December 19, 1814–December 24, 1869
Born in Steubenville, Ohio on December 19, 1814, Edwin McMasters Stanton's father and mother were David and Lucy Norman Stanton. Edwin Stanton was the eldest of seven children.
Born in Steubenville, Ohio on December 19, 1814, Edwin McMasters Stanton's father and mother were David and Lucy Norman Stanton. Edwin Stanton was the eldest of seven children. His father was a member of the Society of Friends, while his mother was a Methodist. Stanton, himself, was a devout Methodist, formally joining the church at twelve years of age.
In 1827, Stanton's father, a physician, died. He left school to help his mother operate a store in Steubenville. The next year, he became an employee of a bookstore in Steubenville. Thirsting for knowledge, Stanton spent any free time reading books in the store. Stanton's mother desired that her eldest child attend college, and in 1831, with the family's store succeeding, Stanton applied to and enrolled in Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. While at Kenyon, Stanton joined the Episcopal Church. He remained at Kenyon until 1832. High tuition forced him to leave the school. Stanton spent the next year working in a Columbus, Ohio bookstore, before returning to Steubenville in 1833. After leaving Kenyon, Stanton continued to read avidly and began to study the law. In 1835, he passed the Ohio bar exam and began to practice law.
Stanton began to practice law in Cadiz, Ohio, and his practice quickly flourished. He argued his first case before even turning twenty-one years of age and, in 1837, became the prosecuting attorney of Harrison County, Ohio. Desiring to be closer to his family, in 1839, Stanton returned to Steubenville, where he partnered with Benjamin Tappan, an eventual United States senator from Ohio, to form a new law practice. Stanton's legal abilities did not go unnoticed. In 1842, the Ohio General Assembly made Stanton the Supreme Court of Ohio's reporter. Five years later, Steubenville voters elected Stanton as the city's solicitor.
While living in Cadiz, Stanton married Mary Lamson on May 31, 1836. The couple had two children: Lucy Lamson Stanton (born on March 11, 1837 and died in 1841) and Edwin Lamson Stanton (born in August 1842). Mary Lamson Stanton died on March 13, 1844. Twelve years later, Edwin Stanton married Ellen Hutchinson. The couple had four children: Eleanor Adams Stanton (born on May 9, 1857), James Hutchinson Stanton (born in 1861 and died on July 10, 1862), Lewis Hutchinson Stanton (born in 1862), and Bessie Stanton (born in 1863).
While holding the various government positions and residing in Steubenville, Stanton also actively practiced law. He eventually left Steubenville to practice law in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in 1856, he moved his practice to Washington, DC. Among Stanton's more famous cases was Pennsylvania v. the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company. In 1849, Stanton represented the State of Pennsylvania against the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company. Pennsylvania contended that a bridge that the company built over the Ohio River hindered some river, especially steamboat, traffic. The United States Supreme Court sided with Pennsylvania, ruling that the company had either to remove or to modify the bridge. In an important patent case, Stanton assisted Cyrus McCormick, manufacturer of the reaper, in suing a competitor for illegally copying McCormick's design. Because of this second case, Stanton met Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln served as a co-counsel for McCormick. Together, Stanton and Lincoln won the case. Stanton also practiced criminal law, defending Daniel Sickles, a United States congressman from New York in 1859, when he was accused of murdering his wife's lover, Philip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key, the author of the "Star Spangled Banner." Stanton won the case, claiming that his client was temporarily insane. This was one of the first uses of this defense in United States history.
Due to Stanton's impressive legal work, in 1858, Jeremiah Black, the Attorney General of the United States, appointed Stanton as a special land claims agent in California. In December 1860, President James Buchanan nominated Stanton as Attorney General of the United States. Stanton's relationship with Buchanan was contentious. The Attorney General vehemently opposed secession and continued acquiescence to the South, while Buchanan preferred to ignore the issue of secession and to try to appease Southern states. Stanton's term as attorney general ended upon Abraham Lincoln becoming president on March 4, 1861.
