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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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  • archivesporvida
    03/02/2011 at 2:16pm

    archivesporvida

    @lizzybennett: Do you have a citation for where this corpse-exhuming accusation comes from?

    @DebraM: I think that nearly every politician would say that they did the best they could for their country. That kind of self-confidence is how they got there in the first place. Now whether they *actually* did the best they could (morally, ethically, legally etc.) is another matter... ;)

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  • archivesporvida
    03/02/2011 at 2:11pm

    archivesporvida

    Even to say that now we know that Stanton was a hero or all-around good guy is too simplistic, though it is refreshing to see Stanton get some fair treatment. He filled a decisive and necessary role during one of the most difficult eras in American history. Human beings are much more complicated characters than traditional historiography would give them credit for; we only have to look at the founding generation to know that.

    It's helpful to remember that history is not a science and that today's villain is very often tomorrow's hero. Too often we derive absolute principles and identities out of historical work that claims to tell the "truth" about someone or some event. We can only ever have a fraction of the total picture, and we are piecing together an incomplete history because of this. This is, however, all we have and a noble pursuit all the same.

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  • DebraM
    03/02/2011 at 2:02pm

    DebraM

    Despite the relationship between Lincoln and Stanton starting off with Stanton describing Lincoln as "giraffe" and a "long-armed baboon" the two men did seem to indeed grow to respect and trust one another. Early historians, I believe, were too close to the original events (literally and emotionally) to have a true perspective on what the man did and was doing to help his country. In a time when all of Washington D.C. could have exploded into chaos he stepped up to the plate (so to speak) and took charge of one of the worst things to come out of the Civil War...the assassination of President Lincoln. He was the one who alerted the military forces and got the testimony of witnesses. No one else was mobilizing any action of any sort. And if he was rather harsh with actions toward the South in the days and months that followed I believe that this was due to the climate of the times. The President was dead. Those in the North believed it was all due to those in the South and they wanted a revenge, retribution for losing their beloved leader. Much like the attitude that took place here in the US just after 9/11. He was a man who was put into impossible situations and tried to do what he felt was best for his fellow man and for his country. How many politicians today can say they have done the same?

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  • lizzybennett
    03/02/2011 at 1:47pm

    lizzybennett

    As to Edwin M.Stanton I feel that he is a very interesting person, yet he did have a hard side to him and you better not cross him and from all that I personally know he had a few strange habits like disintering the dead and placing him in his bedroom.

    But to his credit he grew to like and respect Lincoln and form a personal relationship as evidenced in his home for the summer being ajacent to the summer cottage at the old soldiers home and he tried to pursade the President from going to Fords on April 14th. Stanton's son Edwin M Jr. becomming close to Robert Todd Lincoln that he was best man at his wedding. His home in Stubenville Ohio is lost to history. I guess the best thing to say is that he did everything to protect the lincoln legacy from the begining and Its hard to see why some people today say otherwise.

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  • 03/02/2011 at 1:39pm

    ThatGuy

    Stanton was very hotheaded, It seems that his refusal to leave office under Johnson (leading to the latter's impeachment) is evidence of that itself. That being said it is only passionate people who can become great leaders (something we seem to have lost in the public square in the last half-century).
    I think it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Stanton would have been free to take the Chief Justice position in 1865 instead of Chase. I think we would have seen the real passion and pragmatism that Stanton had.

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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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