The Cabinet: Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869)
Mr. Lincoln once told George Julian: "I do not see how he survives, why he is not crushed and torn to pieces. Without him I should be destroyed. He performs his task superhumanly."1 The object of Mr. Lincoln's concern was Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
According to journalist Noah Brooks, Stanton was "what is popularity known as a 'bull-head;' that is to say, he is opinionated, implacable, intent, and not easily turned from any purpose."2 That is to say, Stanton was not particularly likable - yet President Lincoln liked him.
"Not everyone knows, as I do, how close you stood to our lost leader, how he loved you and trusted you, and how vain were all the efforts to shake that trust and confidence, not lightly given and never withdrawn," wrote presidential aide John Hay to Stanton after President Lincoln's death.3 Clearly, President Lincoln relied on Stanton. When Stanton tried to resign his Cabinet post in April 1865, the President reportedly said: "Stanton, you cannot go. Reconstruction is more difficult and dangerous than construction or destruction. You have been our main reliance; you must help us through the final act. The bag is filled. It must be tied and tied securely. Some knots slip; yours do not. You understand the situation better than anybody else, and it is my wish and the country's that you remain."4
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton did not get off on the right track with Mr. Lincoln. "Mr. Stanton was a loyal and upright man, devoted to the cause of the Union; and afterwards, as Secretary of War under President Lincoln, he achieved fame for his herculean labors in defence of that cause," wrote journalist Noah Brooks. "Yet, writing in June, 1861, he gave currency to the belief that the Rebels would be in possession of Washington 'within thirty days,' and in consequence of that 'painful imbecility of Lincoln' to which he referred with grim sarcasm in a letter written about that time."5 Stanton's letters frequently lambasted President Lincoln. In a letter to General John A. Dix that spring Stanton wrote: "No one can imagine the deplorable condition of this city, and the hazard of the government, who did not witness the weakness and panic of the administration, and the painful imbecility of Lincoln."6
Stanton was not appointed to the Cabinet until January 1862, but his disrespect to the President dated back to early 1857 when Mr. Lincoln had been named to the legal team for Manny in the McCormick reaper patent case in Cincinnati. Stanton, George Hardin and Mr. Lincoln were supposed to represent Manny, but an agreement between opposing counsel limited participation to two attorneys for each side. Mr. Lincoln was denied any role in the trial - and his counsel was literally ignored and denigrated by Stanton. "Where did that long-armed creature come from and what can he expect to do in this case," Stanton reportedly asked.7
Another eyewitness, W. M. Dickson, gave a different version: "By the custom of the bar, as between counsel of equal standing, and in the absence of any action of the client, the original counsel speaks. By this rule, Mr. Lincoln had precedence. Mr. Stanton suggested to Mr. Lincoln to make the speech. Mr. Lincoln answered, 'No; you speak.' Mr. Stanton replied, 'I will,' and taking up his hat, said he would go and make preparation. Mr. Lincoln acquiesced in this, but was deeply grieved and mortified; he took but little more interest in the case, though remaining until the conclusion of the trial."8 Another witness said that Mr. Lincoln "felt that he had been 'tricked' out of the case & the transaction deeply affected him."9
Although painful, Mr. Lincoln's experience in the case had not been altogether without recompense. According to Stanton biographer Frank A. Flower: "Mr. Stanton devoted himself exclusively to the law and his argument excited the admiration of all who heard it.. At time the Court regarded him in amazement, so extraordinary were his memory and power of analysis. Mr. Lincoln (apparently forgetting the presence of the Court) stood throughout Stanton's entire argument, occasionally very near him, drinking his words, and then walking back and forth in the back part of the room, closely observing the speaker all the time, wrapt in admiration. As Stanton closed and we left the room, Lincoln invited me to take a walk with him, which lasted some hours. After a considerable silence, he said: '[Ralph] Emerson, it would have been a great mistake if I had spoken in this case; I did not fully understand it.'" Flower continued: "Another long silence as we walked on, and again: 'Emerson, I am going home to study law. You know that for any rough-and-tumble case (and a pretty good one, too) I am enough for any man we have out in that country; but these college trained men are coming West. They have had all the advantages of a life-long training in the law, plenty of time to study and everything, perhaps, to fit them. Soon they will be Illinois, and I must meet them. I am just going home to study law, and when they appear I will be ready.'" 10
Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase both lobbied the president to appoint Stanton to a federal job in the spring of 1861 - perhaps U.S. attorney for the District of Colombia, but another candidate got the post. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair objected to the appointment and Attorney General Edwin Bates preferred someone else. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles reported:
