Edwin McMasters Stanton was born at Steubenville, Ohio on December 19, 1814. He was the firstborn of seven children of David and Lucy Norman Stanton. Stanton’s father was a physician whose Quaker family was from North Carolina. His Methodist mother was a native Virginian who immigrated to Ohio where she met Dr. Stanton.
As a youth, Stanton became an avid reader after he developed asthma at age ten, which prevented him from taking part in strenuous activities. He attended private schools until 1827 when his father died unexpectedly. His father’s death forced Stanton to leave school and get a job at a local bookstore owned by James Turnbull to help support his family.
By 1831, Stanton received a loan and enrolled at Kenyon College, where he excelled for two years. Forced to leave college in 1833 by financial difficulties, Stanton returned to work for Turnbull, this time in a Columbus, Ohio bookshop. The following year, Stanton returned to Steubenville where he studied law under his mother’s attorney, Daniel L. Collier. In August 1835, Stanton passed the Ohio bar exam; although at age twenty he was not yet old enough to practice law in the state.
After his twenty-first birthday, Stanton moved to Cadiz, Ohio and joined the successful law practice of Chauncey Dewey. Now gainfully employed, Stanton proposed marriage to Mary Ann Lamson who he had met in Columbus. The couple wed on December 31, 1836, and took up residence in Cadiz.
By 1837, Stanton was making a name for himself and Harrison County voters elected him to the office of county prosecutor as a Democrat. Stanton served in that position for two years before returning to Steubenville to become law partners with Benjamin Tappan who the Ohio General Assembly had just elected as United States senator.
Soon after returning to Steubenville, Stanton’s wife gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Lucy. Unfortunately, the child soon contracted an unknown disease and died after a prolonged illness in late 1841. The next year, Stanton’s wife gave birth to a son they named Edwin. Two years later, tragedy again visited Stanton’s life when his wife developed a “bilious fever,” possibly caused by tuberculosis, and died on March 13, 1844. Lucy’s death left the grief-stricken Stanton nearly inconsolable.
Successful Pittsburgh Law Practice
Despite his personal misfortunes, Stanton’s legal reputation continued to grow. In 1842, the Ohio General Assembly appointed him to the office of reporter for the Ohio Supreme Court. By 1847, Stanton’s abilities and notoriety had outgrown Steubenville, and he moved to Pittsburgh where he opened a law practice with Charles Shaler. During the next decade, Stanton became so notable that he earned the right to argue cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1855, Stanton crossed paths with Abraham Lincoln when the pair served on the legal team of inventor Cyrus McCormick in the case of McCormick v. Manny. Unimpressed with the backwoods lawyer from Illinois, Stanton derisively referred to the future president as a “long-armed creature.”
While living in Pittsburgh, Stanton began courting twenty-six-year-old Ellen Hutchinson. Despite their fifteen-year age difference, the pair became engaged and subsequently married on June 25, 1856. Following their honeymoon, the couple moved to Washington, DC, where Stanton soon caught the attention of prominent government officials.
Legal Successes in California
In February 1858, Stanton set sail for California at the behest of U.S. Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black to represent the federal government in a series of land disputes in the Golden State. Returning home in February 1859, Stanton’s successful efforts in California reportedly saved the government vast tracts of land, further enhancing his legal reputation.
Sickles Murder Trial
Within days of Stanton’s return to Washington, U.S. Congressman Daniel Sickles discovered that his wife, Teresa Bagioli Sickles, and Philip Barton Key II were romantically involved. Key was the district attorney of the District of Columbia, and son of Francis Scott Key, the composer of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” On February 27, 1859, Sickles confronted Key on a street across from the White House and shot him dead. After being charged with murder, Sickles engaged Stanton, along with James T. Brady and John Graham to represent him in court. The trio argued that Sickles was innocent because of temporary insanity brought on by a jealous rage. On April 26, 1859, the all-male jury agreed, returning a verdict of not guilty. The trial marked the first successful use of the plea of temporary insanity to escape a murder charge in United States history.
U.S. Attorney General
In late 1860, after Abraham Lincoln’s presidential election victory, members of lame-duck President James Buchanan’s cabinet became disenchanted with Buchanan’s efforts to assuage Southerners who were threatening to secede from the Union. On December 9, Secretary of State Lewis Cass resigned from the cabinet. Buchanan nominated Attorney General Black to replace Cass and Stanton to replace Cass. The Senate quickly approved Stanton’s nomination and took office on December 20. Although Stanton was a lifelong Democrat, he was also a devout Unionist. As a result, he and President Buchanan suffered a contentious relationship during his brief tenure as Attorney General, which ended on March 4, 1861, when Lincoln became president.
Although Stanton was a loyal Unionist, he was not hesitant to criticize Lincoln’s leadership when the Civil War began. In a letter to General John A. Dix the spring of 1861, Stanton wrote: “No one can imagine the deplorable condition of this city, and the hazard of the government, who did not witness the weakness and panic of the administration, and the painful imbecility of Lincoln.” Following the debacle at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, Stanton wrote to former President Buchanan:
The dreadful disaster of Sunday can scarcely be mentioned. The imbecility of this administration has culminated in that catastrophe, and irretrievable misfortune and national disgrace are to be added to the ruin of all peaceful pursuits and national bankruptcy as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.
