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By Troy Treasure
Two U.S. senators, one from northeast Missouri and another from southeast Iowa played key roles in the first-ever impeachment trial of a sitting American president.
Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, waited more than two months for the Senate to determine his fate.
The 17th president of the United States ultimately retained his office – by one vote.
Neither Republican Senators John B. Henderson (Missouri) nor James W. Grimes (Iowa) were native sons of the states they represented. Henderson was born in Virginia; Grimes in New Hampshire.
According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, Henderson’s family moved to Lincoln County when he was eight years old. Later a young attorney, Henderson was elected as a then Democrat by Pike County voters to the Missouri General Assembly. Henderson was eventually appointed to fill a U.S. Senate seat and later elected to a six-year term in 1863. In his 2019 book Accidental Presidents, author Jared Cohen wrote Henderson became a close friend of President Lincoln.
According to a U.S. Congressional biography, Grimes moved to the Burlington, Iowa area after attending his home state’s Dartmouth College. Grimes practiced law, was elected governor in 1854 and to the Senate in 1859.
Ascending to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Johnson was initially welcomed by Republicans. That quickly changed.
Johnson was “impeached because he refused to let Congress usurp presidential rights,” as told in The American Presidents, 10th edition, by David C. and Robin Vaughn Whitney.
“The new president soon made it clear that he intended to carry out Lincoln’s plan to grant a soft peace to the South,” the Whitneys wrote. “He ended the blockade of southern ports and declared a general amnesty except for officials and high officers of the Confederacy and the wealthy southern aristocrats.”
The Senate rendered its verdict on May 16, 1868. Henderson and Grimes were two of seven senators who strayed from fellow Republicans and voted to acquit Johnson.
Henderson was in good health, but Grimes was not. Writer Richard Doak reported in a March 4, 2019 article in the Des Moines Register that Grimes was recovering from a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.
“He arranged to have himself carried onto the Senate floor on the fateful day of the vote,” Doak wrote. “When his name was called, he managed to stand and shout his vote for acquittal.”
Kansas senator Edmund G. Ross cast what turned out to be the decisive seventh vote on Johnson’s behalf. The 35-19 decision to convict Johnson failed to reach the required two-thirds majority – again, by one vote. In 1956, Senator John F. Kennedy featured Ross in the book Profiles in Courage. Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for his work.
Ross, Grimes and Henderson paid a steep political price.
According to writer Erick Trickey, the House began an investigation into whether Henderson, Grimes, Ross and others were bribed. No proof was discovered that a senator received money.
Ross failed to win reelection. He died in 1907. Grimes resigned in late 1869 for health reasons. He died in Burlington in early 1872.
Henderson’s vote cost him his senate seat, though he married one month after Johnson’s trial. Henderson and wife, Mary, moved to Louisiana, Missouri. They later headed to St. Louis where John established a thriving law practice. The Hendersons settled back in Washington D.C. in the 1880s. John Henderson died there in 1913.