Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a short, pudgy, nearsighted man who suffered from chronic asthma and sported a long, perfumed beard, was universally rude to just about everyone he came into contact with, including President Lincoln, whom he obviously considered his intellectual inferior. Stanton was an intense workaholic and one of the most gifted lawyers of his day. After two years of college, he’d passed the bar in Ohio and quickly made a name for himself as an effective attorney.
He was a Democrat and Lincoln’s principle opponent in President Buchanan’s cabinet, and referred to Lincoln as a “backwoods baboon,” an assessment shared by his friend General McClellan, whom Stanton would soon remove from power for reasons unknown. Stanton continued to insult Lincoln behind his back, while ingratiating himself with the President, and moved into a summer cottage near Lincoln and even though his second wife Ellen could not abide the presence of Mary Todd Lincoln, Stanton made sure his son played with the young Tad Lincoln in order to bind the families together.
In 1833, after a young girl died from cholera in the same boarding house he lived in and been buried immediately, Stanton dug up her body as he did not believe she was dead. In 1841, when his own daughter Lucy died, he had that grave exhumed as well and moved her coffin into his bedroom for two years before allowing it back into the ground. When his first wife passed in 1844, he often dressed the corpse and decorated it with fancy jewels, as if they were about to go out on the town together. Eventually the corpse was buried and Stanton wandered through the house muttering, “Where is Mary?” When his brother later slashed his throat in a successful suicide, Stanton took off into the woods and had to be led back home. (Twenty Days, Castle Press, 1965)
Doesn’t this sound like a psychotic in action? And why has Stanton been portrayed as a folk saint when even his allies in the Cabinet considered him duplicitous, conspiratorial and ruthless?
Much has been made of the fact Stanton declared martial law, seized all power, and spent the last night of Lincoln’s life barking out orders incessantly that covered every possible contingency. No one seems to have considered the possibility Stanton had spent days anticipating this moment, which is why he was so cool while others around him stood paralyzed with shock.
Around 7:22 AM, the second Lincoln was declared dead, Stanton extended his arm and placed his top hat on his head for a second and then removed it. An eyewitness would remark this queer display seemed an impromptu coronation of sorts.
Imagine someone has died and you want a keepsake. Don’t you think it a somewhat odd to select the chair they were sitting in when a bullet blew through their brains?
I imagine in moments of great elation or perhaps even despair, Stanton might rock in that chair to sooth his soul by celebrating whatever stroke of luck engineered him onto the throne of power.
But any celebration would be short-lived, as Stanton would swiftly lose all political power, his seat in the Cabinet, his secret police force, and transform into one of the most despised people in the country.
Stanton’s designs on the Presidency vanished forever, and he died four years after Lincoln under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
Meanwhile, Lincoln’s son reportedly later burned evidence linking Stanton to the crime, as he could never accept the thought this man who treated him so graciously could have possibly been involved in such a devious plot against his father.