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Edwin McMasters Stanton

the Secretary of War who sparked the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson

Edwin McMasters Stanton

Edwin McMasters Stanton was born in Steubenville, Ohio, on December 19, 1814. After his father died (December 30, 1827), he was apprenticed to a bookseller, who encouraged him in his studies. He entered Kenyon College at Gambier, Ohio, in 1830, but had to withdraw after two years due to financial problems at home. He spent the next several years working for the bookseller while studying law in his spare time, passed the bar exam in August 1835, and was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1836. After receiving his law license, Stanton opened a practice in Cadiz, Ohio. He married Mary Lamson on May 31, 1836; the couple had two children, Lucy and Edwin, before she died, in 1841.

Stanton's law practice was successful from the start, and in 1837 he was elected Prosecuting Attorney of Harrison County as a Democrat; he served in that office until 1839. He moved his practice to Pittsburgh in 1847, and was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in February 1850.

Stanton first met Abraham Lincoln in 1850, when Lincoln was counsel for one of the plaintiffs in the McCormick Reaper Patent case. Stanton was not impressed with Lincoln.

In June of 1856, Stanton married Ellen Hutchinson. That same year, he moved his practice to Washington, D.C., since so much of his business by then was in the Supreme Court. He lived in Washington the rest of his life, except for a two-year stint as a land commissioner in California (1857-1859).

In 1859, Daniel Sickles was on trial for murdering Philip Barton Key, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia who had been having an affair with his wife. As Sickles's defense attorney, Stanton argued that Sickles had the right to kill the man who had been having an affair with his wife. He also claimed that Sickles was deranged at the time of the murder and was therefore not responsible for his actions. Although this was the first time a claim of temporary insanity had ever been used as a defense in a U.S. criminal trial, the defense worked and Sickles was found not guilty by the jury.

On December 20, 1860, Stanton was appointed Attorney General by President James Buchanan. Although it meant a considerable loss of income, Stanton accepted the job, and served in that capacity through the end of Buchanan's administration. As war with the South seemed to become ever more likely, Stanton became increasingly critical of Buchanan and started telling the incoming Republican administration what Buchanan was up to. After Lincoln was sworn in as President, Stanton became an assistant to Secretary of War Simon Cameron. He replaced Cameron as Secretary of War on January 20, 1862.

One of Stanton's first acts as Secretary of War was to rid the department of graft and corruption. He also mandated that all contracts with the department be open to competitive bidding, and that all bids and contracts be in writing. In his role as chief administrator of day-to-day operations during the Civil War, Stanton was able to gain selective control over northern railroads and telegraph lines, and had the Washington, D.C., telegraph office moved to the War Department so he could have better access to reports. As the war dragged on and it became increasingly difficult to find volunteer soldiers, Stanton reluctantly agreed to implement a military draft. He also called for creation of all-black units that could be deployed in areas where regular Union troops were unavailable, especially in the western territories. He and Lincoln seldom saw eye-to-eye during the war, but Lincoln admired Stanton for his integrity, and the two men got along well when away from political affairs.

As the man responsible for President Lincoln's security, Stanton became the subject of public criticism following Lincoln's assassination. He took personal charge of the search for any and all persons involved in the crime, and his often heavy-handed tactics led to even more criticism. But the killing of John Wilkes Booth and execution of his alleged co-conspirators helped restore Stanton's reputation.

Stanton stayed on as Secretary of War under Andrew Johnson, but was publicly critical of Johnson's Reconstruction policy. Johnson finally got fed up with Stanton's criticism and, on August 5, 1867, asked Stanton to resign. Stanton refused, however, citing that only the Senate could ask for his resignation. Johnson responded by suspending Stanton, but the Senate overturned that suspension on January 13, 1868. Johnson fired Stanton on February 21, but Stanton refused to leave his office until the Senate asked for his resignation. It was this sequence of events that led to the impeachment of Johnson. The Senate ultimately failed to remove Johnson from office, and Stanton was finally forced to step down as Secretary of War on May 28, 1868.

President Ulysses Grant appointed Stanton to the Supreme Court in December of 1869, but Stanton died just four days after the Senate confirmed his appointment, on December 24, 1869.

See Also

Abraham Lincoln
President James Buchanan
Civil War
John Wilkes Booth
President Andrew Johnson
President Ulysses Grant

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This page was last updated on December 19, 2018.