Edwin Stanton was the son of an Ohio physician and a storekeeper. Born 19 December 1814 in Steubenville, Ohio, Stanton’s father, also named Edwin, died in 1827. Stanton, who was the oldest of four children, was fourteen years old. He quit school to help support the family by assisting his mother in running her general store. Stanton later returned to school, attending Kenyon College.
In 1833, Stanton returned to Steubenville where he studied law and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1836. He married Mary Lamson on 31 May 1836. Stanton built a home in Cadiz, Ohio, where he and Mary had two children, Lucy and Edwin. Lucy died in 1841. Edwin survived his father, dying in 1877. Mary Stanton died 13 March 1844. Stanton’s brother, Darwin, committed suicide in 1846. The loss of five loved ones in five years sent Stanton into a depression so deep that it changed him. The good-humored Stanton became an intense man.
After Mary’s death, Stanton moved from Cadiz to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he met his second wife, Ellen Hutchinson. Stanton then moved to Washington, DC, in 1856 where he practiced law before the United States Supreme Court. He was one of the first attorneys to successfully use the insanity defense. Stanton gave up his law practice in 1860 when he was appointed Attorney General of the United States under President James Buchanan.
Stanton was a Democrat who strongly opposed secession. During the Lincoln administration, Stanton was legal advisor to Secretary of War Simon Cameron. When Cameron was accused of corruption, Lincoln reassigned him and replaced him with Stanton on 15 January 1862.
Stanton proved a very effective administrator of the War Department. He aggressively pursued the court martial of Union officers suspected of southern sympathies. He also used his authority as Secretary of War to control the outcome of court martials by ensuring that all officers involved would vote to convict. If they didn’t, Stanton would see to it that their military careers never advancd.
Lincoln admired Stanton’s ability as well as his obstinance. Eventually, Stanton came to appreciate and respect Lincoln, and became a Republican. When news of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre reached him, Stanton rushed to the Peterson house and took control. He ordered the distraught Mary Todd Lincoln removed and barred from the room. When Lincoln was pronounced dead the next morning, Stanton declared, “Now he belongs to the ages”.
The vigorous pursuit of justice had begun before Lincoln took his final breath. Stanton was determined to root out and punish anyone and everyone involved in the assassination. He was so aggressive that he was accused of witness tampering and using his position as Secretary of War to control the military tribunal when the conspirators were tried.
Presidents Johnson and Grant
Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, had a difficult time with Stanton. Stanton disagreed with Johnson’s policies regarding post-Civil War Reconstruction and readmitting southern states to the Union. Johnson became so frustrated with Stanton that the president tried to remove Stanton from office. Johnson was overruled by Congress, and Stanton used the incident against Johnson to bring impeachment charges against him. Johnson was not well liked among Congress and was saved from impeachment by one vote.
In 1868, Stanton resigned as Secretary of War and returned to his law practice. A year later, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Stanton to the United States Supreme Court. Even though the nomination was approved, Stanton was never able to take his oath of office. Four days after the nomination was approved, on Christmas Eve 1869 , Stanton died of an asthma attack. His wife, Ellen, and son, Edwin, survived him.
Abraham Lincoln: History In An Hour is due for publication on 24 April 2014.