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Mallet, Chisel, And Curls
Vinnie Ream sculptured Lincoln while she was still a teen-ager
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
Lincoln’s successor, Vice President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, was a man of principle, dedicated to carrying out Lincoln’s policy of “malice toward none … charity for all.” But Johnson proved himself woefully inept and uncompromising in his relations with Congress. The elections of 1866 gave Republicans solid majorities in each house, and they proceeded to override his frequent legislative vetoes and to implement their own harsh version of Reconstruction. They also contrived to impeach Johnson—and Vinnie Ream was to play a surprising role in this famous event.
The radical wing of the Republican Party, brilliantly but fanatically led by Thaddeus Stevens—described by one writer as having the emaciated appearance of “a white old rock drying in the sun”—plotted the impeachment strategy. Early in 1867 Congress enacted over Johnson’s veto the Tenure-of-Office Act. The measure prevented the President from dismissing without Senate approval any new official whose appointment required confirmation by that body.
Convinced that the act was clearly unconstitutional, the President put it to a test by summarily firing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and appointing General Grant in his place. Stanton barricaded himself in his office at the War Department while the wrath of Republican opinion came down on the President like a storm.
The radicals on Capitol Hill, armed at last with the kind of issue they had been waiting for, lost no time in exploiting it. A resolution of impeachment was swiftly drawn up and, on February 24, 1868, was passed overwhelmingly by the House. One week later eleven separate chargés—some of them ludicrous—were drawn up to support the resolution. It appeared probable that, for the first time in the nation’s history, a Chief Executive would be forced out of office before his term had expired.
The House appointed seven “man- agers of the impeachment,” including the old and ailing Stevens as chief strategist and headed by General Benjamin F. Butler (the “butcher of New Orleans,” as he was unfondly known in the South), a congressman from Massachusetts, as chief prosecutor. Attention now turned to the more moderate Senate, where the issue would be decided.
Although the leading impeachers at the outset wrote off as lost the twelve Senate Democrats, they knew they could still convict the President by the necessary two-thirds vote if they could keep all but six Republicans in the radical fold. To their dismay, however, a preliminary party caucus revealed that precisely six courageous Republicans believed that the evidence introduced to support the eleven Articles of Impeachment was not sufficient to convict the President. A seventh Republican, Senator Ross, refused to divulge his intentions. Although the radicals were shaken by the Kansas freshman’s reluctance, they still believed that Ross, who represented perhaps the most anti-Johnson state in the Union, would vote for conviction. And they were prepared to take any steps necessary to make certain he did.
Vinnie Ream was well along toward completion of the clay model of Lincoln when Ross became the storm center of the impeachment. Given the unrelenting pressures applied to the senator, and Vinnie’s supposed influence on Ross, who still boarded with the Ream family, it was inevitable that she would be pulled into the vortex.
On the eve of the Senate vote of May 16 the radicals dispatched to the Ream home on North B Street Daniel Sickles, another tough ex-general, who had been military governor of the Carolinas until President Johnson had recalled him for being too arduous in the execution of his duties. When Vinnie answered the door, as Sickles later recalled, “I pushed my way iri.” The general got right to the point: “You know what I came here for. I came to save Ross. You can help me.” Sickles proceeded to rehash the President’s alleged crimes in an attempt to convince Vinnie that Ross’s political salvation was in her hands. Vinnie had become inured to such approaches, however, and scarcely replied. Although she protested truthfully that Ross was staying elsewhere that evening, Sickles planted himself in a parlor chair and stubbornly waited in vain for him throughout the night, with a nervous and tired Vinnie his reluctant hostess.
Ross had suffered his own relentless harassment. On the same evening as the Sickles visit he received this telegram from home: “Kansas has heard the evidence and demands the conviction of the President.” It was signed “D. R. Anthony, and 1,000 Others.” The next morning, before going to the Senate chamber to vote, Ross replied: To D. R. Anthony and 1,000 Others: I do not recognize your right to demand that I shall vote either for or against conviction. I have taken an oath to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, and I trust that I shall have the courage and honesty to vote according to the dictates of my judgment and for the highest good of my country.
That day Ross and six other Republican senators saved Andrew Johnson by a single vote. Following the outcome the seven senators were pariahs in Washington and in their native states. “D. R. Anthony and Others” wired Ross that “Kansas repudiates you as she does all perjurers and skunks.”