Edwin M. Stanton: Early Life and Political Career
Edwin McMasters Stanton was born in Steubenville, Ohio, on December 19, 1814. After his father died in 1827, Stanton worked in a bookstore to help support his widowed mother. He attended Kenyon College in 1831 but left the following year due to his family’s worsening financial situation. In 1835 Stanton passed the Ohio state bar and began practicing as a lawyer. A year later he settled in Cadiz, Ohio, and married Mary A. Lamson, with whom he had two children.
Over the next 10 years, Stanton built a robust law practice in Ohio. He also became active in politics and regularly served as a delegate to the Ohio Democratic convention. In 1844 Stanton’s first wife died in childbirth. He later remarried Ellen Hutchinson, a young woman from a prominent Pennsylvania family, and had four more children.
Stanton next moved his law practice to Pittsburg before settling in Washington, D.C., in 1856. While in Washington, Stanton was involved in several high-profile legal cases, including the murder trial of future Union General Daniel Sickles, in which he made one of the earliest successful uses of the insanity defense.
In December 1860 Stanton was appointed attorney general in the cabinet of James Buchanan, who was set to leave office in early 1861. During his short tenure Stanton helped convince Buchanan that the secession of the Southern states was unconstitutional, a move that effectively prevented the Confederacy from peaceably separating from the Union.
Edwin M. Stanton: Lincoln’s Secretary of War
Stanton had been an early critic of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, but he remained in Washington after the start of the Civil War and served as an adviser to Secretary of War Simon Cameron. In November 1861 Stanton counseled Cameron to issue a report arguing that slaves should be armed to fight against the Confederacy. Coupled with allegations of corruption, this premature proclamation resulted in Cameron’s removal as secretary of war. Stanton would succeed him shortly thereafter in January 1862.
As secretary of war, Stanton acted swiftly to untangle the bureaucracy of the War Department. A shrewd strategist, he also seized the U.S. telegraph system and used it to control military actions and filter the flow of information to the press. Like many in the North, Stanton believed the war would be quickly won, and in the spring of 1862 he made a famous error when he mandated that all military recruiting offices be closed. He would later strongly support Lincoln’s decision to institute the federal draft law in March 1863.
A small man who suffered from severe asthma, Stanton was nevertheless relentless in his management of the war effort. Early in his tenure he issued an order canceling all foreign contracts for military goods, a move that helped bolster U.S. industry. He also revamped the transport system and made extensive use of railroads to speed the shipment of war materiel. One of Stanton’s most notable accomplishments came in September 1863, when he took a mere 10 days to coordinate the transport of 20,000 troops over 1,500 miles to reinforce Union General William Rosecrans at Chattanooga, Tennessee.
A staunch Unionist, Stanton was suspect of any military officers or public servants he thought might hold neutral or pro-Confederate stances. He was tireless in his efforts to arrest or remove those he viewed as disloyal, and during his tenure civilians and other figures deemed to have undermined the war effort were often jailed without charge. Stanton’s opinions made him no shortage of enemies during his tenure. He was particularly critical of General George B. McClellan and actively campaigned to see him stripped of his title as general-in-chief of the Union Army in 1862.
Although he had been critical of Abraham Lincoln’s early administration of the war, Stanton later joined Secretary of State William Seward as one of Lincoln’s closest advisers and even switched his allegiance to the Republican Party. He was a strong supporter of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and vehemently encouraged the use of black troops in the U.S. war effort. Lincoln eventually came to view Stanton as one of his most valuable assets, ignoring repeated calls from Stanton’s political opponents that he be removed from office. When Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Stanton reportedly said of the president, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Stanton would go on to manage the prosecution of the various conspirators involved in assassinating Lincoln, ensuring that they were tried in a military court.
Edwin M. Stanton: Post-Civil War Career and Later Life
After the end of the Civil War, Stanton remained secretary of war under President Andrew Johnson and oversaw the demobilization of the U.S. Army. During Reconstruction, he clashed with Johnson over his lenient treatment of the former Confederate states. Stanton openly criticized Johnson for failing to provide more federal intervention in the affairs of Southern states that denied blacks basic civil rights after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery. Congress largely supported Stanton and passed the Tenure of Office Act in early 1867 in an attempt to prevent Johnson from removing him as secretary of war. Johnson ignored the new law and attempt to fire Stanton anyway, but he was quickly overruled by Congress. Stanton later resorted to briefly barricading himself in his office when Johnson tried to remove him a second time in early 1868. Already vocal in his opposition to Johnson’s Reconstruction policies, Stanton openly supported congressional efforts to impeach the president over his supposed violation of the Tenure of Office Act. After Johnson was acquitted of any wrongdoing, Stanton chose to voluntarily resign as secretary of war in May 1868.
After leaving Johnson’s cabinet, Stanton resumed his former career as a lawyer. In December 1869 he was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ulysses S. Grant. While the U.S. Senate confirmed Stanton to the high court, he died only four days later at the age of 55.