"Mr. Blair said that he had not for that reason wished to say much, but thus called upon he should speak the truth. In point of ability, he said, Mr. Stanton was undoubtedly the superior of Mr. Carrington. He doubted, however, Stanton's integrity, and stated a damaging fact which was with his own personal knowledge, but which it is not necessary here to repeat. The statement astonished the President and disconcerted both Seward and Chase, each of whom questioned whether there might not be some mistake in this matter, but Blair said there could be one, and farther that he (Stanton) was a protťgť of [Jeremiah S.}Black, Buchanan's Secretary of State, and in feeling with him. The President remarked he thought it judicious to conciliate and draw in as much of the Democratic element as possible, and he was willing to try Stanton, though personally he had no special reason to regard him favorably; but the office came within the province of the Attorney-General, and he would turn the question over to him. The Attorney-General thanked the President, and said he would on returning to his office send over the appointment of Mr. Carrington."11
The situation was very different when it came to replacing Simon Cameron as Secretary of War. Stanton biographer Fletcher Pratt observed: "Practically everyone in Washington at the time, and some people outside the city, thought themselves personally responsible for Stanton's nomination as Secretary of War."12 But reality, according to Pratt was "that Lincoln himself chose his man and quietly let the others think they were behind it, since the impression did not harm and made them feel good when the appointment turned out a success. As soon as it was evident that Cameron would have to go, the president wanted to replace him with a prominent Union Democrat, preferably one who had been associated with the previous administration."13
In a newspaper report which he wrote under a pen name, presidential aide John Hay summarized the reasons for Stanton's appointment: "In the selection of a successor a great many qualifications were requisite, most of which were found in Stanton. Harmony with the present Cabinet was secured. He is personally friendly with every member of it, and in entire unity of feeling and thought with the two leading spirits of the Government, Chase and Seward. He was a Pennsylvanian, and his selection satisfied the jealous State pride that place General Cameron in the Cabinet. He was a Democrat, and his nomination furnished a triumphant vindication of the professions of leading Republicans, that former party politics are to be ignored in this great struggle for the National Life. He is a man whose laborious and successful career in the pursuit of his profession has made him a few enemies, and removed him utterly from the bitter partisanship and prejudices of political campaigns. He is an energetic and efficient worker, a man of initiative and decision, an organizer, a man of administrative scope and executive tact - a very good pattern for a Secretary of State."14
Hay wasn't the only one to see Stanton's virtues. "The President, heartsick over the failures that had attended the Union cause thus far, and weary of the ineptitude and incapacity of many of those who served him, saw in Stanton the man he needed. Almost immediately a deep intimacy began to grow up between these two disparate personalities," observed Stanton biographers Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold M. Hyman. "Lincoln never referred to the abuse he had suffered at Stanton's hands in earlier years, or to the epithets Stanton had used against him more recently. Stanton had found a man to follow."15 David Homer Bates, who saw the two men from his vantage point in the War Department telegraph office, wrote "during three and a quarter years of their close official relations the two men worked in almost entire harmony. There never appeared, to the writer's observation, any real conflict between them. It suited both to treat the public each in his own characteristic way, and when in case the pinch came, each knew how far to yield to the other without sacrifice of prerogative."16
Stanton's organizational talents contrasted well with his predecessor's inefficiency. "Stanton organized a war board of his bureau chiefs: General Lorenzo Thomas, the Adjutant-General, General Montgomery C. Meigs, the Quartermaster General, General James W. Ripley, Chief of Ordnance, General James G. Totten, Chief Engineer, and Colonel Joseph P. Taylor, Commissary General." noted historian Benjamin Thomas.17 Mr. Lincoln relied on Stanton to do his job - and do it well. "Of course Stanton does a thousand things in his official character which I can know nothing about, and which is not necessary that I should know anything about."18 Thomas noted: "Before Stanton had been in office two weeks, he persuaded Congress to authorize the appointment of two more assistant secretaries, bringing the total to three, forty-nine clerks, four messengers, and two laborers, and the further addition of ten noncommissioned officers to the adjutant-general's staff. New jobs brought a rush of eager applicants, but Stanton gave preference to soldiers unfit for field service because of wounds or minor physical defects."19
Noah Brooks reported soon after his own arrival in Washington from California in late 1862 that "Stanton is exceedingly industrious, mindful of the interests of his Bureau, never off from his post, works like a trooper and spends day and night at his office when under a strong pressure. He does not appear to have the maggot of the next Presidency in his brain, but plugs right on, unmindful of what anybody says or thinks concerning him."20 Mr. Lincoln reportedly said: "Folks come up here and tell me there are a great many men who have all Stanton's excellent qualities without his defects. All I can say is, I haven't met 'em; I don't know 'em."21
Stanton and President Lincoln came to share the burdens of the war. Like the President, Stanton understood the loss of a child. His infant son was buried about five months after Willie Lincoln died. Both men were doting fathers. In the last three years of the Civil War, their relationship was transformed. "By the war's end, few men were on such intimate terms with Lincoln as the Secretary of War. Few men could write the President such chatty, personal letters as those Stanton dispatched while Lincoln visited the Virginia front in 1865," wrote Lincoln biographer Stephen B. Oates.
