Jurisprudence

Mike Pence’s Impeachment Hero Is a Corrupt 19th Century Politician

A historian calls the vice president’s op-ed “historical bullshit.”

A photo of Edmund G. Ross sitting in a chair.
Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, Mike Pence’s historic impeachment role model.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence urging Senate Democrats to follow the example of Edmund G. Ross, who “bucked his party and voted to acquit Andrew Johnson.” Pence praised Ross, who served as a Republican senator during Johnson’s presidency, for resisting “pressure” from his party and staying “true to his own convictions” to “render a fair judgment.” He favorably cites John F. Kennedy’s 1956 book Profiles in Courage, which depicts Ross who resisted “legislative mob rule” and “partisan impeachment.” The vice president draws parallels between Johnson and Donald Trump, asking, “Who, among the Senate Democrats, will stand up to the passions of their party this time?”

Pence’s op-ed is profoundly ahistorical, inaccurate, and oddly reliant upon a view of Johnson promoted by the Ku Klux Klan during its resurgence in the early 20th century. Far from a principled independent, Ross was an unscrupulous politician who exploited his impeachment vote to obtain favors from the president and may well have been bribed to acquit. Historian Brenda Wineapple’s extraordinary book The Impeachers, published in 2019, details the true story of Ross’ corrupt bargain to save Johnson’s catastrophic presidency. We spoke on Friday about the many errors in Pence’s op-ed. Our interview has been edited for length.

Slate: Pence writes that Johnson “shared Lincoln’s desire to bring the Southern states back into the fold as soon as possible” and wished to “continue Lincoln’s policies.” Is that true?

Brenda Wineapple: No. Johnson was not continuing Lincoln’s policy. First of all, no one knew exactly what Lincoln’s policy would be in the first place—he hadn’t formulated one, but he was open-minded, which Johnson never was. Second, Lincoln had suggested that he was very open to giving the vote to black men, particularly those who had served in the Union army.

Johnson’s position, by contrast, was very clear; he said, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”

Johnson not only opposed votes for blacks—he opposed political and civil rights for blacks, too. He vetoed civil rights legislation. He campaigned against the 14th Amendment. And instead of calling a special session of Congress after Lincoln’s assassination, he began to reconstruct the Southern government along his own lines. That included pardoning nearly 100 former Confederates a day, allowing them to rejoin the legislature, and letting those legislatures pass “Black Codes,” which were ordinances that reinstituted slavery by another name because they denied all civil rights to blacks, including the right to marry, to serve on a jury, even to move freely.

Before we get to Edmund Ross, let’s talk about Pence’s framing of the Johnson impeachment. He writes that Republicans “hatched a plot” to impeach him and “found their grounds in a rather pedestrian law, the Tenure of Office Act.” Pence cites John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage for authority. Are Pence and Kennedy right?

What Kennedy said in that book is absolutely egregious. Kennedy wrote that “the actual cause for which the President was being tried was not fundamental to the welfare of the nation.” Johnson was being tried for abuse of power and obstruction of justice—in particular, squandering the Union victory, turning back the clock, reinstating white supremacy, and keeping black people as third-class citizens. How could that not be central to the “welfare of the nation”? It’s absolutely outrageous.

But Republicans did cite the Tenure of Office Act, which barred Johnson from removing Cabinet secretaries without congressional approval, in their articles of impeachment.

Johnson violating the Tenure of Office Act was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Republicans had been very reluctant to impeach Johnson. The Republicans were trying to find ways to curb him, to pass legislation and an amendment that would consolidate the Union victory and make sure that the effects of slavery were abolished. They didn’t vote to impeach until Johnson just went too far and broke a law. That law was the Tenure of Office Act. Eight of the impeachment articles dealt with that. But the real reason underneath it all was Johnson’s abuse of power, his rejection of the legitimacy of Congress. Johnson was eroding the tripartite government and arrogating all power to himself. Two articles of impeachment dealt with that—his abuse of power and the denigrations of democracy.

Pence writes that Republicans led a “stampede” to impeach Johnson—

There was no stampede! There were seven Republicans who voted against impeachment. Impeachment had not come quickly or easily. It only came when Johnson actually broke the law. Remember, it was 1868, and Republicans thought they would be rid of Johnson after the upcoming election. There was no stampede. That’s just historical bullshit.

Let’s talk about Ross. Kennedy viewed him as a profile on courage, and Pence concurs.
He writes that “Ross was determined to render a fair judgment” and “stayed true to his convictions.” Accurate?

No. Ross was a junior senator from Kansas and he needed money and favors. His constituents wanted him to vote to remove Johnson from office. There was no reason to vote the way he did—except that he was importuning Johnson for favors. He wanted all kinds of favors for his family. And treaties for the railroads interests pushing him. He wanted Johnson to support a treaty that would sell 8 million acres that belonged to Native Americans to a railroad for a fraction of what it was worth. He wanted his brother to get a government position in Florida. Then he wanted two friends to be appointed as Indian agents, and another friend to be Southern superintendent of Indian affairs, and another friend to be a surveyor in Kansas. In view of Ross’ vote, Johnson delivered on absolutely all of it. As we say today, there was plenty of quid pro quo.

There’s also substantial suggestion, if not hard proof, that Ross actually received money for his vote. Ross lived in the same boarding house as Vinnie Ream, a sculptor. It appears he had a crush on her. Ream’s brother-in-law, Perry Fuller, was a very shady character, known for bribes and corruption, who was working behind the scenes on Johnson’s behalf. He had also contributed to Ross’ campaign.

And Fuller paid Ross to vote for acquittal?

So people said at the time. We do know that Ross asked Johnson to nominate Fuller as commissioner of internal revenue. Johnson complied, but the Senate wouldn’t confirm Fuller, so Johnson gave him a big plum job as the customs agent in New Orleans. [Note: Fuller was arrested for embezzling $3 million, and Ross guaranteed his bond.]

Let’s turn back to Johnson. One obvious goal of Pence’s op-ed is to favorably compare Trump to Johnson by framing Johnson as a principled president unfairly vilified and undermined by a partisan Congress. Where does Pence’s rosy view of Johnson come from?

Until the rise of the KKK in the early 20th century, Johnson was a toxic figure. The Democrats, his own party, wouldn’t even nominate him for president in 1868. He was inept, vulgar, and an abuser of power. He was unfit for office, and across the board, it was understood that he was in over his head. His reputation was in the cellar until Birth of a Nation, the 1915 movie that popularized the “lost cause” point of view. It depicted Radical Republicans as power-hungry fanatics. After Birth of a Nation, the KKK began popularizing Johnson again.

What can today’s senators learn, if anything, from Johnson’s impeachment?

The Johnson impeachers felt the president was unfit and wanted him out of office. They focused on the Tenure of Office Act and, as a result, got into a lot of legalistic wrangling rather than dealing with the larger issue of abuse of power. The impeachers were standing for the proposition, from the Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal and have equal rights and opportunities under the law. If they had stayed with that, they would have had a better chance of convicting the president.

How should we remember Edmund Ross?

As a weak person. As a profile in cowardice. He should be forgotten.