Lincoln's Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton.
The second most powerful civilian in the Union government, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, was difficult to work with and hard to like. Few contemporaries doubted his dedication to victory, but many criticized his overbearing manner, backroom deceptions, and disregard of due process. In his latest book, William Marvel painstakingly documents these character flaws and forges them into a hard-hitting chronicle of Stanton's life and career.
Studious and combative, the young Stanton relished debates at Kenyon College and later gained fame as an attorney who argued corporate suits and won acquittal for a congressman charged with murder. Cultivating political allies, Stanton rose to serve in three presidential cabinets: as attorney general for James Buchanan during the secession crisis, as Lincoln's second war secretary, and in the same position for Andrew Johnson until supporting his impeachment. Breaking with his Democratic roots after Lincoln appointed him, Stanton advocated, with the zeal of a convert, emancipation and a hard line toward rebellious Southerners. Marvel finds little sincerity in this and other shifts, only opportunistic maneuvering by Stanton. Among his exhibits is Stanton's rapid change of heart toward General George McClellan, a former ally who, according to Marvel, Stanton dumped not because he proved a reluctant fighter but to please congressional Radicals. As he examines Stanton's role in military appointments and recruitment, civilian arrests, and prisoner exchanges, Marvel adds cronyism, despotism, and vindictiveness to his indictment.
Some of these attacks hit home. Marvel's impressive sweep of primary sources uncovers new evidence of Stanton's self-serving duplicity toward Buchanan and Johnson. His research shows that Stanton used government contracts to raise campaign money for Republican candidates. Other findings document Stanton's machinations against unfairly accused targets, from reputedly disloyal civilians to the army's surgeon general. The force of such criticisms is blunted by Marvel's obvious bias. His strong detective work is rarely rounded out by incorporating contrary evidence or historical studies that point to other actors or factors. Instead, Marvel tends to fill gaps in Stanton's documentary record by quoting others' suspicions and offering his own damning conjectures. Occasionally he exonerates Stanton, but in the case of Stanton's alleged tampering with John Wilkes Booth's diary, the verdict appears only in an endnote. Even Stanton's much-praised steadiness during Lincoln's assassination is attributed to his gift for "dictatorial leadership" (370).
At one point the author credits Stanton for bringing "relative order" to the war office after Simon Cameron's inept tenure and admits that "probably no one could have done a better job" as war secretary (355-356). That kind of broad and balanced perspective is mostly missing in a biography that finds no detail too small, especially if it might impugn its subject. For more than half a century, the panoramic biography of Stanton begun by Benjamin Thomas and completed by Harold Hyman in 1962 has been the standard treatment. Marvel updates its research and rightly casts doubt on its overly generous assessment, but his contentious biography is framed as a rebuttal and not a replacement. Readers who wish to situate Stanton in context and to assess his actions fairly ought to consider Marvel's book in company with the Thomas and Hyman volume and recent works on Lincoln and his cabinet.
Carl J. Guarneri
Saint Mary's College of California
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|Author:||Guarneri, Carl J.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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