Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
May 25,  2006

Profile in Courage

The first history book I ever read was Profiles in Courage. I checked it out from the library in 9th grade. I knew that it had been written by our recently martyred, President Kennedy. The book’s title led me to believe that I would be reading about war heroes like Kennedy but the heroes in JFK’s book were all politicians. Kennedy’s heroes had faced down the popular will not bullets and shrapnel.

I was particularly drawn to the story of the obscure Kansas Senator, Edmund G. Ross, because I was a Kansan myself. I was also drawn to his story because his act of courage sprang from the Civil War an Era my revered Grandfather, George Robb, knew like the back of his hand. Like JFK my Grandfather was an elected official and a war hero only of a more exalted rank. In 1962 our family had to badger Grandfather to accept the new President’s invitation to join him in Washington D.C. with other winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor. My Grandfather didn’t share Kennedy’s politics but he did share Kennedy’s willingness to say that bravery in battle was not necessarily courage of the highest order. War heroes can say things like that.

So, just who was Senator Edmund G. Ross?

Ross was an ardent pro-union man elected to the United States Senate in 1866 from Kansas the most radically and rabidly Republican state in the Union. The Washington he went to was no longer presided over by the temperate Abraham Lincoln who had spoken of “malice toward none.” The Nation was now presided over by his successor, Andrew Johnson. It was the most unfortunate presidential succession in U.S. history. Johnson was a Democrat who wanted to continue Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation. Johnson, however was a pugnacious, racist who drank too frequently and too publicly. From his accession to office to his impeachment the power of the Presidency plummeted from its zenith to its nadir. The Radical Republicans controlled two-thirds of both houses of Congress and they had no use for mealy mouthed moderation. Radicals who did not want to severely punish the traitors wanted them hung. Unfortunately for the Radicals there were just enough moderate Republicans to uphold an occasional Presidential veto of their punitive legislation. The Radicals could not abide this obstacle to their total control of the nation so they contrived to remove the President.

When Edmund Ross joined the Senate in 1866 it seemed a sure bet that he would join the Radicals. But when the House of Representatives hurriedly impeached the President for “high crimes and misdemeanors” Ross made it clear that he intended to see the Senate give the President a fair trial. This announcement set off alarms throughout the Party. While the Senate was two-thirds Republican, six of the two-thirds were unreliable moderates. Without Ross the Radicals were one vote shy of veto-proof control and/or the ability to remove the President. A vengeful frenzy, fueled by the North’s loss of 360,000 soldiers, was set loose against Ross. Bribes were offered for a vote to remove the President. Threats were hurled at Ross including that of assassination. For months he endured pressures that few American politicians have known.

Ross had everything to gain by doing what was politically popular. He was bright, articulate and ambitious. Had he voted to remove the unpopular President he would probably have reached the highest levels of power and been remembered as one of the nation’s leaders. But Ross believed in a balance between presidential and congressional power and he believed in fair trials. The vote he cast for his conscience and his nation’s sanity cost him his office. Newspapers across the nation called him a craven, sniveling, coward. In Kansas he was reviled and his family reduced to penury. Although Ross’s fate was the grimmest he was not alone. Six other Republican Senators who cast their votes with Ross were to lose their seats. Years later Ross won vindication when the law used to impeach the President was ruled to be unconstitutional.

Today’s virulent politics are reminiscent of the politics of 1868. Pundits on the left call for impeachment of the President. Pundits on the right call everyone on the left treasonous.

My Grandfather was as solid a Republican as you could find. The only vote he ever cast for a Democrat he regretted till the day he died but he did not know the kind of vitriol which consumes the nation today. He flew off to Washington to pay his respects to that Democrat, Kennedy. I keep the picture of the two men shaking hands on the wall of my office. It reminds me of a time when Americans could agree to disagree.

Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.lincolndemocrat.com  

  my recorded version of this essay  its an experiment.

Watch this column being read by Harry