Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Edwin M. Stanton (1860–1861): Attorney General

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, from 1837 to 1839 and as a reporter of the Ohio Supreme Court from 1842 to 1845. In 1847, he moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

From 1849 to 1856, Stanton was the counsel for 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 January 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, but Stanton, supported by the Senate and utilizing armed guards, refused to vacate his 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. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Stanton to the Supreme Court, but he died before he could assume the office.