Stanton, Edwin McMasters life and biography

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Stanton, Edwin McMasters biography

Date of birth : 1814-12-19
Date of death : 1869-12-24
Birthplace : Ohio, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2010-06-04
Credited as : Attorney general(Federal), Secretary of War,

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Stanton, Edwin McMasters (December 19, 1814 - December 24, 1869), attorney-general and secretary of war and a native of Steubenville, Ohio, was the eldest of the four children of David and Lucy (Norman) Stanton. His father, a physician of Quaker stock, was descended from Robert Stanton, who came to America between 1627 and 1638, and, after living in New Plymouth, moved to Newport, R. I., before 1645, and from the latter's grandson, Henry, who went to North Carolina between 1721 and 1724 (W. H. Stanton, post, pp. 27-34). His mother was the daughter of a Virginia planter. The death of Dr. Stanton in 1827 left his wife in straitened circumstances and Edwin was obliged to withdraw from school and supplement the family income by employment in a local bookstore. He continued his studies in his spare time, however, and in 1831 was admitted to Kenyon College at Gambier, Ohio. During his junior year his funds gave out and he was again obliged to accept a place in a bookstore, this time in Columbus. Unable to earn enough to return to Kenyon for the completion of his course, he turned to the study of law in the office of his guardian, Daniel L. Collier, and in 1836 was admitted to the bar. His practice began in Cadiz, the seat of Harrison County, but in 1839 he removed to Steubenville to become a partner of Senator-elect Benjamin Tappan.

Stanton's ability, energy, and fidelity to his profession brought him quick recognition and a comfortable income. To give wider range to his talents he moved to Pittsburgh in 1847 and later, in 1856 he became a resident of Washington, D. C., in order to devote himself more to cases before the Supreme Court. His work as counsel for the state of Pennsylvania (1849-56) against the Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company (13 Howard, 518; 18 Howard, 421) gave him a national reputation and resulted in his retention for much important litigation. He was one of the leading counsel in the noted patent case of McCormick vs. Manny (John McLean, Reports of Cases . . . in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Seventh Circuit, vol. VI, 1856, p. 539) and made a deep impression upon one of his associates, Abraham Lincoln, because of his masterly defense of their client, Manny (A. J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1928, vol. I, 581). Stanton's practice was chiefly in civil and constitutional law, but in 1859 in defending Daniel E. Sickles [q.v.], charged with murder, he demonstrated that he was no less gifted in handling criminal suits. More important than any of these cases, however, was his work in California in 1858 as special counsel for the United States government in combatting fraudulent claims to lands alleged to have been deeded by Mexico to numerous individuals prior to the Mexican War. It was a task requiring prodigious and painstaking research in the collection of data and the most careful presentation, but Stanton proved equal to the occasion and won for the government a series of notable victories. It has been estimated that the lands involved were worth $150,000,000. His services in this connection were undoubtedly the most distinguished of his legal career. As a lawyer Stanton was capable of extraordinary mental labor; he was orderly and methodical, mastering with great precision the law and the facts of his cases, and he was able apparently to plead with equal effectiveness before judges and juries.

It was his success in the California land cases, together with the influence of Jeremiah S. Black [q.v.], that won for him the appointment of attorney-general on Dec. 20, 1860, when Buchanan reorganized his cabinet. Prior to that time Stanton had taken little part in politics and had held only two minor offices, those of prosecuting attorney of Harrison County, Ohio (1837-39), and reporter of Ohio supreme court decisions (1842-45). Jacksonian principles enlisted his sympathies while an undergraduate and he appears to have adhered quite consistently to the Democratic party from that time until his entrance into Lincoln's cabinet in 1862. He favored the Wilmot Proviso, however, and was critical of the domination of the Southern wing of the party during the two decades before 1860. Like his forebears he disapproved of the institution of slavery, but he accepted the Dred Scott decision without question and contended that all laws constitutionally enacted for the protection of slavery should be rigidly enforced. He supported Breckinridge's candidacy for the presidency in 1860 in the belief that the preservation of the Union hung on the forlorn hope of his election (Gorham, post, I, 79). Above all Stanton was a thorough-going Unionist.