March 25: "We have nothing new here; now [that] you are away everything is quiet and your tormentors vanished. I hope you will remember Gen. Harrison's advice to his men at Tippecanoe, that they 'can see as well a little further off.'"
But their relationship was not easy. Stanton sometimes refused to carry out Mr. Lincoln's requests for appointments, permits, or passes. Friend Ward Hill Lamon noted: "On refusal of Mr. Stanton to accommodate in many such cases, Mr. Lincoln was appealed to, and his invariable reply was: 'I cannot always know whether a permit ought to be granted, and I want to oblige everybody when I can; and Stanton and I have an understanding that if I send an order to him which cannot be consistently granted, he is to refuse it. This he sometimes does.' This state of things caused him to say to a man who complained of Stanton, 'I have not much influence with Administration, but I expect to have more with the next.'"23 Lincoln biographer Alonzo Rothschild wrote that "pardons arrived at the War Office with irritating frequency. The head of the department delayed, argued, protested, blustered, threatened, and - obeyed."24 There was an understanding of their respective roles, noted Stanton biographer Fletcher Pratt, which "was never reduced to writing and probably never to words. Lincoln merely used the incorruptibility, the burning intensity, and the ruthlessness of his Secretary to protect himself from the effects of politics, only intervening when it was a question of the humanities..."25
Mr. Lincoln sometimes treated Secretary Stanton much as he treated his rambunctious son Tad - with bemused tolerance. "Lincoln appeared to have not only a great respect for Secretary Stanton's abilities, but a certain diffidence about any attempt to thwart the Secretary in any way. I doubt very much if he ever said - as was reported of him - that he 'had no influence with this administration,' the War Department being especially referred to; but I know that he disliked to contradict to interfere with the Secretary if it could be avoided. On more than one occasion, however, the Secretary's iron will had to give way before a decisive order" from the President, wrote Noah Brooks.26
Historian William Lee Miller wrote: "The continual stream of notes that went back and forth between them came to include that implicit reciprocity about punishment and leniency for soldierly derelictions that most of the biographies comment on and illustrate: Lincoln letting Stanton deny what Lincoln could not deny, Stanton sending to Lincoln for permissions that Stanton should not permit - a tacit arrangement that bespeaks an unusual degree of mutual understanding."27 White House aide William O. Stoddard concluded: "Mr. Lincoln's attachment to Mr. Stanton arose less from any merely personal feeling, than from a thorough conviction of his patriotism and business efficiency. Great efforts were persistently made to unseat Mr. Stanton from his place in Mr. Lincoln's good opinion; nor were these efforts confined at all times to fair argument, or even to political pressure. Darker accusations than any lack of ability were by no means uncommon; but the President remained to the last firm in support of his unpopular assistant."28
Biographer Thomas wrote: "The President, who found himself in the middle of all this cabinet hassling, revealed his attitude toward Stanton when Congressman Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts came to the White House to congratulate him on selecting such an able man to head the War Department. Lincoln agreed that Stanton was making a grand beginning, although people had warned him that the vigorous new Secretary might 'run away with the whole concern.' Stanton reminded Lincoln of an old Methodist preacher he had heard about out West, who performed so energetically in the pulpit that some of his parishioners feared that it might become necessary to put bricks in his pockets to hold him down. Lincoln said: 'We may be obliged to serve Stanton that same way; but I guess we'll just let him jump a while first.'"29
Stanton could also be obtuse on the political requirements of the war effort and took deep offense at suggestions from civilians about military promotions. Stanton frequently proclaimed his independence of and legal superiority over the President. It was a conceit which the President benignly tolerated. Historian Thomas, who wrote biographies of both Lincoln and Stanton, reported a conversation between Stanton and General Lorenzo Thomas at a War Board meeting. Thomas noted that "one of the persons on the staff the President does not want discharged. If I discharge one I must discharge all." Stanton replied "While I administer this office, I will not sanction an abuse of that kind. Discharge them all. If the President don't like it, let him so intimate, and I will retire."30
