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Abraham Lincoln & Edwin Stanton

Abraham Lincoln & Edwin Stanton

by William H. Benson

February 12, 2015

     Today we honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

     In the summer of 1855, George Harding hired Abraham Lincoln to assist him in a patent infringement case because Harding needed an attorney knowledgeable of Illinois law, such as Lincoln.

     At the last moment, the trial was moved from Chicago to Cincinnati, and so Lincoln’s services were not needed. Instead of withdrawing from the case though, Lincoln headed to Cincinnati to offer his help. In the meantime, Harding hired Edwin Stanton, a polished lawyer from Ohio.

     In Cincinnati, Harding and Stanton were shocked when Lincoln first approached them. He was a “tall, rawly-boned, ungainly back woodsman, with coarse, ill-fitting clothing, his trousers hardly reaching his ankles, holding in his hands a blue cotton umbrella.”

     Stanton pulled Harding aside, and asked him, “Why did you bring that long armed Ape here? He does not know any thing and can do you no good.” Lincoln felt their rejection. He was never invited to discuss the case with them and was never asked to join them for a meal, but he attended the trial and listened to Stanton’s arguments. There he stood in “rapt attention . . . drinking in his words.”

     Six years later, Abraham Lincoln would win the 1860 election for President, and in January of 1862, he would name Edwin Stanton his new Secretary of War. As he did with Stanton, again and again Lincoln would demonstrate his ability to set aside slights, humiliations, and insults. Resentments never rankled or accumulated within Lincoln.

     One day George Harding assumed that Stanton had written some “some remarkable passages” in one of President Lincoln’s messages, but Stanton corrected Harding. “Lincoln wrote it—every word of it; and he is capable of more than that, Harding; no men were ever so deceived as we at Cincinnati.”

     Stanton was not alone in making a snap judgment of Lincoln. Others who witnessed Lincoln’s face, his body, and his bearing concluded that he was an ignorant and “long armed Ape.” His appearance hid his piercing intellect, his skill with the English language, and his over-arching ambition.

      Lincoln chose well when he chose Stanton, who whipped the war department into shape. Because he was responsible for an army of more than two million men, he was merciless in the exacting demands he issued to his subordinates. He ruled others by fear.

     All this was required, an absolute necessity. After all, there was a war to win, the nation had divided into two parts, and four million people were locked and chained into bondage and slavery. What Stanton did or did not do would effect the nation and its future.

     Stanton’s secretary, A. E. Johnson, observed Lincoln and Stanton and said, “No two men were ever more utterly unlike.” Whereas Lincoln was tall and lean, Stanton was short and round.

     “The charity which Stanton could not feel, coursed from every pore in Lincoln,” who “was for giving a wayward subordinate seventy times seven chances to repair his errors; Stanton was for either forcing him to obey or cutting off his head without more ado.” Lincoln was “calm and unruffled,” but Stanton “would lash himself into a fury.” Lincoln “would tell a funny story,” but Stanton was “all dignity and sternness.”

     What the two men did share was an enormous capacity for work. Johnson wrote, “Yet no two men ever did or could work better in harness. They supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were a necessity to each other.”

     Neither knew how to play. Neither “cards, the bottle, or dice” diverted their attentions. A relentless ambition and a focused intellect drove them forward day after day. Although Lincoln would concede that Stanton was the better legal mind, mainly because he had received a formal legal education, Lincoln was more widely read.

     Lincoln knew Shakespeare, he knew the English poets, and he knew the King James Bible. He absorbed the English language, it imbedded itself deep into Lincoln’s mind, and he would use it to great effect when he would write his speeches and his letters.

     When those who hated Stanton urged Lincoln to terminate him, Lincoln said, “He is the rock on the beach of our national ocean against which the breakers dash and roar without ceasing. He fights back the angry waters and prevents them from undermining and overwhelming the land. Gentlemen, I do not see how he survives, why he is not crushed and torn to pieces. Without him, I should be destroyed.”


     When told of Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton rushed to Lincoln’s side and said to the others gathered around his bed, “Now he belongs to the ages. There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.” From outright hostility and disrespect, Edwin Stanton had yielded first to admiration and then to profound love for Abraham Lincoln.