“In a lonely grave, forgotten and unknown, lies ‘the man who saved a president,’ and as a result may well have preserved for ourselves and our posterity constitutional government in the United States…”. These words were written in 1956 by Senator John F. Kennedy in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Profiles in Courage”. That forgotten man is Edmund G. Ross and that lonely grave is in the Fairview Cemetery in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Edmund Ross was an abolitionist and a Senator from Kansas. He was the Senator who cast the deciding vote to acquit Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial. He was never again elected to a political office, and he cast his vote with full knowledge that that was going to happen.
It’s not hard to see why Johnson was disliked. He tried to do reconstruction on his own by executive order. He essentially tried to return things to the way they were before the Civil War. Johnson ordered the Southern States to hold conventions and elections. Not surprisingly, they elected the same people who had run things before the war. The southern states promptly passed “Black Codes” to take away civil liberties from black people. Johnson also opposed the 14th amendment that guaranteed equal protection under the law to all citizens, including the newly freed slaves.
The Congress responded by refusing to seat these southern legislators and passed legislation that negated President Johnson’s actions. He vetoed these bills, and Congress promptly overrode his vetoes. Congress also passed the tenure of office act (an act that was later found to be unconstitutional) that forbade the president from firing cabinet officials. When Johnson fired the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, that’s what triggered the impeachment. Even though Edmund Ross was a staunch abolitionist and Johnson wanted to effectively reinstate involuntary servitude, Ross felt the reasons for the impeachment were political and thus impeachment was not appropriate.
Ross was not only an abolitionist, but also a Union soldier who enlisted as a private and rose to the rank of Major. 173 soldiers in his regiment died in the Civil War. It must have been extremely distasteful for Ross to vote against the conviction of a president who was seeking to undo everything that Ross had fought for and sacrificed for.
So why did Ross oppose the conviction? The US Constitution only spells out two specific impeachable offenses: treason and bribery. It also lists two undefined things: high crimes and misdemeanors. Why does it do that? Constitutional scholars believe that the founding fathers couldn’t agree on any other impeachable offenses but they didn’t want to tie Congress’s hands so they included the vague language of high crimes and misdemeanors.
So what does “high crimes and misdemeanors” mean? Gerald Ford put it this way: “It means whatever Congress says it means”. In other words, Congress gets to decide after the fact what is an impeachable offense and then hold the President accountable to that standard. That’s an inherently political determination, and that’s what Ross objected to. In fact, if Ross hadn’t voted the way he did we would have removed a president from office for violating an act that was unconstitutional.
Ross’s views of impeachment pretty much held sway for over 100 years. But in the late 20th century and now again in the 21st century, Congress is trying to use impeachment as just another political tool. They are telling us that it is OK to overturn the results of elections if you have the political muscle to do so. They don’t seem to be concerned that they are undermining “constitutional government in the United States” (as John F. Kennedy said) by effectively disenfranchising the voters who elected a president.
So how does this relate to our present situation with President Trump? The “treason” accusations pretty much went out the window with the Mueller report. Since that time we have been treated to the “Offense du Jour” approach to try to make the case for whatever the Democrats want to define as “high crimes and misdemeanors”. As discussed above, this approach is inherently political. It ignores the sacrifices made for us by people like Edmund Ross. And, it ignores the wisdom of people like John F. Kennedy.
In one year we are going to have a Presidential election. If you think that Trump is “ethically challenged”, then don’t vote for him. I didn’t vote for him in 2016, but I do accept the fact that he was elected President. Elections are the proper and legitimate way to determine who is President. Having Congress do it for political reasons isn’t. This impeachment isn’t just a conflict between the legislative and executive branches of government. It’s also a conflict between the Congress and the public as to who is going to determine who the President of the United States is.