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The Conspirator

Posted By - Thomas R. Turner
Feb 25, 2011 at 6:40pm | Filed Under “The Conspirator

“Edwin Stanton: Hero, Villain, or Something Else?”

Edwin Stanton reportedly said when Abraham Lincoln died, "Now he belongs to the ages." Unfortunately the ages have been a lot kinder to the 16th president than they have to the war secretary.

If Lincoln had never been assassinated, it is likely that Stanton would be remembered as one of his most important cabinet members, the man who worked closely with the president in the struggle to preserve the Union during one of the greatest crises that the United States has ever faced. His entire public career, including service as Attorney General in the Buchanan administration, would be held up as a model of devoted and incorruptible public service. The capstone to his distinguished career was his nomination to the United States Supreme Court although he died before he could take his seat.

In an ironic turn of events, however, the bullet which took Lincoln's life ultimately tarnished Stanton's reputation. Many nineteenth and early twentieth century historians portrayed Radical Republicans like Stanton as having taken advantage of Lincoln's death to impose a harsh and vindictive Reconstruction on the helpless southern states. David DeWitt, one of the first historians to write about the assassination, used the provocative term "reign of terror" to portray Stanton's actions.

As noted in a previous post, in the 1930's and 1940's, Otto Eisenschiml raised a series of questions which hinted that Stanton and the Radicals might have been behind Lincoln's death. According to Eisenschiml the Radicals believed that Lincoln was too tenderhearted toward the south and therefore his removal eliminated a roadblock to their plans. A number of authors, following in Eisenschiml's footsteps, filled in the details of this treacherous betrayal.

Despite efforts by historians to dispel this mythology, negative images of Stanton have persisted. The late Mike Maione, the Ford's Theatre historian, used to despair that hardly a week passed without a visitor to the museum inquiring about Stanton's role in Lincoln's murder.

The real Stanton was a far different person than the one created by the conspiracy historians although admittedly his rather prickly personality has contributed to his negative image. The war secretary did not suffer fools lightly and he could be quite blunt, creating a number of enemies. His first encounter with Lincoln in 1855 (when they both were hired as co-counsel in a case involving the McCormick Reaper Company and alleged patent infringement) reveals Stanton in action. He snubbed his fellow lawyer referring to him as a "giraffe" and a "long-armed baboon." What is usually not cited is a later statement that he had made a great mistake about Lincoln when the two first met.

During the war, Stanton and Lincoln were not just close professional colleagues but also shared many personal moments. The families shared adjoining cottages on the grounds of the Soldier's Home and their children were playmates. On one memorable occasion the two men who were dressed in their best clothes climbed a tree to free some entangled pet peacocks. When Stanton died, Robert Lincoln wrote to his son not only expressing sorrow but also recalling the war secretary's kindness after the death of his own father.

The two men also had a good cop-bad cop working relationship. Despite Lincoln's reputation of pardoning every sleeping sentry, there were cases involving military justice brought before the president where he thought the sentence was just and the punishment should be carried out. In those instances, Lincoln sent the petitioner for leniency to Stanton who had to break the bad news. Conversely, the war secretary felt it would be bad precedent for the Secretary of War to be issuing pardons, but he could also see that in some cases the accused deserved mercy. Those cases he sent to Lincoln to issue the pardon. In both situations Stanton received the blame while Lincoln reinforced his kindly image.

After Booth shot Lincoln, Stanton was the one person who took charge in the midst of chaos. Although other government officials cowered in their homes surrounded by armed guards, Stanton despite warnings about his own safety, made his way to the Petersen House where Lincoln lay dying. He alerted the military forces, took testimony that conclusively identified Booth as the assassin, and set the wheels in motion that quickly led to the arrest of the assassin's co-conspirators. Corporal James Tanner who was pressed into service taking testimony called him the "one man of steel" while Charles Leale the first physician to treat Lincoln referred to him admiringly as the "acting president."

Modern historians no longer portray the Radical Republicans as evil and vindictive in the manner that DeWitt and other authors did. Rather they are seen as the last of the great mid-nineteenth century reformers who strove to provide voting rights and citizenship for the freed slaves. Although they lost the battle in the 1870's they were committed to making the fight.

The Stanton who worked closely with the president and who zealously sought to bring his assassins to justice is the real person who should be remembered in history not the caricature created by his enemies, an image which was reinforced by conspiracy authors. He may have been an abrasive personality and insisted on seeing Lincoln's killers harshly punished, but it is absurd to argue that he unleashed a reign of terror upon the south or that he was behind Lincoln's murder. Edwin Stanton was a great American, who can disagree?

