Pinnacle Dispatch: Edwin Stanton
Creating a podcast is a long, labor-intensive process. In the last few months, I have made progress in producing Episode 3 (which should appear in the next couple of months); however, work, school, and other concerns have slowed down the process. While I plan new, full-length, podcasts, I will be writing short blogs and posting them on this website. These ‘Pinnacle Dispatches’ will serve as shorter-form dives into Kenyon’s history. Some of these posts might serve as the inspiration for full-length episodes. Others might stand on there own. In addition to these ‘Pinnacle Dispatches,’ I will become more active on social media, posting facts and opinions about the history of Kenyon College on both The Pinnacle’s Facebook and Twitter pages. I hope that these shorter blog and social media posts will turn out to be as interesting and satisfying as the podcast itself! The first of the ‘Pinnacle Dispatches’ begins below:
Pinnacle Dispatch: Edwin Stanton
On Tuesday night, I went to my favorite book store, Politics and Prose in Washington DC, to attend a book talk on Walter Stahr’s new biography, Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary. A longtime lawyer, Stahr has published biographies of two other major figures in American history: William Seward and John Jay. Just like Edwin Stanton, John Jay and William Seward are two figures who had a substantial influence on the future of the country, but are sometimes overlooked in casual discussions of American history. The talk was interesting and informative, exploring the basic contours of Stanton’s life, as well as illuminating his complex personality. Of course, I was attracted to the talk for one reason above all: Edwin Stanton went to Kenyon College.
Stanton was born on December 19th, 1814 in Steubenville, Ohio. In 1831, Stanton enrolled at Kenyon College. He quickly rose up in the rank’s of Kenyon’s Philomathesian Literary Society (you may recognize this name from Ascension’s most prominent lecture hall). As a Philomathesian, Stanton took part in many spirited debates about the politics of the time, backing the Democratic Party in the Nullification Crisis, and solidifying his opposition to slavery. Sadly, Stanton’s Kenyon career was cut short: he could not afford to return for another year. Stanton got a job in Columbus at a bookstore, hoping to earn enough money to continue at Kenyon. As Stahr explained in his talk, Stanton was a voracious reader: at the bookstore, he tended to stay so buried in his reading that the store’s customers could rarely get his attention. In the end, Stanton could not raise the money to come go back to school, and decided to return to Steubenville to pursue a career in law.
Stanton’s success as a lawyer and interest in politics eventually landed him a job in the Buchanan administration as Attorney General. As Stahr explained, Stanton took a hard line against The Confederacy during the bombardment of Fort Sumter. In 1862, with the Civil War gaining steam, Abraham Lincoln appointed Edwin Stanton as his Secretary of War. Stanton was renowned for his work ethic and logistical prowess. Stahr explained how Stanton's organizational skills proved essential to the Union war effort. His fiery, frequently confrontational, temperament also made him a formidable voice in Lincoln’s cabinet. After the end of the war, Stanton’s involvement in key historical events only intensified. He led the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth after Lincoln’s assassination. Even later, Andrew Johnson’s attempts to fire Stanton led to an impeachment crisis. A strong supporter of Reconstruction, Stanton was disturbed by the racist violence against African-Americans which was intensifying in the former Confederate states, and feared (rightly) that the violence would increase without strong action by the Federal Government. Johnson disagreed, and, as I mentioned, attempted to fire Stanton multiple times, even as Congress set up legal boundaries which prevented him from doing so.
After the election of Ulysses S. Grant, Stanton positioned himself to serve in the US Supreme Court. He died before he could take his seat. Walter Stahr contended that Stanton’s intense work ethic during the war led to his death. In Stahr’s words: “he worked himself to death.” He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, DC.
Stanton was a fascinating figure and Stahr’s talk only scratched the surface. I purchased the biography immediately and hope to read it soon. I checked the index in the back of the book for mentions of Kenyon College (the school gets its due multiple times in multiple chapters) and found that one, important, image from the book actually came from Kenyon’s own Greenslade Special Collections and Archives. I am excited to do more reading about Stanton and hope to produce a full episode about his life and contribution to the Kenyon community. Thank you for reading!
Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary by Walter Stahr