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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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  • tom_turner
    08/25/2011 at 1:34pm

    tom_turner

    I generally avoid these types of discussions since if you believe the South was right and I believe that Lincoln was correct in trying to maintain federal authority then the dialogue goes down hill pretty quickly. I guess I would ask however if you really would have preferred the United States divided into three or four small republics for that would have been the ultimate result of successful Southern secession. While slavery would undoutedkly have eventually ended the South would probably have maintained an apartheid system like South Africa's. I don't see any upside to all of this unless I'm missing something.

    Also, it was the supposedly peaceful Confederacy that attacked Union forces at Fort Sumter thereby precipitating the Civil War. (As a historian I do concede that there is debate about Lincoln's actions during the Sumter crisis.)

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  • david7134
    08/22/2011 at 4:17pm

    david7134

    Many have indicated that Lincoln "saved the Union". I have often wondered what in the world that means. Does it count if most of the people that he forced into the "union" did not want that privilege? We make a big deal about self determination and freedom, yet when it comes to the South trying to peacefully establish a country of their own, then they ard accursed of trying to destroy the "union". In order to preserve the union, the US destroyed much of the wealth, homes, businesses of the South. They forced at the point of a bayonet the repatriation of the people. This is a good thing? This is something to be proud of?

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  • Bobtexstl
    06/14/2011 at 2:10pm

    Bobtexstl

    For me, two words apllied to Edwin Stanton: brilliant and driven. He had an incredibly astute legal mind and always seemed to be one step ahead of his opponents. Few people realize that he was one the first attorneys to successfully argue a temporary insanity defense. But he was also very driven and someone for whom any means was justified to achieve an end, especially if it was a end he personally desired. I have long felt that Stanton was also someone whose moral compass tended to be flawed in that, so long as it was something he desired, then any course to achive it was moral.

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  • fred_borch
    05/07/2011 at 4:51pm

    fred_borch

    Part of the problem with evaluating Lincoln's wartime actions as "constitutional" or "unconstitutional" is that the Constitution as it existed in 1860 was a totally different document from what we have today. Lincoln's Constitution accepted slavery as legal, gave additional political power to slave owners under the 3/5ths rule, and required the return of runaway slaves. According to the Supreme Court in its infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Constitution of 1787 was for white people only -- even free African Americans had no rights under the Constitution and could never be citizens. So it was very much a flawed document and, while Lincoln acknowledged that he had sworn to protect, preserve and defend it, he also understood that the Constitution could not stand in the way of his doing what was necessary and proper to preserve the Union. That said, Lincoln always insisted that his actions as Chief Magistrate were lawful and constitutional, including suspending the writ of habeas corpus.

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  • RickS
    04/24/2011 at 1:52pm

    RickS

    Michael C.

    After almost a half century of research and study of the American Civil War, I am of the belief that the words and actions of both Lincoln and Stanton, when it came to the country were similar, if not the same, pursuant to "the most cited legal scholar of all time", Richard Allen Posner: “Lincoln’s unconstitutional acts during the Civil War show that even legality must sometimes be sacrificed for other values. We are a nation under law, but first we are a nation”.

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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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