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  • Kressel
    06/24/2013 at 12:30pm


    After reading MANHUNT and ASSASSINATION VACATION, I cannot think of Edwin Stanton as anything other than a hero.

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  • GRClarkfan
    09/05/2012 at 5:10pm


    I find Stanton to be a very interesting historical individual who, like Mary Surrat, was vilified through exaggeration and misunderstanding. Was Mary Surrat guilty as charged? Did Stanton truly hate the South and force a reign of terror? Does either one deserve to be vilified or exonerated according to the evidence and prejudice history has left behind? The truth is we'll never actually know the truth because history is about facts and stories and not what someone was thinking at a moment when they couldn't write it down.

    Personally, I think that Stanton did go too far with the military tribunal and suspension of personal freedom, however Lincoln did the same in a time of war. Stanton stacked the deck against the conspirators, but he should have been satisfied with the tribunal's judgement of life in prison for Mrs. Surrat. I think his grief and anger fueled his thirst for revenge and I think he and others did take some advantage of the situation (like Bush did after 9/11) to create an atmosphere of fear, but I think he truly did want to see justice done, but his justice was not true justice. He may have seen the constitution as a hindrance or a guideline rather than the law. I don't think anyone is truly good or evil and I think that personal experiences and prejudices guide one's actions in a time of stress and uncertainty more than a societal norm or an inborn moral compass.

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  • ruttintuttin
    06/18/2012 at 10:42am


    I'm from the North and after living in the 50th state for almost 26 years, I'm in the North again.

    I can't agree with some of the arguments I've heard people pro-Union have made. There was an apartheid system in the South and even places in the North after emancipation (sp?); it may not have been officially US policy, but in practice it was definitely apartheid, so the Civil War didn't save the US from that.

    I have to admit that the Southern viewpoint has some very good points, states willing to join a union, and then deciding to rescind that choice at a later time, is that treason?

    How can forcing a federal government on states that wanted to secede be considered democratic?

    For all the talk in the North about preserving the Union, mostly it was, and would be today, economic interests that prevailed over the true principles of democracy.

    I'm not saying I'm completely in agreement with the Southern viewpoint, but I've read some good arguments that I haven't seriously entertained before.

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  • lifelonglearner
    09/26/2011 at 12:20am


    In the film The Conspirator Stanton stated that it did not matter to him if Mrs. Surratt was actually innocent. If he could not have the son, the mother would do just as well.

    Obviously, he was interested only in what appeared to be true and to appease the lust for revenge in a populous being whipped to near mass hysteria as to who devised the assassination plot of President Lincoln. Finding the truth would take a lot more time than what the populous and the military wanted to spend for justice to be done.

    The falibility of the humans on all sides of Mrs. Surratt ended up creating a pathway leading to her ultimate death. She should have reported the kidnapping plot, but Stanton doesn't seem to be the type of individual who would have looked for her innocence in trying to stop a crime. He changed her life in prison to a death sentence.

    In the end I think he was ultimately thwarted. A year later, wasn't it, all citizens, whether in times of war or peace are entitled to a trial with a jury of their peers. It came too late for her but not for us.

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  • Crusader
    09/04/2011 at 9:53pm


    Edwin Stanton is by no means a hero and by no means a villian. He is a carefully blended mixture of both. Stanton would be considered, in my view, a "dark knight". I person who may and should be hated, but who's presence is necessary for survival and success. It is obvious to any historian that studies the Civil War that Stanton was corrupted and very aggresive when it came to saving the Union. Stanton did not uphold the Constitution and cared simply about preserving the Union at any cost. Although these are not positive comments one would hope to see about one's self, he did preserve the Union. By being the "dark knight", Stanton was able to take a more practical approach to running our great nation in its most trying hour. Without Stanton's unconstitutional deeds, our nation may have plummeted into chaos and ceased to exist. To answer the question I must quote Commissoner Gordon from Batman The Dark Knight,

    "Batman is the hero Gotham deserves. Because he's not a hero. He's a single guardian, a watchful protector. The Dark Knight".

    Just replace Batman with the name Edwin Stanton and Gotham with America and I think one effectively describes Stanton's role in the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination.

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Thomas R. Turner

Professor and Historian, Bridgewater State College

Thomas R. Turner is a historian and professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. He is also the editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Lincoln Herald, the oldest continuously published journal devoted to the study of Abraham Lincoln which includes articles examining all facets of... More

Thomas R. Turner

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