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James A. Marples
Rose Hill, Kansas

In a single act of amazing courage, Brother Edmund G. Ross preserved the American system of constitutional government.


True courage is an attribute mustered by individuals during moments of crisis. A courageous act is made without weighing its popularity or unpopularity. Instead, it relies solely on the belief that the act must be done because it is the right thing to do. In all cases, courage is being brave enough to take a stand, regardless of the outcome, regardless of potential praise or criticism.

Senator Edmund G. Ross (1826–1907)

Ninety years ago, in 1907, Bro. Edmund Gibson Ross died in relative obscurity. Few encyclopedias cover his life’s work, yet nearly all encyclopedias cite one act of courage by him. Though Bro. Ross accomplished much in his life, he is mainly remembered for preserving the American system of constitutional government by casting his impartial vote of “Not Guilty” and thus saving President and Brother Andrew Johnson, 32, from being impeached. The presidential impeachment trial was presided over by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who administered an oath to all U. S. Senators, acting as jurors, to “do impartial justice” in the matter. Bro. Ross fulfilled this oath.

Bro. Edmund G. Ross was born December 7, 1826, in Ashland, Ohio, and he first learned the printing trade. He worked at newspapers in Ohio and then at the Sentinel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Later, he published the Tribune in Topeka, Kansas, where he was a member of Topeka Masonic Lodge No. 17. Finally, he established the Kansas State Record. Attaining the rank of Major in the Union Army during the Civil War, he was appointed in 1866 to the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy caused by the untimely death of Senator Jim Lane.

President Andrew Johnson, 32 (1808–75)

Brother Ross was a promoter and director of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. It was given its name at his suggestion. The eastern hub of that railroad was where Brother Ross prospered as a young man. The western hub marked his final days.

After President Johnson was acquitted of the impeachment charges, Brother Ross was swept aside politically. He was not elected to a full Senate term in his own right. Feeling that he had hit a dead end in Washington, D.C., he returned to Kansas in 1871.

There he realized he could not change the minds of some people who opposed his vote during the impeachment proceedings against President Johnson. As a consequence of the vote, they were openly hostile toward him and his family. As in casting his vote, he again mustered courage and carried on with his life. Rather than force his family to endure such turmoil, he moved along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad he had named, eventually settling in New Mexico.

Few people realize that Brother Ross was Territorial Governor of New Mexico from 1885 to 1889. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1889 and practiced in Albuquerque. His contributions to America continued when he became Secretary of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration from 1894 to 1896.

Bro. Ross died on May 8, 1907, at the age of 80. His courage was demonstrated throughout his life, but especially on the fateful morning of May 16, 1868, the day of the vote on the impeachment charges.

On that day, Bro. Ross sent a telegram to his constituents in Kansas: “I have taken an Oath to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and Laws, and trust that I shall have the courage to vote according to the dictates of my judgement and for the highest good of the country.” In his lifetime, Bro. Edmund G. Ross had taken many oaths and obligations to do the right thing: first, as a Mason; second, as a U.S. Senator; third, as a U.S. Senator in the capacity as a juror in the impeachment trial of President Johnson.

In his telegram of explanation, it is significant that he cited an oath which mentally fortified him to do—and vote—impartial justice in the matter at hand. That was a clear signal that he was overcoming any human frailties and, instead, basing his decision on sound moral conscience.

Thankfully, Bro. Ross voted for the highest good of the country.

Here, as in Freemasonry, is an instance where honorable oaths serve worthy purposes.

Note: For greater detail about President Johnson’s impeachment trial and the role of Senator Ross in its resolution, see 10,000 Famous Freemasons by William R. Denslow (1961) and the chapter devoted to Brother Ross in Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy (1956). Also, it is interesting to note that Bro. Johnson, since 1851 a member of Greeneville Lodge No. 119, Greeneville, Tenn., was the first President of the United States to become a 32 Scottish Rite Mason. On June 20, 1867, he received the 4th through 32nd Degrees at the Executive Mansion at the hand of M.W. Benjamin B. French, Grand Master, Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia. Ill. French was Lieutenant Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction, at the time of his death, August 12, 1870.