The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Stanton, Edwin McMasters

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STANTON, Edwin McMasters, American statesman and jurist: b. Steubenville, Ohio, 19 Dec. 1814; d. Washington, D. C., 24 Dec. 1869. His paternal ancestors were Quakers originally from Massachusetts but later settled in North Carolina, and his mother was a Virginian. At the age of 13 upon his father's death he began to work, and at 17 entered Kenyon College but was obliged to leave after two years for lack of means. After three years of study he was admitted to the bar in 1836 and married.

He joined the Democratic party on the issue of nullification, and in 1837 was elected prosecuting officer of his county. After serving for two years he returned to private practice, and in 1847 he moved to Pittsburgh where he soon took rank among the leaders of the Pennsylvania bar. In 1856 he changed his residence to Washington, and in 1858 was sent to California as special counsel of the United States in the cases growing out of land grants made by the Mexican government before the treaty of 1848. He added greatly to his reputation by his conduct of this litigation. During these years he took no part in politics but sympathized with the Free-soil wing of the Democratic party and favored the Wilmot Proviso. In 1856 he supported Buchanan, and in 1860 voted for Breckenridge, believing that the election of Lincoln would imperil the Union.

When Buchanan's Cabinet divided in December 1860 and Cass, the Secretary of State, resigned, Attorney-General Black took his place and Stanton was made Attorney-General 20 Dec 1860, the day when the ordinance of secession was adopted in South Carolina. At his first Cabinet meeting the question was presented whether Major Anderson should be ordered back to Fort Moultrie. Floyd, the Secretary of War, and his southern associates insisted that this should be done, while Stanton with Black and Holt vigorously opposed them, threatening to resign if such orders were issued. Their attitude drove the secessionists from the Cabinet and redeemed the close of Buchanan's administration. During the remainder of the administration he was active in studying the plans of the secessionists and considering how to defeat them and protect Washington. He feared insurrection or assassination to prevent Lincoln's inauguration, and his influence helped to persuade President Buchanan that regular troops should be ordered to Washington.

The attack on Fort Sumter found him a strong supporter of the national authority and outspoken in calling upon all loyal men to stand by the government. On 13 Jan. 1862, Mr. Lincoln appointed him Secretary of War in place of Simon Cameron. Stanton had criticized Lincoln severely and had not even met him since his inauguration, but Lincoln selected him for his ability and because he was a representative of the Democratic Unionists, whose support was essential. The wisdom of the choice was signally vindicated. The whole system of the War office was inefficient and reorganization was imperatively demanded. Stanton brought to his work great executive ability, prompt decision and a strong will which made itself felt through the whole military service. He had scant patience with men who were seeking personal advantages, or with frivolous calls upon his attention. Hence his manner was brusque, impatient and decided, and he made many enemies.

He advised the passage of a law authorizing the President to take possession of all the railroad and telegraph lines of the United States, and this was at once enacted. He ordered that all contracts for supplies and munitions be in writing, appointed a commission to investigate and determine what valid contracts were outstanding, and waged vigorous war upon fraudulent contractors. By an order of 14 February he directed the release of all persons who had been arrested on suspicion of disloyal practices, with certain exceptions, upon their giving their parole not to aid the rebellion. From that time such arrests were made only under military authority, which was exercised on the theory that all doubts were to be resolved in favor of the country. No part of Stanton's career shows more loyalty to his country than his patience with McClellan during the first six months of 1862, but the latter's delay in moving his army to the support of Pope, his disregard of orders, and his whole conduct during tne critical weeks which preceded Lee's invasion of Maryland at length satisfied Stanton that he should be removed, and in the last days of August he tried to unite the Cabinet in recommending this step, but Mr. Lincoln felt that McClellan's popularity and the political situation made it necessary to give him the command of the army. Stanton disapproved this action as did Mr. Chase, but the President took the responsibility. McClellan's conduct of the Antietam campaign, his inexcusable delays and almost direct insubordination increased Stanton's feeling and at length convinced the President, and McClellan was dismissed from active service.

Taking office as a Democrat, Stanton early felt the importance of emancipation as a war measure, and when on 22 July 1862, Mr. Lincoln laid before the Cabinet a proclamation declaring that all slaves in the seceded States should be free on a fixed day, Stanton and Bates, the Attorney-General, were in favor of issuing it at once, while Seward and Chase opposed it. Stanton approved the issue of the proclamation after Antietam, and in his annual report made a powerful argument in support of the measure. When in the next year after the defeats of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Lee a second time crossed the Potomac, Hooker was relieved and Meade appointed to the command by Stanton's advice, and during the critical summer and autumn of 1863 he met every emergency successfully.

