JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Friday, December 17, 2010


I guess the modern politician whom Edwin Stanton reminds me of most is Dick Cheney. Physically they were very similar, and they shared the post of Secretary of War, albeit a century apart. Like Dick Cheney, Stanton was a Prima Donna who displayed a self indulgent affection for conspiracies, and practiced such hyperbole that “At certain crises…doubts of his sanity were widespread…”(p 286 – “Lincolns War Cabinet” Hendrick). . There were differences, of course. Stanton never actually shot anyone, but when he was a young man he did carry a large knife in his pants, which would have fascinated Freud had he been born yet. In the end, the nicest thing I can say about Stanton is that he was a “rude and offensive” manic depressive lunatic on the right side of history.
When Stanton first set eyes upon Lincoln, in an 1857 Cincinnati courtroom, the bully loudly demanded, “Where did the long-armed baboon come from?” Eight years later Stanton lay literally sobbing on Lincoln’s deathbed. Lincoln was the only man who ever controlled Stanton, and it took a lot of his time. He called Stanton “my rock”, but admitting to devising strategies for “plowing around” that rock. Lincoln’s last official act before heading out to Ford’s Theatre, was to overrule yet another Stanton overreaction.
On the day Lincoln died Andrew Johnson from Tennessee was sworn in as President and inherited the pit- bull lap-dog that was Stanton. Over the next two years the slavery loving pro-Union Democratic President Johnson struggled to find a way to make Stanton “heel”. Finally, on Monday, August 5th, 1867, Johnson just asked Stanton for his resignation. To his surprise, Stanton simply said “no”.
There was a week of stunned silence from the White House, until the following Monday, August 12th, when Johnson tried another tact. He ordered Civil War hero General U.S. Grant  to the War Office, to tell Stanton he was being temporarily suspended. Johnson also told Grant that if Stanton still refused to leave, Grant should arrest him. But Grant didn’t want to do that. Instead he and Stanton came up with a plan of their own. Grant took possession of the office. But Stanton never left the building.
There was a move to impeach Johnson for this attempt, but the votes fell short. The new congress was sworn in on Tuesday, January 7, 1868, and on Monday, January 13th  it voted to back Stanton. The next day Grant locked the Secratary of War’s office, handed the key to an aide, and left. An hour later Stanton arrived and was handed the key. Only then did Grant tell President Johnson he had quit. The b-tch was back.
In desperation, Johnson turned to a character he could control, a 63 year old paper pusher, the Armies’ Adjutant-General, Lorenzo Thomas (above). To this point, Thomas’ greatest claim to fame was that he had help spread the rumor that General William Tecumsha Sherman was crazy. That had not worked, which should have been a hint to Johnson, but he didn't take it. Now, on February 21st, 1868, the President handed General Thomas two letters. The first letter fired Stanton (Again!). The second named Thomas as Secretary of War. Johnson then ordered Thomas to deliver them to both to Stanton. Alas, it was a like sending the Little Dutch Boy to stop a forest fire. All he got was a burned finger.
At the War Office (above), Stanton read both notes, and asked, “Do you wish me to vacate the office at once?” Magnanimously, the old man answered, “Act at your pleasure.” Stanton then went down the hall to make a copy of the letter. While Thomas dumbly waited, and a clerk laboriously wrote out an exact copy of the order, Stanton arranged his thoughts and morphed into a petulant two-year old. When he returned Thomas announced that he would now issue orders as Secretary of War. To which Stanton replied “You shall not. I will countermand.” In front of Thomas, Stanton then dictated a letter to Thomas, saying, “Sir: I am informed that you presume to issue orders as Secretary of War…you are hereby commanded to abstain from issuing any orders other than in your capacity as Adjutant-General of the army.” Stanton then handed the completed letter to Thomas and ordered him out of the office.
A bewildered Thomas informed Johnson of this conversation. The President must have been flabbergasted. He ordered Thomas to return to the War Office and begin issuing orders. Thomas tried that, but discovered he could no longer get in. Stanton had locked the doors.
Stanton now went native. Food was brought in, and and drink, and Grant appointed a special guard to defend the building, against whom he did not say. This military guard was joined by members of the House of Representatives and 100 staffers, who patrolled the basement. I guess because down there Grant figured they could only shoot each  other. That night, at a White House masked ball in honor of George Washington’s Birthday, and emboldened by a little wine, Thomas boasted that in the morning he would break down the walls of the War Office and arrest the Secretary of War. It looked as if come morning, the nation would be either defended for stolen by a coup d’tetat.
What saved the nation this disaster was that Washington, D.C. (above) was, has always been, and remains to this day, a small southern town filled with gossips. Stanton heard Thomas’ boast almost as soon as he had uttered it, and at 2 o’clock in the morning as the White House Party was just breaking up, Stanton was awakening a federal judge to sign an arrest warrent. At eight the next morning, as Thomas was just setting down to eat breakfast, he was arrested and charged with violating the Tenure of Office Act, which Congress had passed to prevent Johnson from firing Stanton without Congressional approval. There was no coup d’tetat because at nine a.m. General Thomas was in court.
After he had been released on his own recognizance (who was he going to hurt?), Thomas returned to the White House, where, once again President Johnson ordered the old man to go to the War Department and take possession if it. So, for a third time, the old soldier pushed his rock of Presidential command up the hill to confront his nemeses. The old man intoned, “I will stand here.” Stanton responded, “You can stand there if you please, but you cannot act as Secretary of War. I am Secretary of War. I order you out of this office and to your own.” Thomas answered, “I refuse to go and will stand here.” It was a circular conversation, and getting nowhere fast.
After trying to issue orders to everyone he could (and meeting impassive resistance), Thomas gathered his wounded pride and asked Stanton, “The next time you have me arrested, please do not do it before I get something to eat. I have had nothing to eat or drink all day.” Now it was Stanton’s turn to be magnanimous. He produced a bottle of whisky and poured them equal amounts. Handing a glass to Thomas, Stanton said, “Now, this at least is neutral ground.”
Over the next weeks, while the Senate heard President Johnson’s impeachment trial for trying to fire Stanton, Stanton remained barricaded in the War Department. He received all dispatches and reports, had full accesss to the telegraph lines. He just never left the building.  Meanwhile Thomas had no access to any of that, but he appeared at daily Cabinet meetings as Secretary of War. But the two never crossed paths. And while the process was argued behind the closed doors of the Senate, a compromise (of sorts) was reached.
On Saturday, May 16, 1868 the Senate took their first vote on an article of impeachment. It fell short of conviction. President Johnson, who had promised to cease obstructing the Reconstruction acts, would survive. The next day, Stanton wrote his letter of resignation. The crises had been resolved. But it would not be until 1887 before the Tenure in Office Act would be repealed.
Edwin Stanton was nominated to the Supreme Court by the next President, U. S. Grant. But the merucrial  clerk died four days after being confirmed by the Senate, Christmas Eve, 1869. It was so unlike him to sneak out of town before the his chance at a really grand performance.
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