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William M. Evarts (1868–1869) - Attorney General

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William Maxwell Evarts was born in 1818 in Boston, Massachusetts. He attended the Boston Latin School and graduated from Yale College in 1833. Evarts studied law privately before attending Harvard Law School for one year. He then joined a law office in New York City in 1839, and in 1841 he was admitted to the bar.

From 1849 to 1852, Evarts served as the assistant U.S. district attorney for the Southern District of New York. He returned to private practice during the remainder of the decade and throughout the Civil War. Politically, Evarts was first a Whig and then a Republican; he disagreed with President Andrew Johnson over the latter’s Reconstruction policies but nevertheless joined the President’s team of lawyers -- a group which also included Henry Stanbery -- that prevented Johnson’s conviction on impeachment charges.

Following the trial and Johnson’s unsuccessful attempt at renominating Stanbery as attorney general, the President tapped Evarts to assume the post. Evarts served for less than a year (July 1868-March 1869). Following this stint, Evarts served as chief counsel for the Republican Party in 1876, defending the legitimacy of Rutherford B. Hayes’s election as President over Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden. When Hayes emerged the winner, the new President nominated Evarts to be his secretary of state.

Evarts served in the Hayes cabinet for the entire term, leaving office in 1881. That same year, he served as a delegate to the International Monetary Conference in Paris. Four years later, he served a single term, from 1885 to 1891, in the United States Senate. William Maxwell Evarts died in 1901.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Elizabeth R. Varon

Professor Varon is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. Her writings include:

Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008)

Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (Oxford University Press, 2003)

We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 1998)