When it was apparent that General Rosecrans was not in a condition to retain the command, Stanton summoned Grant from New Orleans to Louisville, himself met him there and after a full conference placed him in command of the Western armies, giving Thomas command at Chattanooga. The immediate success of General Grant in his new command with the crushing defeat of Bragg's army made the whole military situation much clearer, and General Grant's appointment to the command of the army and his removal to Virginia followed as a matter of course. After Appomattox, General Sherman agreed upon terms with General Johnston, which provided not only for the surrender of the latter's army but for the settlement of vital political questions, and the agreement was disapproved by the Administration. Stanton stated the reason in a dispatch to General Dix that the public might understand why General Sherman was overruled. His statement was clear and poignant and while it reflected on General Sherman's discretion in consenting to such an arrangement, the general himself was not criticized. Sherman held Stanton especially responsible for the action of the government and became very hostile to him.

Nothing in the history of the Civil War is more remarkable than the speed with which the vast armies of the United States were dissolved. On 1 May 1865, a million men were on the rolls of the army. In hardly more than 60 days nearly 700,000 of them were returned to their homes. The grand review of the two great armies held in Washington 22 and 23 May 1865 showed the military force of the United States at its greatest. In little more than a month most of that force was engaged in the labors of peace. Stanton had made this possible.

Stanton remained in the Cabinet of President Johnson, and in the struggle between the President and Congress over the policy of reconstruction, sympathized with Congress. He felt that the President's policy meant the return of the disloyal element to power in the Southern States and he could not contemplate such a result without indignation. The partisans of the President demanded his resignation, while the leading Republicans besought him to remain, feeling that his presence in the War Department was an insurance against violence. His position was extremely disagreeable, but he held it with persistent courage, taking no part in the discussion and making no public expression of his views. He simply remained at his post and discharged his duty. The Tenure of Office Act had been passed in part to prevent the removal of Stanton. He opposed its passage, advised the President to veto it and desired its defeat after the veto.

This act and the provision that the President should issue orders to the army only through the general of the army, effectually took the control of the army away from the President and he wished to regain it. When Congress adjourned in the summer of 1867 the President sounded General Grant as to removing Stanton from office. Grant counseled him against it. Thereupon the President asked for Stanton's resignation, which was refused and the refusal was applauded by the Republican leaders. A week later the President suspended him from office without stating any cause and directed him to turn over all public records and property to General Grant, whom he appointed Secretary ad interim. Stanton in reply denied his right to suspend him without legal cause, but under protest obeyed the order. When Congress reassembled in December 1867 the Senate refused to concur in the suspension and Stanton was thus reinstated. The President was very much irritated and after an interval spent in endeavoring to persuade General Sherman to accept the position, removed Stanton on 21 Feb. 1868 and appointed Lorenzo Thomas Secretary of War ad interim. Stanton declined to obey this order, the Senate by resolution denied the President's power to remove him and the House voted to impeach the President. The trial of the President followed and ended on the 26th of May, and during its progress General Schofield had been nominated to the Cabinet as Secretary of War. When the Senate failed to convict the President, Stanton at once retired and the nomination of Schofield was confirmed.

He left the office which he had held for more than six years, a comparatively young man, but broken in health by the unremitting toil and anxiety which he had undergone. His income which had been considerable when he took office had been so reduced that he had nothing but his house in Washington, and he was obliged to resume the practice of his profession. He argued several important cases, but his powers were exhausted, and he gradually failed. His last argument was made at a hearing in his own library in December 1869, and he never left the house again. The approaching resignation of Judge Grier made a prospective vacancy on the Supreme Bench and on the recommendation of the leading men in both Houses of Congress, President Grant nominated Stanton to the place on 20 Dec. 1869. His nomination was at once confirmed and he lived to feel the pleasure of receiving the only office which he ever desired, but his work was done and he died four days later. A sincere, unselfish, patriotic man, the result of the Civil War was due in no small part to his labors. Consult Gorham, G. C., ‘Life and Public Services of Edwin Y. Stanton’ (2 vols., Boston 1899); De Witt, D. M., ‘The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson’ (New York 1903); Flower, F. A., ‘Edwin McMasters Stanton’ (Akron, Ohio 1905).

Moorfield Storey,
Author ‘Life of Charles Sumner’.