Stanton, Edwin

views updated

Edwin Stanton

Born December 19, 1814
Steubenville, Ohio

Died December 24, 1869
Washington, D.C.

Attorney general, secretary of war, and lawyer

"Now he belongs to the ages." (on the death of Abraham Lincoln)

Edwin Stanton was one of the nation's best-known attorneys during the 1850s, an extremely effective secretary of war under President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) during most of the Civil War (1861–65), and a controversial figure in the administration of President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69; see entry). As Johnson struggled with Congress over control of Reconstruction, the program through which states that joined the Confederacy would reenter the Union, Stanton openly sided with the views of congressional leaders. Johnson hesitated to fire Stanton; when he finally demanded Stanton's resignation, Congress began the first-ever impeachment (formal accusation of wrongdoing) case against a U.S. president. Known for his quick temper and penetrating questions, Stanton overcame personal tragedies and used boundless energy and close attention to detail to achieve remarkable success. He died just days after turning fifty-five and having been confirmed to an appointment as a justice on the Supreme Court.

Edwin McMasters Stanton was born on December 19, 1814, in Steubenville, Ohio. He was the eldest of four children of Dr. David and Lucy (Norman) Stanton. When Stan-ton's father, a physician, died in 1827, the family was left in difficult financial circumstances. Not yet fourteen, Stanton left school to work in a local bookstore to help support his mother and three siblings. He continued his studies in his spare time and was admitted to Kenyon College in Ohio in 1831. After two years of college, however, he ran out of money and returned to work in a bookstore.

After moving to Columbus, Ohio, Stanton began studying law in an office and passed his bar exam (a test for certification as a lawyer) in 1836. Later that year, on December 31, 1836, Stanton married Mary Ann Lamson of Columbus, Ohio. They would have two children.

Stanton established a law practice in Cadiz, Ohio. He moved back to his home town of Steubenville in late 1838 to become a partner of Benjamin Tappan (1773–1857), who was elected to the U.S. Senate that year. Stanton succeeded quickly as a lawyer and also served as a legal reporter on decisions by the Ohio State Supreme Court beginning in 1842.

Stanton's contented and prosperous life, however, met with tragedies. First came the death of his daughter, Lucy, and then in March 1844 Stanton's wife, Mary Ann, died. Only thirty years old at the time, Stanton suffered emotional traumas. Two years later, in 1846, Stanton's brother Darwin committed suicide. Stanton had paid Darwin's way through medical school.

Becomes famous lawyer

After deep grieving, Stanton wanted to start a new life and find new opportunities as a lawyer. He moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1847. Stanton's law practice thrived in Pittsburgh and he earned a national reputation for his handling of a case where he represented the state of Pennsylvania against a bridge-building company. The company, Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company, won a bid to build a bridge across the Ohio River, but the bridge was too low for steamboats to pass under and reach Pittsburgh. The State of Pennsylvania sued to stop construction and force the company to build a higher bridge. Stanton won the case after hiring a steamboat to run a normal route on the Ohio River. The steamboat's smokestack hit the bridge and was destroyed.

The success of the case brought Stanton regular work as a counsel for the state of Pennsylvania from 1849 to 1856, and he became a highly sought-after lawyer. Stanton's personal life was on an upswing as well. On June 25, 1856, he married Ellen Hutchinson of Pittsburgh. The couple moved to Washington, D.C. The marriage would produce four children.

In Washington, Stanton frequently argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was selected as a special U.S. attorney to represent the government in fraudulent land claims in California. The problems dated back to the 1840s when California was not yet a state and was being disputed in the Mexican-American War (1846–48). Stanton spent almost a year in California reconstructing records to separate legal and illegal claims. His work helped the U.S. government save millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars it would otherwise have paid on false claims.

