Editor’s Note: Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history and public affairs. He is the author and editor of nine books, most recently “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.” The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
For only the third time in American history, the US Senate has opened a trial for an impeached president. On Thursday, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administered a special oath to all senators, requiring that they “do impartial justice” in their judgment of the president’s alleged “high crimes and misdemeanors.” What does that mean in practice, when the Senate is so divided by party, with a majority leader who has promised to coordinate closely with the impeached president?
Vice President Mike Pence published a powerful, but deceptive article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal that offers the White House position. Pence called for “courage” from Senate Democrats who, he contended, must be willing “to stand up and reject a partisan impeachment.” He invoked former Republican Senator Edmund Ross who, during the trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, voted against the Republican Party to prevent the removal of the president. As Pence put it: “Ross was determined to render a fair judgment, resisting his own party’s stampede.”
Pence bought into the false notion that Ross was a “profile in courage” for refusing on principled grounds to be the final vote needed to remove Johnson from office. His account is historically dishonest on every count and it reveals the contortions the White House is willing to perform to protect its power at all costs – precisely the attitude that helped to trigger impeachment in the first place. When a president and his closest advisers pathologically lie to the public, and Pence’s article is yet another example, how can the American people (and our allies) believe anything coming out of the White House? How can a president lead when he has violated all foundations for public trust?
In this op-ed, Pence has distorted basic American history and civics into Soviet-style propaganda, where the facts are intentionally turned upside down. Numerous historians have written about President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, and Senator Ross’ role in his trial – including Manisha Sinha, Brenda Wineapple, David Greenberg and David Stewart. They all agree – and no serious historian disagrees – that Ross intended to vote for Johnson’s conviction, but suddenly changed his mind. Ross did not experience an epiphany of conscience or a surge of courage. Evidence suggests he was bribed.
President Johnson’s supporters promised Ross, who had only come to the Senate in 1866 through corrupt maneuvers in Kansas, that he could have appointments for his close friends in lucrative federal government jobs. In particular, Ross’ financial supporter, Perry Fuller, was appointed collector of revenue in the Port of New Orleans. Fuller promptly used his position to steal $3 million, for which he was eventually arrested. Another Ross associate was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs in what is today Oklahoma.
These were promises made in advance to Ross. He corresponded repeatedly with President Johnson after his vote demanding compensation “in consequence of my action on the Impeachment.” And the president was attentive to Ross’ demands, as he was for few others. There is also reason to believe, based on circumstantial evidence and informed opinion at the time, that Ross received a large cash payment.
No one believed that Ross was a man of conscience or principle. No one argued that he was a defender of the Constitution. He used his vote to benefit himself. And he protected a president who did everything he could to prevent the enforcement of the Constitution’s protections for African American civil rights, as stipulated in the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Ross personally corrupted the impeachment process.
Why is Mike Pence promoting a criminal senator from history? Pence’s claims are not simple oversights – the facts are clear and obvious. No one should look to Ross as a model for senatorial statesmanship.
Pence’s article suggests that this White House seeks to corrupt the current impeachment process by demanding that senators violate their oaths of impartiality for personal gain. Pence is defining “courage” as toadyism and venality, and constitutional duty as a cartoon.
We need a serious Senate trial, which redoubles efforts at impartiality, to protect the Congress from becoming fully infected by a new generation of Edmund Rosses.
This commentary has been updated from an earlier version to clarify that historic evidence suggests Edmund Ross was bribed.