Edward Bates Biography

Judge, Lawyer, U.S. Representative, Government Official (1793–1869)
Edward Bates was a 19th century politician and lawyer who served as U.S. attorney general under President Abraham Lincoln.


Born on September 4, 1793, in Belmont, Virginia, Edward Bates studied law before winning positions in the Missouri House of Representatives and U.S. Congress. He later became a St. Louis judge before serving one term as attorney general under President Abraham Lincoln. Bates was a Whig Party member who was anti-slavery yet still had conservative leanings, opposing Radical Reconstruction.

Early Career

Lawyer and politician Edward Bates was born on September 4, 1793 in Belmont, Virginia. As a youth, he received both private tutorship and studied at Charlotte Hall Academy in Maryland before serving as part of the Virginia militia in 1813.

Bates relocated to St. Louis, Missouri the following year and began to study law. He worked as a prosecuting attorney before joining Missouri’s constitutional convention in 1820, becoming part of the team who wrote the state’s constitution. He was also awarded Missouri’s state attorney position the same year, and in 1821 became a U.S. district attorney. Bates continued his involvement in politics and was elected to the state’s House of Representatives in 1822. 

Whig Politician

Bates's ambitions continued to see fruit when he was elected to the U.S. Congress, serving for one term from 1827-1829 as part of the Whig Party. He made an unsuccessful bid for reelection and then returned to practicing law, subsequently winning a seat on the state senate in 1830. More than two decades later, Bates would be appointed judge to the St. Louis land court in 1853 and would helm the Whig Party national convention in 1856.

After attaining his judge position, it is said that Bates increasingly let go of political pursuits and found sustenance in routine and his family, which included his wife, Julia Davenport Bates, and several children, two of whom would eventually fight in the Civil War on opposing sides.

Attorney General to Abraham Lincoln

In 1860, Bates was a Republican Party nominee for the U.S. presidency but lost to Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln was elected into office, he appointed Bates U.S. attorney general on March 5, 1861.

During his tenure, Bates was known to take oppositional views to Lincoln though still deferring to presidential power. In 1862, with President Lincoln initiating a number of military arrests of civilians who were seen as insurrectionists, Bates made an argument that protected a broader vision of presidential power with distinct boundaries from the judiciary. Yet later on, a disgruntled Bates began to speak out about the use of military power to override proper judicial authority.

Bates was also known to speak out against the feuding found amongst Union military commanders, who, he stated, "seem so taken up with their quick made dignity, that they overlook the lives of their people and the necessities of their country."

The issue of race and slavery was another cite of disagreement. Though Bates was anti-slavery, he was not in favor of full-fledged rights for African-American citizens, and hence opposed all-black military regiments and Radical Reconstruction. Bates was known as a constitutional traditionalist and conservative unsettled by social and political change.

Later Years

Bates retired from office on November 24, 1864 due to political disagreements. He had also wished to be appointed Supreme Court chief justice, but that position instead went to Salmon P. Chase. Following Lincoln's assassination, Bates wrote a passage of mourning in his diary, citing his respect and friendship for the president.

Bates died on March 25, 1869, in St. Louis, Missouri.

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