In Buchanan's cabinet he promptly joined with Black and Joseph Holt [q.v.] in opposition to the abandonment of Fort Sumter and was zealous in the pursuit of persons whom he believed to be plotting against the government. Since he was of an excitable and suspicious temperament, his mind was full of forebodings of insurrection and assassination, and, while he hated the "Black Republicans," he collogued with Seward, Sumner, and others in order that they might be apprised of the dangers he apprehended to be afoot. The disclosure of this later resulted in the charge that he had betrayed Buchanan (Atlantic Monthly and Galaxy, post). If Stanton was at odds with the President at that time he gave him no indication of it for Buchanan wrote in 1862: "He was always on my side and flattered me ad nauseam" (G. T. Curtis, Life of James Buchanan, 1883, vol. II, 523).

During the early months of Lincoln's presidency, Stanton, now in private life, was utterly distrustful of him and unsparing in his criticism of "the imbecility of this administration" (Ibid., II, 559). When George B. McClellan [q.v.] took over the control of the operations of the army in 1861, Stanton became his friend and confidential legal adviser and expressed to him his contempt for the President and his cabinet. Oddly enough, soon afterwards he also became legal adviser to Secretary of War Simon Cameron [q.v.] and aided in framing the latter's annual report recommending the arming of slaves (Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1870, p. 239; Oct. 1870, p. 470). It was this proposal, offensive to Lincoln, which hastened Cameron's departure from the War Department and inadvertently helped to pave the way for Stanton's succession to the post. Although he had had no personal contacts of any kind with Lincoln since Mar. 4, 1861, Stanton was nominated for the secretaryship, confirmed on Jan. 15, 1862, and five days later entered upon his duties. Various plausible explanations for his selection by Lincoln have been given. Gideon Welles firmly believed that Seward was responsible for it, but Cameron claimed the credit for himself (American Historical Review, Apr. 1926, pp. 491 ff.; Meneely, post, pp. 366-68). The true circumstances may never be known.

Stanton was generally conceded to be able, energetic, and patriotic, and his appointment was well received. It presaged a more honest and efficient management of departmental affairs and a more aggressive prosecution of the war. In these respects the new secretary measured up to the public expectations. He immediately reorganized the department, obtained authorization for the increase of its personnel, and systematized the work to be done. Contracts were investigated, those tainted with fraud were revoked, and their perpetrators were prosecuted without mercy. Interviews became public hearings; patronage hunters received scant and usually brusque consideration; and the temporizing replies of Cameron gave way to the summary judgments of his successor. At an early date Stanton persuaded Congress to authorize the taking over of the railroads and telegraph lines where necessary, and prevailed upon the President to release all political prisoners in military custody and to transfer the control of extraordinary arrests from the State to the War Department. Also he promptly put himself in close touch with generals, governors, and others having to do with military affairs, and especially with the congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War.

For a few months after entering office Stanton continued his friendly relations with McClellan and assured the general of his desire to furnish all necessary matériel, but he became impatient when McClellan proved slow in accomplishing tangible results. Despite the Secretary's professions of confidence and cooperation, McClellan soon became distrustful and suspected Stanton of seeking his removal. The withdrawing of McDowell's forces from the main army in the Peninsular campaign was attributed to Stanton and editorial attacks upon him began to appear in the New York press which were believed to have been inspired by McClellan (Gorham, I, 415-21). Both men were too suspicious, jealous, and otherwise illsuited to work in harmony; trouble between them was inevitable. Stanton was particularly irked by McClellan's disobedience to orders and in August 1862 joined with Chase and others in the cabinet in seeking to have him deprived of any command (Welles, Diary, I, 83, 93, 95-101; "Diary and Correspondence of Salmon P. Chase," Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1902, 1903, vol. II, 62-63).