As a famous lawyer, Stanton served a variety of clients. Among them was Daniel E. Sickles (1819–1914), whose 1859 trial for murder became one of the most sensational and publicized stories of its time and a groundbreaking case in American legal history. Sickles, a thirty-nine-year-old New York congressman known for his fiery temper and many romances, discovered that his twenty-two-year-old wife was having an affair with his friend, Barton Key. Key was the district attorney for Washington, D.C., and son of Francis Scott Key (1779–1843), who wrote the "Star-Spangled Banner" during the War of 1812 (1812–15). Sickles shot and killed Key in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon in Lafayette Park, very near the White House. The story made national news and the trial was widely covered by the leading periodicals of the time.

As part of the defense team, Stanton brought in witnesses to testify that Key was a known adulterer and that Sickles had been suffering over his wife's unfaithfulness. Stanton argued that Sickles was in such anguish that he was temporarily insane when he committed the act. It was the first time a plea of temporary insanity was used effectively for a criminal defendant. The jury rendered a not-guilty verdict.

In and out of cabinets

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November 1860, outgoing president James Buchanan (1791– 1868; served 1857–61) reorganized his cabinet (top-ranking advisors of the president). Lincoln's election was viewed with disfavor in the South because of Lincoln's antislavery sentiments. Buchanan wanted to ensure the Union remained together. Buchanan chose Stanton to be his attorney general for the short but significant four months remaining in the president's term in office. Stanton helped convince Buchanan not to abandon the federally owned Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The state had seceded (separated) from the Union and demanded that federal troops be removed from the fort.

Stanton's brief time as attorney general ended with the conclusion of the Buchanan presidency in March 1861. In April, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War was underway. Later in 1861, Stanton became a friend and confidential legal adviser of George B. McClellan (1826–1885), the general in charge of the Union army. Stanton also served as a legal adviser to Secretary of War Simon Cameron (1799–1899). He provided advice on Cameron's proposal to supply arms to slaves in the South to fight the Confederacy. Lincoln was so appalled at the suggestion that he fired Cameron. Oddly enough, Lincoln chose Stanton to replace Cameron. After his appointment was confirmed by the Senate on January 15, 1862, Stanton took office.

Stanton reorganized the War Department (now called the Defense Department). He carefully examined contracts for war supplies and demanded that supplies arrive on time. Stanton's dedication ensured that Union armies were always well supplied with materials and food. To better manage the war effort, Stanton worked through Congress to take control of telegraph lines: all information on the lines was directed through Stanton's office, enabling him to manage news reports and to remove any items Confederates might find valuable. Stanton also took control of railway lines: He ensured trains were available for troop movement and shipping of supplies, and he hired crews to build and repair railroads to keep the important transportation lines operating. Stanton remained in close touch with military commanders and with the congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War.

Stanton and Lincoln

Edwin Stanton did not support Abraham Lincoln's bid for the presidency in 1860. Putting his concern for maintaining the Union above all else, Stanton believed that other candidates were better prepared to work with legislators from the North and South to avoid the secession of Southern states and a possible war. Stanton also questioned Lincoln's leadership abilities. In spite of his views on Lincoln, Stanton accepted the president's offer to become secretary of war after Simon Cameron was fired.

Though Stanton had a quick temper, Lincoln appreciated Stanton's skills and found effective ways to deal with him, according to Colonel William H. Crook in his book, Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook. Crook recalls a meeting between Lincoln and Stanton:

On one occasion, I have heard, Secretary Stanton was particularly angry with one of the generals. He was eloquent about him. "I would like to tell him what I think of him!" he stormed.

"Why don't you?" Mr. Lincoln agreed. "Write it all down—do."

Mr. Stanton wrote his letter. When it was finished he took it to the President. The President listened to it all.

"All right. Capital!" he nodded. "And now, Stanton, what are you going to do with it?"

"Do with it? Why, send it, of course!"

"I wouldn't," said the President. "Throw it in the waste-paper basket."

"But it took me two days to write—"

"Yes, yes, and it did you ever so much good. You feel better now. That is all that is necessary. Just throw it in the basket."

After a little more expostulation [discussion], into the basket it went.

Stanton and Lincoln quickly developed a strong personal and working relationship. Stanton supported Lincoln as he changed battlefield commanders several times, including when Lincoln replaced Stanton's friend, George B. McClellan. After Major General Ulysses S. Grant succeeded in taking key Confederate strongholds at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1863, Lincoln and Stanton agreed that Grant was the leader they needed to defeat the Confederacy. Stanton worked effectively with Grant, delivering the supplies Grant needed for a long and sustained military offensive during the last year of the war.

Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see Confederate Leaders entry) surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. Lincoln was assassinated five days later, an event that emotionally shattered Stanton. He worked to uphold the fair and lenient surrender terms that Lincoln demanded his generals negotiate with Confederate leaders. When Major General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820–1891) negotiated a harsher surrender agreement with Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891) in North Carolina, two weeks after Appomattox, Stanton led a cabinet meeting that resulted in General Grant traveling to North Carolina to supervise new terms. Following Lincoln's assassination, Stanton took charge of funeral arrangements. He also uttered the memorable phrase of Lincoln's death: "Now he belongs to the ages."

Stanton's grief and anger over Lincoln's death probably motivated him to take part in accusations and trials of several people involved in the conspiracy to assassinate the president and other government officials. Among them was Mary Surratt (1823–1865), who was accused of complicity (guilty as an accomplice) in Lincoln's assassination. Surratt owned a boardinghouse in Washington, D.C., frequented by Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865), and Surratt's son, John Surratt Jr. (1844–1916), who had been a Confederate spy and was a friend of Booth's. Another of the conspirators, Lewis Paine, arrived at the boardinghouse just as Mary Surratt was being arrested. Surratt claimed innocence throughout her trial, but her faulty memory and her relations to the conspirators, even though several claimed she was completely innocent, led to her conviction. The jury sentenced her to the death penalty but recommended life in prison due to her "sex and age." President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, claimed he was never shown the jury's plea for mercy. Surratt was executed by hanging on July 7, 1865.

Stanton also attempted to implicate Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see Confederate Leaders entry), president of the Confederacy, in Lincoln's assassination. The case went nowhere and probably reflects Stanton's anger against the Confederacy. Following the end of the Civil War, Stanton quickly and effectively demobilized (took apart) the Union armies.

Warring with Johnson

When Johnson became president upon Lincoln's assassination, he asked Stanton to remain in his cabinet as secretary of war. Stanton showed initial support for Johnson's Reconstruction plan for bringing the former Confederate states back into the Union and resuming normal state governments. As president, Johnson believed he should lead the Reconstruction program. Congress differed. By the time Congress came back in session in December 1865, some former Confederate states had already met Johnson's obligations for readmittance and had elected congressmen. Those officials were refused their seats by Congress, and the Republican-dominated legislative body began passing laws to set the terms of Reconstruction. A bitter battle emerged between the president and Congress: Johnson vetoed legislation, but Congress overrode the vetoes and effectively took control of the Reconstruction program.

Stanton had established good relations with the most powerful congressmen during the Civil War through his frequent communication with the congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War. Beginning as early as the summer of 1865, Stanton supported views on Reconstruction similar to those of powerful politicians known as "Radical Republicans" or "Radical Reconstructionists," including U.S. representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868; see entry) of Pennsylvania and U.S. senator Charles Sumner (1811–1874; see entry) of Massachusetts. They supported a more demanding program for seceded states to reenter the Union and demanded civil rights and voting rights bills that would protect freedmen.

The first conflict over Reconstruction concerned a plan by Johnson for residents of North Carolina to elect delegates to a state convention that would frame a new state constitution. Cabinet members were spilt over the issue of whether African American men could vote in the election of delegates. Johnson decided to restrict voters to those qualified to vote (whites only) under state law at the time of North Carolina's secession. As noted on the "Famous American Trials: The Andrew Johnson Impeachment Trial" Web site, Stanton reported to Sumner that "the opposition of the President to throwing the franchise open to the colored people appeared to be fixed." Congress rejected the plan.

As Johnson fought a continuous losing battle with Congress, he began to express displeasure with Stanton but did not try to fire him. Meanwhile, in early 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act as another step towards gaining more power over the presidency. The Tenure of Office Act concerned federal officials appointed by the president that required confirmation by the Senate. Such officials could not be removed from their position by the president without the consent of the Senate under the Tenure of Office Act. If the Senate was not in session, the president could suspend an official, but once the Senate reconvened it had to approve the removal or the official would have to be reinstated by the president. Johnson vetoed the measure, but Congress overrode his veto on March 2, 1867, and the Tenure of Office Act became law.

