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Edwin M. Stanton (1865–1868) - Secretary of War

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Edwin McMasters Stanton was born in 1814 in Steubenville, Ohio. After serving as an apprentice to a bookseller, he studied the law, was admitted to the state bar in 1836, and then established a law practice. Stanton served as prosecuting attorney of Harrison County, Ohio, until 1839, during which time he issued three volumes of the official opinions of the Ohio Supreme Court. He then returned to private practice in Ohio before moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1847.

From 1849 to 1856, Stanton was the official counsel of Pennsylvania, and in 1858 became special U.S. counsel on disputed California land grant cases at the request of President James Buchanan. At the end of 1860, with only two months left in the Buchanan administration, the President named Stanton his attorney general; Stanton remained in that post from December 20, 1860 to March 3, 1861. He returned to the presidential cabinet in 1862, this time as President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war.

Following Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton remained as new President Andrew Johnson’s secretary of war, but the two ultimately clashed. Johnson prepared to remove Stanton from the cabinet altogether. The United States Congress, already hostile to the President’s views on Reconstruction, sought to thwart Johnson’s plan and passed the Tenure of Office Act, which forbade a President from firing a government official who had prior Senate approval without the consent of the Senate. Ironically, it was Stanton who advised Johnson that the law was unconstitutional and that he should veto it. Johnson did veto, but Congress overrode it.

After disagreements with his secretary of war continued, Johnson challenged the Tenure of Office Act and fired Stanton, asking General Ulysses S. Grant to fill the vacancy ad interim. Grant did so for five months while Stanton remained in office. Only when Johnson was not convicted of impeachment did Stanton leave his post, doing so in May 1868. He then resumed his law practice, but not for long. On December 20, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Stanton to the Supreme Court. However, four days later -- and just one day before he would have assumed the office -- Edwin McMasters Stanton died.

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)