U.S. Secretary of War
Remarkably, after Lincoln replaced his Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, in January 1862, he nominated Stanton who had been serving as an adviser to Cameron. After being confirmed by the Senate, Stanton served as Lincoln’s Secretary of War from January 20, 1862, until the President’s death on April 15, 1865. He continued to serve under Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, until May 26, 1868, when he resigned. Despite Stanton’s low opinion of Lincoln prior to joining the cabinet, he soon became one of the President’s more loyal supporters and trusted advisers.
President Lincoln had great confidence in Stanton’s organizational talents, which contrasted highly with his predecessor’s inefficiency. The new secretary did not disappoint. Throughout the war, he kept the Union armies well equipped while aggressively curbing graft and corruption. His tireless efforts and dedication to the Union cause were renowned.
Still, the secretary was not without his detractors. Stanton’s arrogant, obstinate, harsh, and ruthless demeanor created enemies amongst the generals, caused friction within the cabinet, and alienated state governors, members of Congress, and the press.
Unquestionably loyal, Stanton was not above saving the Union at the expense of the Constitution. In his mind, saving the Constitution at the expense of the Union would only result in destroying both. He lived in a black-and-white world. One could only be for the Union or against it. Thus, Stanton willingly exercised his powers to curb free speech, authorize arbitrary military arrests, and deny citizens access to the courts by hauling them before military tribunals. Deliberately or not, Stanton performed a valuable service for Lincoln, often acting as the bad cop; thereby shielding the President’s homespun, good-cop persona from public criticism.
From Democrat to Republican
As the war progressed, Stanton switched his allegiance to the Republican Party. While never losing sight of the preeminent aim of the war–saving the Union–Stanton embraced the Emancipation Proclamation, which transformed the war from a constitutional struggle to a moral cause. He also supported enabling African-Americans to fight for their freedom by promoting the use of black troops in the Union armies.
When restoration of the Union seemed assured after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, Stanton tendered his resignation from the cabinet, citing health reasons. Lincoln, however, firmly opposed Stanton’s departure, reportedly telling the secretary:
Stanton, you cannot go. Reconstruction is more difficult and dangerous than construction or destruction. You have been our main reliance; you must help us through the final act. The bag is filled. It must be tied and tied securely. Some knots slip; yours do not. You understand the situation better than anybody else, and it is my wish and the country’s that you remain.
Lincoln had his way, and Stanton stayed on as Secretary of War.
There is little doubt that Stanton’s decision to continue as Secretary of War was due in part to the personal respect and fondness he had developed for Lincoln. Spending many hours together at the War Department agonizing over telegraphic accounts of battlefield setbacks and mushrooming casualty numbers, the two grew to be close friends. On the night Lincoln died after being struck down by assassin John Wilkes Booth, Stanton openly wept at the President’s beside.
After Lincoln’s death, Stanton continued serving as Secretary of War in President Andrew Johnson’s administration, leading the crusade to bring Booth and his co-conspirators to justice. Lincoln’s death may have contributed to the contentious relationship that soon developed between Johnson and Stanton. As the war came to a close, Johnson pursued a moderate approach to Reconstruction attuned with Lincoln’s appeal for “malice toward none, with charity for all . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Stanton, on the other hand, sought to punish the South, not only for starting the war but for Lincoln’s murder.
Clash with General Sherman
One of the first to experience Stanton’s post-assassination wrath was Major General William T. Sherman. On April 18, 1865, Sherman met with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston to negotiate the surrender of over 89,000 Rebel troops. Guided by sentiments expressed by President Lincoln during a meeting with Grant and Sherman three weeks earlier to “Give them the most liberal and honorable of terms,” Sherman drafted a “basis of agreement” that offered far more liberal and overarching terms than those that Grant extended to Lee at Appomattox Court House. An irate Stanton vigorously lobbied to reject the surrender agreement, and he went so far as to accuse Sherman publicly of treasonous ambitions in the New York Times.
Clash with President Johnson
By 1867, Stanton’s relationship with President Johnson had become irreparable. When Stanton refused to resign at Johnson’s request in August, the President suspended him and appointed Ulysses S. Grant to replace him on an ad interim basis. The Senate, however, refused to sanction the President’s actions, asserting that Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act. That law (enacted on March 3, 1867, over Johnson’s veto) prevented the President from removing any executive officer previously appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. Stanton maintained his position and Grant returned to his previous duties as General of the Army.
On February 21, 1868, Johnson again tried to rid himself of Stanton by appointing General Lorenzo Thomas as a temporary secretary of war. Prompted by Johnson’s flagrant challenge to Congressional authority, the House of Representatives came to Stanton’s defense and voted to impeach the President on February 24. Following a lengthy trial in the Senate, the impeachment effort failed and Stanton resigned from his cabinet position on May 26, 1868.
After resigning, Stanton returned to his legal practice in Washington, DC. Despite his failing health, Stanton actively supported Ulysses S. Grant’s candidacy in the presidential election of 1868. Following Grant’s victory, he nominated Stanton for a seat on the United States Supreme Court on December 20, 1869. The Senate confirmed the nomination on the same day; however, before Stanton could take the bench, he fell ill and died at his home on December 24, at the age of fifty-five. Following a state funeral attended by the highest dignitaries, Stanton was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, DC, on December 27, 1869.