Ross immediately began to receive threats and insults. One stated, "Kansas repudiates you as she does all perjurers and skunks." A Kansas Supreme Court Judge sent him a wire stating, "the rope with which Judas Iscariot hanged himself is lost, but Jim Lane's pistol is at your service" (Jim Lane, a suicide victim, had been the previous senator of Kansas whom Ross had replaced).
Ross would serve out his term and would often during that time be referred to as "traitor." Secretary of War Stanton would come out of his self-imposed office barricade, President Johnson would later serve as a senator from Tennessee, but Ross and each of the other six Republicans would never return to elected office. Politically, they were through.
It would take the country 20 years to catch its breath from the Civil War period and come to its senses. The "Tenure-of-Office Act" was found unconstitutional. Kennedy states, "those Kansas newspapers and political leaders who had denounced him in earlier years praised Ross for his stand against legislative mob rule." They went on: "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.... He acted Right" [Emphasis added].
Difference Between the Holy and Profane
Why should Edmund Ross's example be important to us? Revelation 5:10 states that God is in the process of making us "kings and priests." Ruling within government, and making sound judgments and decisions is part of the future of the resurrected Christians who will assist Christ in the literal kingdom of God on this earth. In 1 Corinthians 6:2-3, Paul states, "Do you not know that saints will judge the world...and that we shall judge angels?" Both of these functions require decision making that may affect human life and the well being of future generations.
In Ezekiel 44:23-24, God offers this job description of priests by stating, "They shall teach My people the difference between the holy and the unholy, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean. In controversy they shall stand as judges, and judge it according to My judgments." What is the difference between the holy and the profane? In one sense the things that are holy are those matters which stand the test of time, because they are godly in nature. They are matters that move beyond convenience, haste, emotion, and a rush to judgment. The unclean and profane items may seem good for the moment, offering instant gratification to and winning the applause of sincere people.
Values Over Feelings
Yet, God is not nearly as interested in feelings, as in the values that ultimately shape society. Ross lived in times that were emotional, dizzy and dismaying. The country had just experienced the greatest single conflict of its brief history-a war that pitted brother against brother. Proverbs 29:18 so aptly states, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." On principle, Ross recognized that an erosion of presidential power by a vengeful Congress would not only pave the path to an even harder reconstruction, but jeopardize all future presidents facing matters of vital national interest. In one of the darkest episodes of our political history one man stood out as a light of reasoned principle.
Zechariah 8:23 prophetically indicates that in God's kingdom people of vision and principle will be in demand because such values will be immediately recognized as precious, not 20 years later as was the case for Ross' wisdom. Notice what it says: "Ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man (a godly man), saying, 'Let us go up with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'" Values, convictions, courage are like lighthouses in a dark world. Perhaps even now, you are facing situations in which you seem to "stand alone" on principle.
We read examples like Esther and Edmund Ross to know that we are not alone. Ultimately, what is most important, is not what we know, but what we do-starting today. Edmund Ross' courageous example during the trial of his century certainly exemplifies the millennial refrain of Isaiah 30:21, "this is the way walk you in it." But his time and trial is past. Let's move forward toward our present and future trials with the same moral fortitude.