Journalist William H. Smith recalled a story told him by Indiana Governor Morton who wanted Indiana soldiers moved from the inadequate hospitals at the western war front back to Indiana which would "Provide for their care and treatment or private homes. Governor Morton took the matter to the President who called in Secretary Stanton: "The matter was fully discussed and Stanton abruptly refused to grant the permission, saying it was against all regulations, would subvert discipline and disintegrate the army. Mr. Morton said he became angry and blurted out that he would appeal to the people, fill the newspapers with the story that rather than break a fool army regulation they would leave brave soldiers to die like rats. He said he told them that the President need not call on Indiana for more troops, as he would not send another Indianian to risk his life under such regulations," recalled Smith. The President said: "Mr. Stanton, you will have to issue that permit." Stanton replied: "I will not do it." Mr. Lincoln said firmly: "Yes, you will, Mr. Secretary....Wire General Grant today to furlough in care of Governor Morton every Indiana sick or wounded soldier now with his army. Or send the adjutant general to me and I will issue the order in my own name as commander in chief of the army." The President prevailed.31
There was between the two a basic respect for their different roles. Stanton once said: "It seems to me that the President would rather have a fuss with anybody than miss a chance to do a kindness to a private soldier."32 President Lincoln told Interior Secretary John P. Usher: "I cannot always know whether a permit ought to be granted, and I want to oblige everybody when I can; and Stanton and I have an understanding that if I send an order to him that cannot be consistently granted, he is to refuse it, which he sometimes does."33 On one occasion, Congressmen [George] Julian and [Owen] Lovejoy sought a favor from the War Department. Stanton refused them: "I do not care what the President wants; the country wants the very best it can get. I am serving the country regardless of individuals." When the Congressmen reported the refusal to the President, he replied:
"Gentlemen, it is my duty to submit. I cannot add to Mr. Stanton's troubles. His position is one of the most difficult in the world. Thousands in the army blame him because they are not promoted, and other thousands out of the army blame him because they are not appointed. The pressure upon him is immeasurable and unending. He is the rock on the beach of our national ocean against which the breakers dash and roar, dash and roar, without ceasing. He fights back the angry waters and prevents them from undermining and overwhelming the land. Gentlemen, I do not see how he survives, - why he is not crushed and torn to pieces. Without him I should be destroyed. He performs his task superhumanly. Now do no mind this matter, for Mr. Stanton is right and I cannot wrongly interfere with him."34
When necessary, the President issued an order that could not be contradicted. Congressman Josiah Grinnell was ineffective in his attempt to persuade Stanton to promote a colonel to brigadier general until President Lincoln wrote an order: "Sir, - Without an if or an and, let Colonel Elliott W. Rice be made a Brigadier-General in the United States army. - A. Lincoln."35 On another occasion, President Lincoln sent Stanton a note: "Senator Wade says the Sec. of War refuses to make this appointment because the man is his relative. I order that this objection shall not prevail; and I wish Senators Wade and Sherman obliged in this case."36 More frequently, the President was more gentle as these three notes suggest:
The biggest crisis in their relationship came in the aftermath of the Second Battle of Bull Run in late August 1862. Critics of General George B. McClellan blamed him for not coming quickly to the aid of the forces commanded by General John Pope. "In times like this, Edwin Stanton was given to violent responses," noted historian Stephen W. Sears. "With the distant sounds of battle as accompaniment, he composed a 'remonstrance' for fellow members of the Cabinet to sign and present to the president. It charged General McClellan with incompetence, with deliberately disobeying his orders to aid Pope. Lawyer Stanton summed up for the prosecution: 'the destruction of our armies, the protraction of the war, the waste of our national resources, and the overthrow of the government, which we believe must be the inevitable consequence of George B. McClellan being continued in command."40 Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase signed the note but Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles refused.
It was as close to mutiny as Stanton or the most of the Cabinet ever got. It was an extraconstitutional usurpation of power, argued Burton J. Hendrick in Lincoln's War Cabinet: "That Lincoln would have flatly rejected the cabinet proposal, even at the cost of a cabinet resignation en masse, events made clear. Perhaps the tensest of all cabinet meetings in the Civil War assembled on the morning of September 2." The case against McClellan was falling short in another quarter; in order to safeguard Washington, President Lincoln decided to name McClellan to head the city's defenses. The Cabinet, which had grown to distrust McClellan, was checkmated by action the President had taken earlier that morning.
