Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Stanton, Edwin McMasters

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STANTON, Edwin McMasters, statesman, b. in Steubenville, Ohio, 19 Dec., 1814; d. in Washington, D. C., 24 Dec., 1869. His father, a physician, died while Edwin was a child. After acting for three years as a clerk in a book-store, he entered Kenyon college in 1831, but left in 1833 to study law. He was admitted to the bar in 1836, and, beginning practice in Cadiz, was in 1837 elected prosecuting attorney. He returned to Steubenville in 1839, and was supreme court reporter in 1842-'5, preparing vols. xi., xii., and xiii. of the Ohio reports. In 1848 he removed to Pittsburg, Pa., and in 1857, on account of his large business in the U. S. supreme court, he established himself in Washington. During 1857-'8 he was in California, attending to important land cases for the government. Among the notable suits that he conducted were the first Erie railway litigation, the Wheeling bridge case, and the Manney and McCormick reaper contest in 1859. When Lewis Cass retired from President Buchanan's cabinet, and Jeremiah S. Black was made secretary of state, Stanton was appointed the latter's successor in the office of attorney-general, 20 Dec., 1860. He was originally a Democrat of the Jackson school, and, until Van Buren's defeat in the Baltimore convention of 1844, took an active part in political affairs in his locality. He favored the Wilmot proviso, to exclude slavery from the territory acquired by the war with Mexico, and sympathized with the Free-soil movement of 1848, headed by Martin Van Buren. He was an anti-slavery man, but his hostility to that institution was qualified by his view of the obligations imposed by the Federal constitution. He had held no public offices before entering President Buchanan's cabinet except those of prosecuting attorney for one year in Harrison county, Ohio, and reporter of the Ohio supreme court for three years, being wholly devoted to his profession. While a member of Mr. Buchanan's cabinet, he took a firm stand for the Union, and at a cabinet meeting, when John B. Floyd, then secretary of war, demanded the withdrawal of the United States troops from the forts in Charleston harbor, he indignantly declared that the surrender of Fort Sumter would be, in his opinion, a crime, equal to that of Arnold, and that all who participated in it should be hung like André. After the meeting, Floyd sent in his resignation. President Lincoln, though since his accession to the presidency he had held no communication with Mr. Stanton, called him to the head of the war department on the retirement of Simon Cameron, 15 Jan., 1862. As was said by an eminent senator of the United States: “He certainly came to the public service with patriotic and not with sordid motives, surrendering a most brilliant position at the bar, and with it the emolument of which, in the absence of accumulated wealth, his family was in daily need.” Infirmities of temper he had, but they were incident to the intense strain upon his nerves caused by his devotion to duties that would have soon prostrated most men, however robust, as they finally prostrated him. He had no time for elaborate explanations for refusing trifling or selfish requests, and his seeming abruptness of manner was often but rapidity in transacting business which had to be thus disposed of, or be wholly neglected. As he sought no benefit to himself, but made himself an object of hatred to the dishonest and the inefficient, solely in the public interest, and as no enemy ever accused him of wrong-doing, the charge of impatience and hasty temper will not detract from the high estimate placed by common consent upon his character as a man, a patriot, and a statesman.

Mr. Stanton's entrance into the cabinet, marked the beginning of a vigorous military policy. On 27 Jan., 1862, was issued the first of the president's war orders, prescribing a general movement of the troops. His impatience at Gen. George B. McClellan's apparent inaction caused friction between the administration and the general-in-chief, which ended in the latter's retirement. He selected Gen. Ulysses S. Grant for promotion after the victory at Fort Donelson, which Gen. Henry W. Halleck in his report had ascribed to the bravery of Gen. Charles F. Smith, and in the autumn of 1863 he placed Grant in supreme command of the three armies operating in the southwest, directed him to relieve Gen. William S. Rosecrans before his army at Chattanooga could be forced to surrender. President Lincoln said that he never took an important step without consulting his secretary of war. It has been asserted that, on the eve of Mr. Lincoln's second inauguration, he proposed to allow Gen. Grant to make terms of peace with Gen. Lee, and that Mr. Stanton dissuaded him from such action. According to a bulletin of Mr. Stanton that was issued at the time, the president wrote the despatch directing the general of the army to confer with the Confederate commander on none save purely military questions without previously consulting the members of the cabinet. At a cabinet council that was held in consultation with Gen. Grant, the terms on which Gen. William T. Sherman proposed to accept the surrender of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston were disapproved by all who were present. To the bulletin announcing the telegram that was sent to Gen. Sherman, which directed him to guide his actions by the despatch that had previously been sent to Gen. Grant, forbidding military interference in the political settlement, a statement of the reasons for disapproving Sherman's arrangement was appended, obviously by the direction of Sec. Stanton. These were: (1) that it was unauthorized; (2) that it was an acknowledgment of the Confederate government; (3) that it re-established rebel state governments; (4) that it would enable rebel state authorities to restore slavery; (5) that it involved the question of the Confederate states debt; (6) that it would put in dispute the state government of West Virginia; (7) that it abolished confiscation, and relieved rebels of all penalties; (8) that it gave terms that had been rejected by President Lincoln; (9) that it formed no basis for peace, but relieved rebels from the pressure of defeat, and left them free to renew the war. Gen. Sherman defended his course on the ground that he had before him the public examples of Gen. Grant's terms to Gen. Lee's army, and Gen. Weitzel's invitation to the Virginia legislature to assemble at Richmond. His central motive, in giving terms that would be cheerfully accepted, he declared to be the peaceful disbandment of all the Confederate armies, and the prevention of guerilla warfare. He had never seen President Lincoln's telegram to Gen. Grant of 3 March, 1865, above quoted, nor did he know that Gen. Weitzel's permission for the Virginia legislature to assemble had been rescinded.

A few days before the president's death Sec. Stanton tendered his resignation because his task was completed, but was persuaded by Mr. Lincoln to remain. After the assassination of Lincoln a serious controversy arose between the new president, Andrew Johnson, and the Republican party, and Mr. Stanton took sides against the former on the subject of reconstruction. On 5 Aug., 1867, the president demanded his resignation; but he refused to give up his office before the next meeting of congress, following the urgent counsels of leading men of the Republican party. He was suspended by the president on 12 Aug. On 13 Jan., 1868, he was restored by the action of the senate, and resumed his office. On 21 Feb., 1868, the president informed the senate that he had removed Sec. Stanton. and designated a secretary ad interim. Mr. Stanton refused to surrender the office pending the action of the senate on the president's message. At a late hour of the same day the senate resolved that the president had not the power to remove the secretary. Mr. Stanton, thus sustained by the senate, refused to surrender the office. The impeachment of the president followed, and on 26 May, the vote of the senate being “guilty,” 35, “not guilty,” 19, he was acquitted two thirds not voting for conviction. After Mr. Stanton's retirement from office he resumed the practice of law. On 20 Dec., 1869, he was appointed by President Grant a justice of the supreme court, and he was forthwith confirmed by the senate. Four days later he expired.

The value to the country of his services during the civil war cannot be overestimated. His energy, inflexible integrity, systematized industry, comprehensive view of the situation in its military, political, and international aspects, his power to command and supervise the best services of others, and his unbending will and invincible courage, made him at once the stay of the president, the hope of the country, and a terror to dishonesty and imbecility. The vastness of his labors led to brusqueness in repelling importunities, which made him many enemies. But none ever questioned his honesty, his patriotism, or his capability. A “Memoir” of Mr. Stanton is at present in preparation by his son, Lewis M. Stanton.