Courage to Stand Alone

Courage is simply the willingness to be afraid and act anyway.
-Dr. Robert Anthony

Immediately after the civil war, the United States was divided. Reconciliation – stitching the country back together – was necessary. Before wartime president Abraham Lincoln could start this healing process, he was assassinated. The duty to re-unite the country fell to vice president Andrew Johnson. President Johnson had many positive attributes, but he was not skilled at reconciliation. He was a poor public speaker. He was a Democrat and refused to compromise with a Republican dominated Congress. He was a southerner and although he opposed the division of the states that happened during the civil war, he was not sympathetic to northern interest that demanded that southern states be penalized for their part in the war and demanded that liberated slaves be treated fairly.1

President Johnson did unify the country but in an unexpected way. Congress, citizens in the north and citizens in the south joined together — in disliking him. Soon, impeachment proceedings were underway to remove him from office. Impeachment proceedings operate much like a trial with the U.S. Senate sitting as the jury. In order to remove President Johnson, two-thirds of the Senate had to vote him out. The U.S. Constitution, however, required that the evidence prove that President Johnson was guilty of treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Before hearing the evidence, many Senators committed to vote to remove President Johnson. Early in the proceeding, however, Senator Edmund G. Ross confided in a fellow senator that

so far as I am concerned, though a 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.

As word spread that Senator Ross intended to give President Johnson a fair trial, he began receiving constant visits, letters and telegrams pressing impeachment.2 As Senator Ross refused to commit to a decision prior to hearing the evidence, a public frenzy started building. Ross was dogged from morning until far into the night with demands, “considerations, and threats.”3 Newspapers reported that Senators opposing impeachment should expect violence upon their return home.

A sentiment grew through the country that if President Johnson was not removed from office, the sacrifices made throughout the war would have been made for nothing. The New York Tribune reported that Senator Ross was “mercilessly dragged this way and that by both sides, hunted like a fox night and day and badgered by his own colleagues … trod upon by one … and … trampled by the other.” His background, friends and life were investigated from top to bottom, and his constituents and colleagues pursued him throughout Washington…. He was the target of every eye, his name was on every mouth and his intentions were discussed in every newspaper.4

Senator Ross was seen by many to be an easy target to convince to vote to remove the President from office. He was not an experienced politician, he did not have a reputation in the Senate to fall back on, he was not financially independent, and his home state of Kansas was volatile. Citizens of his home state Kansas were encouraged to send petitions, resolutions, letters and make person visits, which they did. The night before the first vote, Senator Ross received this telegram: “Kansas has heard the evidence and demands the conviction of the President. (signed) D.R. Anthony and 1,000 Others” Senator Ross replied:

I do not recognize your right to demand that I vote either for or against conviction. 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 judgment and for the highest good of the country.
(signed) E.G. Ross

The pressure against Senator Ross continued. Visits from state legislators and military officers (sent from the war secretary) with rumors of bribes, trumped-up charges and political death continued through the night.5

The Senate was packed with persons from every position. Ticket prices for every additional seat were priced at a premium and were sold out. Witnesses described a deathlike stillness in spite of the number of people present. There was no shuffling of feet or swishing of clothes. There were no sounds of fans or talking. The weight of the process was so great that some of the observers “grew pale and sick under the suspense.”6

When Senator Ross was asked to vote, his voice sounded wavered and weak. Unheard, there were calls from across the Chamber for him to repeat himself. He responded, “Not Guilty.”

The impeachment against President failed.

Senator Ross’s career in the Senate ended. He was vilified in newspapers across the country. When people passed him on the street, they treated him like “a leper.”7 When he returned to Kansas, he and his family suffered social ostracism, physical attack, and near poverty.” An editorial in the Kansas newspaper accused him of being the opposite of all things that “dignify or ennoble manhood.”8

Much academic writing and debate has examined the motive and result of Senator Ross’s vote that day. Here, the examination is reduced to the one noble thing he did by his own prediction:

I shall have the courage to vote according to the dictates of my judgment.

In spite of knowing that it would be the end of life as he knew it, he had the courage to vote his conscience. In the short run, it cost him everything he feared. Eventually, however, Senator Ross was appointed Governor of the New Mexico Territory and granted a federal pension.

We don’t know the end of Senator Ross’s story because the American democratic experiment is still unfolding. There are some that say that had President Johnson been removed from office at such a fragile time in American history, it would have wrecked the country. Congressman James G. Blaine, who personally attacked Senator Ross, later admitted that in the heat of the moment “great injustice was done to statesmen of spotless character.”9

Are you struggling to find the courage to do what’s best? Is everyone else doing the opposite? Might it cost you everything? I hope you find encouragement in this story about Senator Edmond Ross.

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  1. ©2015 Brandon L. Blankenship, Image Credit: Creative Commons Unnamed by Seyed Zamanl is licensed under CC by 2.0.
  2. Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage, 50th Anniversary Edition, p122-3.
  3. Supra at 123.
  4. Supra at 124.
  5. Supra at 124-5.
  6. Supra at 126.
  7. Supra at 130
  8. Supra at 129.
  9. Supra at 128.
About The Author

Brandon Blankenship

Brandon L. Blankenship is a continuing legal education presenter and business educator. He is the author of Unmasking Hour. He writes weekly posts on the legal industry and is a contributor to the Nobility Academy. He and his wife Donnalee live on their hobby farm south of Birmingham, Alabama.