Although McClellan constantly complained of a shortage of men, supplies, and equipment, Stanton appears to have made vigorous efforts to meet his requisitions. The same was true with respect to other commanders in the several theatres of operations. His dispatch of 23,000 men to the support of Rosecrans at Chattanooga (September 1863) in less than seven days and under trying circumstances was one of the spectacular feats of the war. Quickness of decision, mastery of detail, and vigor in execution were among Stanton's outstanding characteristics as a war administrator, and he became annoyed when his subordinates proved deficient in these qualities. He was frequently accused of meddling with military operations and was probably guilty of it on many occasions; but Grant had no complaint to make of him in this respect. His severe censorship of the press was also a source of much criticism in newspaper circles, and his exercise of the power of extraordinary arrest was often capricious and harmful. Soldiers and civilians alike found him arrogant, irascible, and often brutal and unjust. Grant said that he "cared nothing for the feeling of others" and seemed to find it pleasanter "to disappoint than to gratify" (Personal Memoirs, vol. II, 1886, p. 536). A noted instance of his harshness was his published repudiation of General Sherman's terms to the defeated Johnston in May 1865. That Sherman had exceeded his authority was generally admitted, but the severity of the rebuke was as unmerited as it was ungrateful. Again, Stanton's part in the trial and execution of Mrs. Surratt, charged with complicity in Lincoln's assassination, and his efforts to implicate Jefferson Davis in the murder of the President were exceedingly discreditable (Milton, post, Ch. x; DeWitt, post, pp. 232-34, 272-76). His vindictiveness in both instances was probably owing in part to a desire to avenge the death of his chief, whose loss he mourned. Intimate association for three years had gradually revealed Lincoln's nature and capacities to Stanton, and while he was sometimes as discourteous to him as to others, there developed between the two men a mutual trust and admiration.

At the request of President Johnson, Stanton retained his post after Lincoln's death and ably directed the demobilization of the Union armies. At the same time he entered upon a course with respect to reconstruction and related problems that brought him into serious conflict with the President and several of his colleagues. During the war he appears to have been deferential and ingratiating in his relations with the radical element in Congress, particularly with the powerful congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, and when peace came he began almost immediately to counsel with leading members of that faction as to the course to be pursued in reconstruction. Although he expressed approval in cabinet meetings of the President's proclamation of May 29, 1865, initiating a reasonable policy of restoration under executive direction, it was soon suspected by many of Johnson's supporters that Stanton was out of sympathy with the administration and intriguing with the rising opposition. In this they were not mistaken (Beale, post, pp. 101-06). When Charles Sumner in a speech on Sept. 14, 1865, denounced the presidential policy, insisted on congressional control of reconstruction, and sponsored negro suffrage, Stanton hastened to assure him that he endorsed "every sentiment, every opinion and word of it" (Welles, II, 394). From the summer of 1865 onward, upon nearly every issue he advised a course of action which would have played into the hands of the Radicals and fostered a punitive Southern policy. He urged the acceptance of the Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights bills of 1866, and while he was evasive regarding the report of the Stevens committee on reconstruction, he subsequently expressed approval of the Military Reconstruction bill based upon it which was passed over the President's veto on Mar. 2, 1867 (Welles, III, 49; Gorham, II, 420). Stanton actually dictated for Boutwell [q.v.] an amendment to the army appropriation act of 1867 requiring the president to issue his army orders through the secretary of war or the general of the army and making invalid any order issued otherwise (G. S. Boutwell, Reminiscences of Sixty Years in Public Affairs, 1902, vol. II, 107-08; Milton, p. 378). He was also responsible for the supplementary reconstruction act of July 19, 1867, which exempted military commanders from any obligation to accept the opinions of civil officers of the government as to their rules of action (Gorham, II, 373). The one important measure in the rejection of which the Secretary concurred was the Tenure of Office bill which was chiefly intended to ensure his own retention in the War Department. He was emphatic in denouncing its unconstitutionality and "protested with ostentatious vehemence that any man who would retain his seat in the Cabinet as an adviser when his advice was not wanted was unfit for the place" (Welles, III, 158; J. D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1897, vol. VI, 587). He aided Seward in drafting the veto message.

