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Film honors courage under fire

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There’s an elementary school in the Northeast Heights named after Edmund G. Ross, but chances are many of you reading this don’t know who he was or why you should.

That would not have surprised John F. Kennedy, the late U.S. president and author of “Profiles in Courage,” which won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for history and which includes a chapter about Ross.

“In a lonely grave, forgotten and unknown lies ‘the man who saved a President,’ and who as a result may well have preserved for ourselves and our posterity constitutional government in the United States …,” Kennedy wrote of Ross, who, as a U.S. senator from Kansas in 1868, cast the vote that kept President Andrew Johnson from being removed from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Adventure story

That lonely grave, by the way, is in Albuquerque’s Fairview cemetery.

In the early 1880s, Ross, whose “not guilty” vote saved Johnson’s presidency but destroyed Ross’ political career in Kansas, had moved to Albuquerque. He worked here as a reporter and editor for the Albuquerque Daily Democrat and as a typesetter for the Albuquerque Journal before President Grover Cleveland appointed him New Mexico Territorial Governor, a post he held from 1885 to 1889.

“I think he was a terrific governor,” said Albuquerque’s Richard Ruddy, author of the 2013 book “Edmund G. Ross: Soldier, Senator, Abolitionist,” published by the University of New Mexico Press. “He was an advocate for public education. He believed an agriculture (college) in Las Cruces was important because much of (New Mexico’s) economy was derived from agriculture.

“He did his damndest, but he had the constant problem of dealing with Republicans who saw things differently.”

Jim Cooney, the producer of a new documentary about Ross, said that as governor Ross battled the Santa Fe Ring, a powerful group of lawyers and businessmen who exercised control in the territory for their own benefit.

“He fought them tooth and nail,” said Cooney, who lives in Santa Fe. “He was always fighting for the little guy.”

Cooney’s documentary, produced for New Mexico PBS, is titled “Freedom and Impeachment: The Courage of Edmund G. Ross.” It will have its premiere screening at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 16, at the Albuquerque Museum, 2000 Mountain NW. Presented by the Albuquerque Historical Society, the screening is free and open to the public.

The documentary’s TV premiere is scheduled for next month on KNME-TV, Channel 5.

Cooney got to know Ross through Ruddy’s book.

“It is deeply and well researched,” Cooney, 85, said. “I read it and realized it was an incredible American adventure story.”

Courage under fire

Ross was an abolitionist inside and out. In 1856, he led a 100-wagon caravan of Free-Staters from Wisconsin 600 miles to Kansas to join in the effort to keep slavery out of Kansas. He and his brother, William, bought The Kansas Tribune and used the paper to campaign against slavery. He served as an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, risking death in battle in the cause of emancipation.

“Edmund Ross’ life was a series of episodes and any one of those episodes would have been life defining,” Ruddy, 80, said.

Even so, the most dramatic moment in Ross’ life, the one that earned him inclusion in Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” the story of integrity and bravery in American politics, is his vote to acquit Johnson of charges that would have resulted in his removal from office. Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, had become president when Lincoln was assassinated.

“My driving motivation,” said producer Cooney, “was not to focus on an extraordinary New Mexican but to tell the story of courage under fire. Ross was so damned honest and focused on doing the right thing, he lost sight of what it would cost him.”

‘Not guilty’

Radical Republicans in Congress, among whose number Ross counted himself, were behind the impeachment of President Johnson in February 1868. Impeachment does not mean removal from office. Impeachment is the bringing of charges, an indictment, against a public official. If convicted of those charges, the official can be removed from office.

Johnson had antagonized Radical Republicans by pursuing a lenient, conciliatory path toward bringing the South back into the Union after the Civil War, a plan Radicals believed undermined the very purpose of the war and mocked its sacrifices. The Radicals favored a more severe, less-forgiving approach that would guard against the re-establishment of white supremacy in the South and therefore wanted Johnson gone.

But this impeachment was also seen by some as a power grab by Congress, a move by the legislative branch (Congress) to exert superiority over the executive branch (the president), thus eroding the system of checks and balances that is the bedrock of American government. The charge against Johnson was that he removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office without U.S. Senate approval, a violation of the Tenure of Office Act.

Even though his sympathies were with the Radical Republicans, Ross sided with other rebellious Republicans who did not believe the charge justified Johnson’s removal. When the roll-call vote in the U.S. Senate got to Ross, the tally was such that his reply would decide the matter one way or the other.

“He said ‘not guilty’ and that was the end of his career,” Cooney said.

Solid belief

Ross’ vote resulted in vicious attacks on him in newspapers. He was ostracized in Kansas and in the nation’s capital and failed to win re-election to the Senate two years later.

“He was a good man, but he was not a natural politician,” Ruddy said. “He had a very solid belief in the principles of democracy and the principles we believe in as Americans. He assumed that politicians in Washington would believe the same way. He was somewhat naive about how things worked in Washington, how politicians were often self-serving.”

Cooney thinks that Ross’ story is important in today’s world of turbulent American politics, a world in which the word “impeachment” is bandied about every day.

“He was one of those men who went beyond their personal interest and personal safety to stand up for what they thought was right,” he said.

And now, most people have no idea who he was.

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