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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 260

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This is the grave of Edwin Stanton.

Born in 1814 in Steubenville, Ohio, Stanton was a sickly boy, afflicted with asthma. His father was a reasonably successful doctor but when he died in 1827, the family was flung into poverty. Young Edwin started working for a bookseller and managed to go to Kenyon College for awhile, until his poverty meant he couldn’t afford it anymore. He went into the law instead, which did not require a college degree. He was admitted to the bar in 1835 and worked in Cadiz, Ohio.

Stanton became a Democrat because of his support of Andrew Jackson’s harsh condemnation of South Carolina’s nullification efforts. He also became close with Benjamin Tappan after Stanton’s sister married his daughter. Tappan was the older brother of Lewis Tappan, who was well-known as an anti-slavery activist. But Benjamin didn’t necessarily see the need for abolitionism and tried to get his brother to give up his radical beliefs. That’s in part because for Benajmin, Lewis didn’t understand the key moral issue of the day: the “Democracy” versus the “Aristocracy,” or the Jacksonians versus the Whigs. In other words, for people such as Stanton and Tappan, 19th century politics were a mess of contradictions, often ignoring terrible things because they didn’t fit into the white man’s republic they envisioned or their own moral divisions. This is part of the story of how a nation that worked very hard to sweep slavery under the rug after the Missouri Compromise found itself in collapse over the years four decades later.

In any case, Stanton began to find anti-slavery appealing as time went on and began working with other anti-slavery people in Cadiz, Ohio. When Tappan was sent to the Senate, Stanton took over his local legal operations and his mentor helped him move into politics. He was an important Van Buren supporter in 1840, which made him more prominent in the Democratic Party, even as MVB lost to William Henry Harrison. He became nationally famous when he managed to get the case of Caleb McNulty, the clerk of the House of Representatives who embezzled thousands of dollars, dismissed against all odds. He did this at Tappan’s request, but Stanton became so notorious that Tappan had to cut all their professional ties to save himself.

Eventually, Stanton moved to Pittsburgh and started a prominent law firm there, arguing several prominent cases, including Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont before the Supreme Court, a case about a huge bridge blocking ship traffic and sending it to Wheeling, undermining Pennsylvania’s economy. Stanton continued arguing major cases, once meeting Abraham Lincoln in Cincinnati when they both thought they were to representing the interests of Cyrus McCormick in a case (turned out no one had bothered telling Lincoln he wasn’t needed anymore when the case was moved to Ohio).

Through all of this, Stanton still believed slavery was wrong. He also remained a partisan Democrat and big supporter of James Buchanan, traveling to California to represent the administration to work out land claims. As the nation collapsed after Lincoln’s election in 1860, Stanton actually became Buchanan’s Attorney General in December, as much of his Cabinet was leaving, disgusted that the president was basically fine with treason in defense of slavery.

So how does someone like Stanton–Buchanan’s Attorney General as late as 1861, become such a critical figure working with Lincoln to end the Civil War? Northern Democrats fell into many camps over secession, but in short, there were those like Clement Vallandigham who were near traitors and those like Stanton who were disgusted by southern nationalism. Stanton’s big cause was defending Fort Sumter and demanded that Buchanan do so. Some of these Democrats had already become Republicans, others never were. But as a rule of thumb, many of these Democrats were who wanted a vigorous prosecution of the war while ex-Whigs such as William Seward would be the moderates, in Seward’s case, being the last man standing with Andrew Johnson in his Reconstruction policies.

Stanton became an advisor to Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Secretary of War. But when Cameron proved controversial in the job, Lincoln sent him to St. Petersburg as Minister to Russia and named Stanton in his place, with the support of both Seward and Salmon Chase. So here you had a Democrat as Secretary of War under Lincoln. The War Department was extremely weak in 1862 when Stanton took it over; faction-ridden and without respect, generals such as George McClellan managed most war policy. Seward worked hard to change this, taking over such tasks as internal security and military communications. Lincoln soon stripped McClellan of his role as “general in chief” and gave it to Stanton, a much more trustworthy ally. McClellan and his hacks, seeing a rival in Stanton, sought to destroy him and tried to blame him for the failure of the Peninsular Campaign. Stanton wanted to resign, but Lincoln asked him to stay. Stanton also played a key role in marshaling the soldier vote for Lincoln in 1864, sending several regiments of Illinois troops home to make sure the president won his home state.

Lincoln wanted Stanton to go with him to Ford’s Theatre the night he was assassinated. Evidently, Stanton hated the theatre and routinely turned down these invitations. Grant felt the same and they used each other to get out of it, luckily that night. Stanton was perhaps the most powerful member of the government after Lincoln was killed. That put him at odds with Andrew Johnson. The new president was of course notoriously committed to the white man’s democracy. Although also a Democrat, Stanton demanded that the South be punished and Reconstruction pushed forward. Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act to protect Cabinet officials such as Stanton from Johnson trying to cleanse the Cabinet of Reconstruction supporters. By this time, with Chase and Seward both big Johnson supporters, Johnson was convinced to defy Congress. So he fired Stanton, leading to his impeachment. After the impeachment fell short by one vote, which would have placed the radical Ben Wade into the Oval Office, Stanton submitted his resignation to the despised Johnson.

By this time, Stanton, never healthy due to his asthma and other aliments, was pretty sick. He wanted to keep up the fight and worked hard for Ohio Republicans in 1868, as well as for Grant’s election. Grant probably would have named Stanton to the Supreme Court and in fact, he was lobbying for an appointment, but he dropped dead of a massive asthma attack likely combined with other issues, on December 24, 1869, only 55 years old.

Edwin Stanton is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you are interested in this series visiting more Lincoln Cabinet officials, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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