Johnson's "Blunder" on Stanton

Historians view President Andrew Johnson's hesitation to fire Edwin Stanton as a fatal error by the president. Even fellow cabinet members expected Johnson to fire Stanton. "The failure of the President to exercise his undoubted right to rid himself of a minister who differed with him upon very important questions, who had become personally obnoxious to him, and whom he regarded as an enemy and a spy, was a blunder for which there was no excuse," wrote Hugh McCulloch (1808–1895), Johnson's secretary of the treasury, in his autobiography, Men and Measures.

Johnson finally had had enough of Stanton by the summer of 1867. Though Stanton was protected by the Tenure of Office Act, Johnson wanted to remove Stanton and simultaneously challenge the Act. Since Stanton had been appointed by Lincoln to his cabinet, Johnson argued, the Tenure of Office Act did not apply to Johnson's decision to fire Stanton. In August 1867, Johnson sent Stanton a letter that stated, "Public considerations of high character constrain me to say that your resignation as Secretary of War will be accepted." When Stanton refused to resign (replying to Johnson that "public considerations of a high character … constrain me not to resign"), Johnson was forced to send Stanton a second letter announcing he had been suspended from office, ordering him to cease all exercise of authority, and transferring his power to Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry), Johnson's choice as an interim secretary of war.

Five months later, on January 3, 1868, the new Congress convened and the Senate refused to approve Stanton's removal by a vote of 35 to 16. Johnson, in turn, refused to accept the Senate's decision and called the Tenure of Office Act an unconstitutional infringement on the power of the executive. Impeachment hearings began a few days later. During the hearings, Johnson's actions as president, public speeches he made denouncing Congress, and his violation of the Tenure of Office Act were all approved as articles (specific charges) of impeachment.

Johnson's impeachment trial began on March 28, 1868, and ended in May. Before the trial, on February 21, 1868, Johnson named a new secretary of war (Grant had chosen not to continue in the position), Major General Lorenzo Thomas (1804–1875), despite the fact that Congress had not recognized his removal of Stanton. Stanton notified his allies in Congress of a presidential order to vacate his office. He received a one-word telegram in reply from Senator Sumner: "Stick."

Stanton did stick; he remained in his office in the War Department building with a guard posted to protect him and to ensure department records were not seized from February 21 until the end of the impeachment votes against Johnson in May. The president was impeached, but the vote to remove him from office fell one short. As a result, on May 26, 1868, Stanton resigned from office and went home for the first time in three months.

A private citizen once again at the age of fifty-three, Stanton took a period of rest after years of having devoted himself to the war effort and then the battles of Reconstruction. He reemerged on the public scene in the fall of 1868 to support Ulysses S. Grant's candidacy for the presidency. Stanton also resumed his law practice. He refused requests that he run for Congress, but accepted an appointment by President Grant to the U.S. Supreme Court. Stanton's nomination was confirmed by the Senate on December 20, 1869. However, Stanton died just four days later and never took his seat on the court.

For More Information


Allison, Amy. Edwin Stanton: Secretary of War. New York: Chelsea House, 2001.

Barney, William L. The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Student Companion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Crook, William H. Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1910.

McCulloch, Hugh. Men and Measures of Half a Century: Sketches and Comments. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1888. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.

Pratt, Fletcher. Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War. New York: Norton, 1953. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970.

Thomas, Benjamin Platt, and Harold Melvin Hymans. Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln's Secretary of War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Web Sites

"Edwin M. Stanton (1814–1869)." Mr. Lincoln's White House. (accessed on July 30, 2004).

"Famous American Trials: The Andrew Johnson Impeachment Trial." University of Missouri–Kansas City. (accessed on July 26, 2004).

"The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson." Harp Week. (accessed on July 30, 2004).

About this article

Stanton, Edwin

Updated About content Print Article