William Maxwell Evarts

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William Maxwell Evarts

The American lawyer and statesman William Maxwell Evarts (1818-1901) was secretary of state under President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Born in Boston, William M. Evarts was educated at Boston Latin School and Yale College, from which he graduated in 1837. He attended the Dane Law School at Harvard and entered practice in New York City in 1841. In 1843 he married Helen Minerva Wardner. Evarts achieved early eminence at the New York bar, and in 1859 he formed what became one of the nation's most successful corporate law firms.

As a Whig, Evarts defended the Compromise of 1850 and played no part in the antislavery movement except to win the Lemmon slave case (1860). The decision upheld the right of the state of New York not to return to slavery any African Americans brought by sea from a slave state and sequestered in a free state for subsequent shipment back into slavery in a third state.

In 1860 Evarts, now a Republican, preferred William Seward to Abraham Lincoln as the Republican presidential candidate. During the Civil War, Evarts played only a minor diplomatic role; he was sent to England to help prevent the equipping of the Confederate Navy. As a conservative Republican, he found favor with Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, by successfully leading the defense of the President in the 1868 impeachment proceedings. Evarts was named attorney general, serving until the end of Johnson's term in 1869.

Although never a favorite of President U.S. Grant, Evarts was named, with Caleb Cushing and Morrison R. Waite, as counsel before the Geneva arbitration tribunal in the Alabama Claims case. The three lawyers won a settlement for Civil War damages from England and established a precedent for the arbitration of international disputes.

In 1877 Evarts was counsel for the Republican party before the electoral commission appointed to settle the disputed presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden. As Evarts urged, the commission counted the disputed votes for Hayes.

During the Hayes administration (1877-1881) Evarts served as secretary of state. He worked for the expansion of American trade around the world. Like many New Yorkers of his class, Evarts was friendly to England, despite the commercial competition of the two countries. However, he did protest the English intrusion into Guatemala and negotiated with Colombia to frustrate the French attempt to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The French failed for other reasons, but Evarts had foreseen that the United States could powerfully enhance its world trade position by having such a canal under its domination. Evarts's most significant achievement was in Far Eastern affairs. He pursued an aggressive policy, increasing American trade with Japan; and after aiding Hayes in writing the veto for a flagrantly anti-Chinese bill favored in California, he negotiated a treaty with China limiting the importation of coolie laborers into the United States and relaxing the barriers against American exporters trading in China. He also arranged for the establishment of an American base in Samoa.

From the days of the Lincoln administration onward, Evarts's name was mentioned whenever a vacancy occurred on the Supreme Court, but that goal always eluded him. In 1885 the New York Legislature sent him to the U.S. Senate for one term.

Second in fame only to his defense of President Johnson was Evarts's winning of acquittal for Henry Ward Beecher in the sensational trial involving alleged sexual improprieties. Still, it was in the realm of corporate law that Evarts made his great reputation as a lawyer. He won innumerable cases important in the advancement of business enterprise and was long regarded as a leader of the New York bar. He died in his New York home in 1901.

Further Reading

Chester L. Barrows, William M. Evarts: Lawyer, Diplomat, Statesman (1941), is an excellent biography. □

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William Maxwell Evarts served as attorney general of the United States during the last year of the administration of President andrew johnson. Evarts was a distinguished and powerful New York attorney who successfully defended President Johnson at his impeachment trial, represented the republican party before an electoral commission during the disputed presidential election of 1876, served as secretary of state during the administration of President rutherford b. hayes, and ended his public career as a U.S. senator.

Evarts was born February 16, 1818, in Boston. He graduated from Yale University in 1837 and then attended Harvard Law School. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1841 and subsequently established a successful legal practice. From 1849 to 1853, Evarts acted as assistant district attorney for the New York District.

Evarts entered public service during the u.s. civil war. He participated in diplomatic activities as a member of the Secretary of Defense Committee for the Union. In 1863 he went to England as a Union delegate to convince England to stop providing war vessels and equipment to the Confederacy.

Following the end of the Civil War, Evarts returned to his law practice. He was drawn back to Washington, D.C., in 1868 to help defend President Johnson at his impeachment trial. The charges against Johnson were weak and politically motivated, yet the mood in the Senate appeared to favor conviction. Evarts proved instrumental in obtaining an acquittal, though by a margin of only one vote. Johnson rewarded Evarts by appointing him attorney general. Evarts served in that position until the end of the Johnson administration in March 1869.

"Truth is to the moral world what gravitation is to the material."
—William M. Evarts

Evarts then returned to New York government. He led the New York City Bar Association for ten years and was an advocate for political reform in the city, which was dominated by the corrupt Democratic political machine led by the "Tweed Ring." The ring was named after William Marcy "Boss" Tweed, the New York City democratic party leader who ran the party organization popularly known as tammany hall. Tweed and his associates used their political connections and political offices to gain a foothold in city and county government. Once formed, the Tweed Ring misappropriated government funds through such devices as faked

leases, padded bills, false vouchers, unnecessary repairs, and overpriced goods and services bought from suppliers controlled by the ring.

In 1876 Evarts reentered the national political arena, this time as the chief counsel of the national Republican party. The presidential election of 1876 between Democrat samuel j. tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes ended in disputes involving the voting returns of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Two sets of returns were submitted from each of these states, one favoring Tilden, the other Hayes. If Hayes were awarded the electoral votes from these states, and one more from a disputed Oregon elector, he would defeat Tilden in a vote of 185–184.

Congress appointed an electoral commission to decide which returns to accept. In the end Evarts and the Republican members of the commission were able to convince commission member and Supreme Court Justice joseph p. bradley to cast his vote, which was the deciding vote, for the Hayes electors and Hayes was awarded the presidency. Tilden agreed to the result out of fear that violence would ensue if he disputed it. In return the Republicans made a side agreement with southern Democrats that led to President Hayes in 1877 removing federal occupation troops from the former states of the Confederacy. Evarts was also a key player in these affairs.

President Hayes, like President Johnson before him, rewarded Evarts, appointing him secretary of state in 1877. Evarts served in this capacity during the four years of the Hayes administration. In 1885 he was elected a U.S. senator from New York. He served in the Senate until 1889. In failing health he retired from politics and the law in 1891.

Evarts died February 28, 1901, in New York City.