Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton by William Marvel (University of North Carolina Press, 611 pp., $35)

According to his allies, Edwin Stanton was a gifted manager and a true patriot (until the late nineteenth century, only presidents appeared on U.S. postage stamps—with two exceptions, Benjamin Franklin and Stanton). To his enemies, however, he was a treacherous schemer, graceless in defeat and malign in victory. Lincoln’s Autocrat shows that both factions have enough ammunition to ignite a second Civil War. Biographer William Marvel spares no details as he tracks the short, asthmatic lawyer from Steubenville, Ohio to the corridors of the White House.

En route, Stanton rises from obscurity, works his way through law school, marries, fathers two children, and becomes active in local politics. He truly mourns his young wife when she dies in childbirth; almost 16 years go by before he remarries, this time to a 26-year-old heiress who provides emotional and financial support on his ultimate ascent to power. With a combination of infighting, intelligence, and toadying to the prominent, Stanton becomes the lead attorney in a number of high-profile cases. Among these is an early use of the “insanity defense” to secure a not-guilty verdict for Daniel Sickles (later General Sickles) who had killed his wife’s lover. In another trial, Stanton represents the inventor of the McCormick reaper in a patent suit. He wins handily, impressing an ambitious attorney who has watched the adroit legal tactics from his seat in the courtroom. That lawyer happened to be on his own climb from obscurity to ever-higher offices.

As he rose, Abraham Lincoln stayed in touch with the man who kept winning big settlements and earning nationwide press coverage. When Honest Abe became the sixteenth president, he decided to talk to Stanton about joining his cabinet. He didn’t have far to look. The previous president, James Buchanan, had already appointed Stanton as his attorney general. By then Stanton had settled in Washington, and shortly after the cannons fired at Fort Sumter, Lincoln chose him to be his secretary of war. The results were a mixture of competence and repression. Stanton brought discipline and order to his department, cleaned out the hacks and scapegraces, and saw to it that federal troops were decently clothed and fed.

But he was also in favor of the suspension of habeas corpus and backed his boss in other extra-democratic moves. Though military commissions had been used to try civilians early in the war, for example, under Stanton they became widespread. More than 13,000 citizens were arrested and charged with sedition. Some were surreptitiously aiding the Confederacy, but others were just speaking out against the trying of ordinary citizens by army and navy officers. The secretary had the president’s ear, however, and this policy continued, observes Marvel, “until a federal judge’s ruling in a false-arrest suit opened the possibility that he might be held accountable for his actions.”

Yet Stanton also had a sense of occasion. He was with Lincoln when the martyred president drew his last breath. The secretary is supposed to have uttered the famous epitaph, “Now he belongs to the ages.” In fact, that statement appears to have been spoken or written months afterward, possibly by a journalist. But one thing Stanton did do in the aftermath of the assassination was authenticated, and had great significance. His emotional detachment and domineering persona made him invaluable that night, Marvel notes. “With the government headless and the capital paralyzed, it may have been one of the few appropriate moments in American history for dictatorial leadership, and Stanton assumed that role with alacrity. He conveyed an air of control and a semblance of order that staved off absolute panic, inadvertently giving the country his best few hours of service.”

An air of control. A semblance of order. His best few hours. These are not kindly assessments, but they contribute to one of the most objective portraits ever written about a Washington figure. Fair-minded, scrupulous, undeceived, Marvel shows that Stanton was a parade of contradictions, arousing respect and resentment to the end. President Ulysses S. Grant, who couldn’t abide the man, nevertheless nominated him for the Supreme Court. The Senate gave its approval by a vote of 46 to 11. But the new judge never had a chance to serve. Four days after he was confirmed, Edwin Stanton died of a coronary thrombosis, leaving his career and contradictions to the historians.

Now he belongs to the pages.


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