Mike Pence invoked a racist president and a scoundrel senator to defend Trump — did he even know it?

Mike Pence invoked a racist president and a scoundrel senator to defend Trump — did he even know it?
© Greg Nash

In an op-ed last week, “A Partisan Impeachment, A Profile in Courage,” Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump campaign adviser sparks criticism for misgendering Pennsylvania official On The Trail: Pence's knives come out Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' MORE appealed to Senate Democrats to vote to acquit President TrumpDonald John TrumpTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill FDA head pledges 'we will not cut corners' on coronavirus vaccine Let our values drive COVID-19 liability protection MORE of abuse of power and obstruction charges. He based his appeal on the 1868 Senate trial of the impeached President Andrew Johnson, which resulted in an acquittal by the slimmest margin possible, a single senator’s vote.      

Pence has no more of a grip on American history than does Trump, who once claimed that Andrew Jackson, who died in 1845, “was really angry about the Civil War,” which began in 1861.     

In Pence’s telling, President Johnson, the Democratic vice-president who became president when Lincoln was assassinated, was a victim. Pence claims that Johnson only wanted to bring the Southern states “back into the fold as soon as possible” but fell prey to Republicans in Congress bent on vengeance against the South. So the Republicans “hatched a plot” – sounds like a familiar refrain – to remove Johnson by impeaching him.  

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Spare no pity for Andrew Johnson. He was a “rigid dictatorial racist” who is regarded by historians as one of the worst presidents in American history. In a historical whitewash, Pence mentions opaquely that Johnson “vetoed several pieces of Reconstruction legislation.” 

In fact Johnson obstinately fought tooth and nail against laws intended to provide economic opportunity and legal equality to the newly freed slaves, including the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment, many of which had to be passed over his veto. According to one historian, other than slavery Johnson sought the “return of the prewar social and economic system.” He rightly shares the blame for nearly a century of legalized racial oppression that ended only with the civil rights movement. Pence displayed especially poor taste in publishing his op-ed just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

The alleged courageous hero in Pence’s narrative is Sen. Edmund G. Ross (R-Kan.), without whose vote of acquittal Johnson would have been convicted and removed from office. “Ross was determined to render a fair judgment, resisting his own party stampede,” says Pence, who cites Ross as an example that Senate Democrats should follow.  

Ross was no moral paragon. Opportunism had more to do with his vote than political courage. He had been appointed just two years earlier to fill the term of a Kansas senator who had committed suicide. As a temporary placeholder, Ross had no political future unless he could secure ample patronage for his Kansas supporters. With a Democratic president, that prospect was slim. Then along came the Senate trial of Andrew Johnson, who had been impeached for violating a law that forbid him from firing Cabinet officers without congressional approval.

Just hours after Ross cast his historic vote to acquit Johnson, he was spotted by a congressman entering the White House grounds. “There goes the rascal to get his pay,” the congressman half-jokingly said to a friend. 

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It was no joke. Three weeks later, Ross sent a letter to President Johnson, marked “Private,” which reminded the president of their “earlier interview” on the topic of patronage. The letter described a patronage appointment that would benefit Ross politically. Johnson made that appointment and subsequently granted a number of other presidential favors to Ross.  

Historian Charles A. Jellison, who researched the connection between Ross’s vote and Johnson’s patronage favors, wrote that, “Ross’s conduct, viewed from any angle and in any light, appears to have been somewhat less then exemplary . . . [it] is hardly the stuff of which real heroes are made.” 

Let’s hope senators sitting as a court of impeachment look elsewhere for inspiration than Edmund Ross.  

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.