Stanton was easy to condemn - by contemporaries and by historians. He was rude, explosive, dogmatic, and obstinate. Historian James G. Randall wrote: "Stanton was an unstable as he was arrogant and stubborn....At times it appeared that the President and his minister of war were at loggerheads; at other times, it seemed that Lincoln knew Stanton to be 'unprincipled' but felt he had to retain him to get the country's business done. The best of men found it impossible to get along with the secretary....The secretary had allied himself with radicals, had withheld cooperation from McClellan, and had been one of the chief agents in the ruin of that general. Defeats of 1862 were largely of his making." 41
John Niven, biographer of Gideon Welles, wrote: "It was easy to dislike Stanton. He could be rude and overbearing. He did not suffer fools or bores gladly, but he could be charming and courtly, and he could be embarrassingly deferential if it served his purposes. Energetic, forceful, personally honest, a prodigious worker and a master of detail, Stanton was supremely confident of his own ability to cope with any problem. Was he not one of the most successful lawyers in the land, whose fees were averaging $50,000 a year? Had not his tenure in the Buchanan Cabinet, however, brief, proved that he could manage affairs of state as easily as he could dominate a courtroom?"42
Historian Allan Nevins was more sympathetic to Stanton: "The popular supposition at the time that Stanton complemented Lincoln, supplying a firmness and decision which the President lacked, was untrue, for Lincoln needed no complement. But it is true that Lincoln's strength did not lie in careful planning and systematic administration - and Stanton's did. The two sometimes clashed. Stanton not only said cutting things of Lincoln but indulged in contemptuous gestures, as when he tore up a memorandum and tossed it into the wastebasket. But Lincoln was always the master. When he restored McClellan to command after Second Manassas, Stanton made his resentment as plain as did Chase. 'No order came from the War Department,' he said. 'No,' replied Lincoln, 'I gave the order.' That Lincoln soon learned to deem the Secretary indispensable we have ample testimony. He firmly repelled all proposals that Stanton should give way to N. P. Banks, Ben Butler, or some other favorite of the radicals. The two stood firmly together on critical issues." 43
The difference in the perspectives of these historians is partly explained by Randall's admiration for McClellan - whom Stanton increasingly disdained. Nevins observed: "In a nation of improvisation, of rule-of-thumb, Stanton thought of himself as conducting a one-man war for plan and foresight. With the country's life in the balance, slackness and clumsiness became crimes. He rapidly developed a scathing contempt for the cautious McClellan, the dilatory [Don Carlos] Buell, and the hesitant [William S.] Rosecrans. The arrogant ways of Little Mac grated upon his sense that the cause was everything, the individual nothing. Soon after he took office he called unexpectedly at McClellan's headquarters, and the general kept him waiting. His secretary, A. E. H. Johnson, reports his furious comment: 'That will be the last time General McClellan will give either myself or the President the waiting snub."44
Sometimes, Stanton prevailed. Sometimes, the President ordered him to submit. Sometimes, the President simply went around Stanton. Iowa Congressman John Adams Kasson reported an incident in which he sought a promotion for an Iowa colonel who had distinguished himself in battle. Stanton simply refused, saying: "I sha'n't do it, sir; I sha'n't do it!....It isn't the way to do it, sir, and I sha'n't do it." Stanton was adamant, not willing to even listen to arguments. Kasson was politically and personally embarrassed. So the congressmen returned to the White House several days later to report his rebuff. This time, the President again gave him a order to take to the War Department. When Kasson objected to returning to the scene of his previous humiliation, Mr. Lincoln said: "Stanton has gone to Fortress Monroe, and [Assistant Secretary Charles] Dana is acting. He will attend to it for you."45
After an insulting interview with Secretary Stanton about arbitrary military arrests, Congressman Kasson delivered a speech on the House floor in which "I let loose my denunciations of his willful and arbitrary action, for which I denied the responsibility of President Lincoln; and in support of the President, related an instance, in my personal experience, of his disobedience to his chief." According to Kasson, "The next time I saw Mr. Lincoln, I remember well his change of manner to me. He showed his gratification in his peculiar and familiar manner, by his twinkling eyes, and by his slapping me on the thigh, as I thought quite unnecessarily. His War Secretary was a very able man, and rendered enormous service to the Union; he was very resolute, and often selfishly willful, and the President was somewhat in awe of his arbitrary character. While his patience was unequaled among public men, Stanton had none at all."46
Simon Cameron (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Salmon P. Chase (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
John Hay (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
William H. Seward
William H. Seward (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Edwin M. Stanton
Edwin M. Stanton (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Abraham Lincoln and Edwin M. Stanton (Abraham Lincoln's Classroom)
Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief