Edwin Stanton Biography

Government Official, Civil Rights Activist, Supreme Court Justice, Lawyer(1814–1869)
Edwin Stanton served as secretary of war under President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. He later served under President Andrew Johnson.

Synopsis

Edwin Stanton was born on December 19, 1814, in Steubenville, Ohio, to physician David Stanton and his wife, Lucy Norman Stanton. He is remembered in history for serving as secretary of war under President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. He continued to served in that role under President Andrew Johnson after Lincoln's assassination, but a clash between Stanton and President Johnson over the country's future led to turmoil within the administration, as well as Stanton's eventual retreat from politics back into law.

Early Years

Edwin McMasters Stanton was born in Steubenville, Ohio, on December 19, 1814, to physician David Stanton and his wife, Lucy Norman Stanton. Edwin Stanton began his professional career as an attorney. His practice and impressive reputation grew in Washington, D.C. after years of working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the nation's capital, he caught the attention of President James Buchanan, who appointed Stanton to the position of attorney general.

The Lincoln Years

Despite demonstrating a lack of confidence and all out distrust of the newly elected president's actions leading up to the Civil War, as well as a fear of the secessionist's burgeoning power, Stanton continued to advance in the White House's inner circle. (In fact, although Stanton was a Democrat who opposed slavery, he still staunchly defended the constitutional rights of slaveholders.)

Stanton was appointed legal advisor to Simon Cameron, Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war. Less than one year later, on January 13, 1862—following Cameron's resignation—Stanton took over as U.S. secretary of war.

Stanton wasn't known for holding his tongue in this office, and often disagreed with the military commanders who served beneath him. Despite Stanton's disagreements with Lincoln, when the president was assassinated in 1865, Stanton was by his bedside and is often credited with the historic quote, "Now he sleeps with the ages" (some in academia believe that he actually said, "Now he sleeps with the angels").  Following President Lincoln's death, Stanton became one of the key players who sought to find and prosecute the person/people responsible for the crime. He believed the assassination was the result of a Confederate plot. This pursuit of justice only increased Stanton's political control, and he kept his position of power when President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor, took office.

The Johnson Years

The relationship between Stanton and his new boss, however, was anything but harmonious. As Stanton worked to demobilize the Union forces, he also was at odds with the commander-in-chief over the Reconstruction Policy being applied in the South after the war; Stanton wanted stricter measures to be carried out. The president finally tried to remove Stanton from office, but Stanton refused to budge, claiming that the Tenure of Office Act protected him.

Johnson eventually suspended Stanton and tapped Ulysses S. Grant to replace him on an interim basis, but the Senate did not support the president's sanction and Stanton returned to his duties. Johnson later tried again to force Stanton out, temporarily replacing him with General Lorenzo Thomas. Congress again came to Stanton's rescue, however, and actually began the process to impeach Johnson as a result. The Senate ultimately did not get enough votes to remove President Johnson. This face-off between the secretary of war and the president ended with Stanton deciding to relinquish his position on May 26, 1868, and return to practicing law.

Death and Legacy

In 1869, despite what occurred during President Andrew Johnson's administration, Stanton was once again promoted by a president: President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Stanton to the U.S. Supreme Court. Tragically, the newly appointed Supreme Court justice died just four days later, on December 14, 1869, of respiratory failure, at age 55. Stanton was buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. He was survived by his second wife, Ellen Hutchison, and several children.

Stanton has been memorialized in history books for his fervid patriotism and strong actions in times of war. He's also been captured in perpetuity on the silver screen, including in two recent films: The super candid secretary of war is played by actor Bruce McGill in the 2012 film Lincoln, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln; previously, Stanton was portrayed by Kevin Kline in the 2010 movie The Conspirator, a film about bringing those behind the Lincoln assassination to justice.

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