Archive for Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Historical hero

November 9, 2011

Recently I came across a couple of newspaper articles and at first glance, they didn’t seem related. The first was a story about Kansas’ 150th birthday and a project to compile a list of the most influential Kansans. The second was an op-ed piece complaining about the lack of leadership and bi-partisan courage in the U.S. Congress.

While I haven’t seen the entire list of influential Kansans, I’m sure one of the most courageous political leaders won’t be included. Yes, I’ve written about him before, but I believe right now he is a great example of the type of leadership we need in Washington, D.C. I am referring to Sen. Edmund G. Ross, whose vote stopped the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson and is credited by many with saving the concept of separation of federal powers.

I will admit that Sen. Ross is probably my biggest hero and role model. It seems to me that we need more in Congress who will put the good of the country before personal gain or party loyalty. In Sen. Ross’ case, he was willing to sacrifice his career to do the right thing.

He came to Kansas from Ohio primarily to join the fight against slavery. He was a war hero serving as a major in the Union Army in the 11th Kansas Infantry and, later, the unit was transferred to the cavalry. In skirmishes prior to the Battle of Westport, he had two horses shot out from under him. He was regarded as a young man with a tremendous political future.

When Kansas Sen. James Lane committed suicide, Ross was appointed to replace him. Originally a Democrat, Ross changed party affiliations when he moved to Kansas. Certainly the United States was in turmoil when he went to Washington, D.C. The nation was torn with political dissention following the murder of President Abraham Lincoln, and the nation was gripped in a struggle about the handling of the southern states that had left the Union. President Andrew Johnson tried, in many cases not very successfully or diplomatically, to follow Lincoln’s plan of unification. This was bitterly opposed by radical Republicans, including a majority of Kansans. From a historical point-of-view, Kansans had suffered greatly from attacks by border ruffians.

The issue came to a head when the Senate passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented the president from removing a cabinet member without Senate approval. The president fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whom he believed was forming a military dictatorship. The Senate reacted angrily and charged the president with a crime and called for his impeachment.

This put Sen. Ross in a tough spot — he didn’t particularly like the president but didn’t believe he was guilty of a misdemeanor. Sen. Ross and eight other Republicans voted to acquit the president and, as I said before, preserve the separation of powers. The senator’s vote was the deciding factor that saved the president. Incidentally his decision was vindicated when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional.

The senator’s courageous vote cost him re-election. He and his family were harassed and driven into poverty. Ross briefly returned to the newspaper business and started a publication in Coffeyville. Later, he served as military governor of New Mexico from 1885 to 1889. He died in 1907 at the age of 80.

Thomas Ewing Jr., a Civil War general, wrote that Ross was “preeminent for courage.” He said, “in making the decision, he knew he would be consigned to private life and vehement denunciation.” Despite all, the senator did the right thing and was willing to sacrifice his career for the country.

I read that his papers are now at the Kansas Historical Society and I think it is important that we remember the senator and his sacrifice.

It is unfortunate that we don’t have that level of leadership today. Far too many check the polls first and see what the popular course would be. We need leaders who will work together for betterment of the country, not the party or their re-elections chances. It is time to forget “labels” and concentrate on the good of all.

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