An exhaustive biography of the most controversial figure in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet.
Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton (1814-1869) has not lacked historical attention. Already an expert on the president and his era, historian Stahr (Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man, 2012, etc.) seems reluctant to leave out any piece of his expansive research, but readers will forgive him. A self-made lawyer and pugnacious litigator, Stanton was well-known by the 1850s. While previous historians have turned up anti-slavery credentials in Stanton’s life, Stahr is skeptical. He notes that Stanton was on friendly terms with national figures on both sides but remained loyal to the Democratic Party, which tried to remain neutral. In December 1860, President James Buchanan appointed him attorney general. The author dismisses efforts to portray Stanton as a hard-liner, placing him among those who tried, tactfully, to discourage the dithering president from giving away the store. He left office in March 1861 and returned as secretary of war in January 1862, when he efficiently oversaw an immense military effort. He was overbearing, widely detested, and prone to arresting officials and harassing newspapers for endangering the Union. When Lincoln was shot, he took charge. He remained in office under Andrew Johnson, who tried to fire him for refusing to withdraw troops from the South. After Johnson’s failed impeachment trial in 1868, Stanton resigned, dying the following year, days after the new president, Ulysses Grant, appointed him to the Supreme Court. Readers may prefer to skim lengthy quotes from speeches and letters in this massive tome, but they will agree that Stanton lived in exciting times. The author provides a chronology and 8-page cast of characters to help keep names and dates straight.
A lively, lucid, and opinionated history, and his research supports his skepticism on some historical claims. The book should be Stanton’s definitive biography for some time to come.