A life-long supporter of the Democratic Party, Stanton did support Republican Lincoln's desire to reunite the nation. Stanton, however, routinely objected to Lincoln's approach to ending the rebellion. During 1861, Stanton routinely referred to Lincoln as a "gorilla." After and in reference to the Battle of First Bull Run, Stanton wrote 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.
Despite these sentiments, during the first year of the American Civil War, Stanton served as a legal advisor to Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Some historians that Stanton used this position to scheme against both Lincoln and Cameron. In January 1862, Lincoln fired Cameron and replaced him with Stanton. The new Secretary of War quickly became one of Lincoln's closest advisors and staunchest supporters. Lincoln so trusted Stanton's advice that the President once stated that, "So great is my confidence in Stanton's judgment and patriotism that I never wish to take an important step without first consulting him." As Secretary of War, Stanton encouraged Lincoln to free the slaves, as well as to allow African Americans to enlist in the Union army. Lincoln did not always take Stanton's advice. For example, the Secretary of War counseled Lincoln to not reappoint George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac during the Antietam Campaign, but the President ignored his advice. Stanton also lobbied Lincoln to appoint Ulysses S. Grant as commander of all Union armies in 1864, advice that the President took this time.
Despite each man's mutual respect for the other, they routinely did disagree. Congressman George Julian recorded one such incident:
It is related that a committee of Western men, headed by [Congressman Owen] Lovejoy, procured from the President an important order looking to the exchange of Eastern and Western soldiers with a view to more effective work. Repairing to the office of the Secretary, Mr. Lovejoy explained the scheme, as he had done before to the President, but was met by a flat refusal.
"But we have the President's order sir," said Lovejoy.
"Did Lincoln give you an order of that kind?" said Stanton.
"He did, sir."
"Then he is a d—d fool," said the irate Secretary.
"Do you mean to say the President is a d—d fool?" asked Lovejoy, in amazement.
"Yes, sir, if he gave you such an order as that."
The bewildered Congressman from Illinois betook himself at once to the President, and related the result of his conference.
"Did Stanton say I was a d–d fool?," asked Lincoln at the close of the recital.
"He did, sir; and repeated it."
After a moment's pause, and looking up, the President said:
"If Stanton said I was a d–d fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him."
Upon Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender in April 1865, Stanton presented Lincoln with his resignation. The principal reason for this was Stanton's health. He had long suffered from asthma, and the war had caused undue stress and additional health issues for the Secretary of War. Lincoln reportedly stated,
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.
Stanton remained as Secretary of War. Upon Lincoln's death on April 15, 1865, Vice President Andrew Johnson became President and retained Stanton in his same position.
Stanton's relationship with Johnson was much more contentious than the Secretary of War's interactions with Lincoln. Stanton and Lincoln seemed to respect each other; Stanton and Johnson despised each other. Stanton sought to punish the South for the Civil War and had a firm desire to extend rights to African Americans. Johnson preferred a much more lenient approach to white Southerners and actively worked to deny African Americans opportunities. Realizing that they needed Stanton as Secretary of War to enact a stringent Reconstruction policy, Radical Republicans instituted the Tenure of Office Act. This legislation prohibited the President from firing any government official without Congress' permission who required Senate approval to assume office. As Secretary of War, Stanton had received Senate approval before assuming the office. Johnson could not fire Stanton without Congressional permission. Despite this legislation, Johnson fired Stanton and replaced him with Ulysses S. Grant. Congress began impeachment proceedings, succeeded in impeaching Johnson but failed in removing him from office. On May 26, 1868, Stanton resigned as Secretary of War upon Congress' refusal to remove Johnson as president.
Stanton resumed his legal practice in Washington, DC. He was a staunch supporter of Ulysses S. Grant in the Election of 1868. Grant won the election and nominated Stanton as a justice to the United States Supreme Court. Unfortunately for, he died on December 24, 1869, before he could assume the bench. Stanton is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, DC.