For more than a year Johnson had been importuned by his supporters to remove Stanton and he repeatedly gave the Secretary to understand "by every mode short of an expressed request that he should resign" (Richardson, ante, VI, 584), but Stanton ignored them and with fatal hesitation the President permitted him to remain. In doing so he virtually gave his opponents a seat in the cabinet. By the beginning of August 1867, however, Johnson could tolerate his mendacious minister no longer. He had become convinced that the insubordination of General Sheridan and other commanders in the military districts was being encouraged by the Secretary and he was now satisfied that Stanton had plotted against him in the matter of the reconstruction legislation. Consequently, on Aug. 5, he called for his resignation, but Stanton brazenly declined to yield before Congress reassembled in December, contending that the Tenure of Office bill had become law by its passage over the veto and Johnson was bound to obey it. A week later he was suspended, but in January 1868 he promptly resumed his place when the Senate declined to concur in his suspension. Johnson then resolved to dismiss him regardless of the consequences and did so on Feb. 21, 1868. Stanton with equal determination declared that he would "continue in possession until expelled by force" (Gorham, II, 440), and was supported by the Senate. He ordered the arrest of Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas, who had been designated secretary ad interim, and had a guard posted to ensure his own occupancy and protect the department records from seizure. For several weeks thereafter he remained in the War Department building day and night, but when the impeachment charges failed (May 26, 1868) he accepted the inevitable and resigned the same day.

Over-exertion during his public life, together with internal ailments, had undermined Stanton's health and he found it necessary after leaving the department to undergo a period of rest. During the fall of 1868 he managed to give some active support to Grant's candidacy and to resume to a limited extent his law practice, but he never regained his former vigor. He was frequently importuned to be a candidate for public office, but steadfastly refused. His friends in Congress, however, prevailed upon Grant to offer him a justiceship on the United States Supreme Court and this he accepted. His nomination was confirmed on Dec. 20, 1869, but death overtook him before he could occupy his seat.

With the gradual rehabilitation of Andrew Johnson's reputation Stanton's has suffered a sharp decline. His ability as a lawyer and his achievements as a tireless and versatile administrator during the Civil War have not been seriously questioned, but his defects of temperament and the disclosures of his amazing disloyalty and duplicity in his official relations detract from his stature as a public man. In 1867 he explained his remaining in the War Department by contending that his duties as a department head were defined by law and that he was not "bound to accord with the President on all grave questions of policy or administration" (Gorham, II, 421; J. F. Rhodes, History of the United States, 1920, VI, 210, note 3); but shortly before his death he is said to have admitted that "he had never doubted the constitutional right of the President to remove members of his Cabinet without question from any quarter whatever," and that in his reconstruction program Johnson advocated measures that had been favorably considered by Lincoln (Hugh McCulloch, Men and Measures of Half a Century, 1888, pp. 401-02). Stanton was encouraged in his disloyalty and defiance by Republican politicians, newspapers, and Radical protagonists generally, but his conduct has found few defenders among modern students of the post-war period. Whether he was motivated by egotism, mistaken patriotism, or a desire to stand well with the congressional opposition is difficult to determine.

In appearance Stanton was thick-set and of medium height; a strong, heavy neck supported a massive head thatched with long, black, curling hair. His nose and eyes were large, his mouth was wide and stern. A luxuriant crop of coarse black whiskers concealed his jaws and chin. Altogether he was a rather fierce looking man; there was point to Montgomery Blair's characterization, the "black terrier." Stanton was twice married. Mary Ann Lamson of Columbus, Ohio, with whom he was united on Dec. 31, 1836, died in 1844. On June 25, 1856, he married Ellen M. Hutchison, the daughter of a wealthy merchant of Pittsburgh. Two children were born of the first union; four of the second. His biographers assure us that in his family life Stanton was a model husband and father, and for his mother, who survived him, he appears to have cherished a lifelong filial devotion.

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