For better or for worse, the increasing political polarization and extremism we see today is no more than a reversion to the American norm.
William Marvel’s new book Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton is neither an account of the Civil War and Stanton’s role in it, nor a detailed description of how the Secretary of War handled the immense task of equipping, funding, and moving armed forces of over half a million men. Instead its focus is on Stanton’s duplicity, intrigues, partisan favoritism, vindictiveness, and lust for power over others. The biography furthers the argument pursued in many a previous Marvel book: The conflict that brought to prominence such men as Stanton should never have been fought. I present Marvel’s view first, and only later my critique.
Starting out as a Democrat with no fixed views but plenty of ambition, Edwin Stanton of Ohio cultivated President Buchanan’s Attorney General, and then succeeded him. In 1860, he was committed to the Democratic Party’s splinter candidate representing the slaveholders, John C. Breckinridge, was a strident defender of Southern rights, and argued for the advantages that secession might bring. According to Senator Henry Wilson (R-Mass.), Stanton was at the same time currying favor with the Buchanan administration’s political enemies by reporting to Republicans the secessionist leanings of prominent Buchanan cabinet members. He was telling them that he was the strong man in Buchanan’s cabinet, that the weak and cowardly President “would have crumbled before secessionist demands but for the unswerving patriotism and moral courage of [his] Attorney General.” Although Lincoln swallowed this fable, Marvel does not. Stanton’s duplicity paid off. In early 1862, Lincoln appointed him his Secretary of War.
Half the book is devoted to Stanton’s campaign against the general who wanted to limit the war to preserving the Union and avoid turning it into a crusade against slavery: George McClellan. Stanton’s drive to see McClellan removed from command of the Union Army and later, the Army of the Potomac, proceeded by weakening him so that he would not be able to win battles. This was a way for Stanton to prove his bona fides to the Radical Republicans in Congress, who hated McClellan and were grateful for every scrap of damaging information they could get. At the same time, Stanton was telling McClellan that he was his devoted friend. What he told others, behind the general’s back, was that Jefferson Davis still commanded McClellan’s loyalty.
Secretary Stanton moved Radical generals into important positions under McClellan’s command and thousands of troops out from under him. McClellan became convinced that Radicals like Stanton and Senator Benjamin Wade (R-Ohio) “had conspired to deprive him of enough troops to assure his failure—either to orchestrate his removal or to prolong the war until it turned into a crusade against slavery,” which crusade he vehemently opposed. McClellan blamed his defeats in the Peninsula Campaign (April-May 1862) and the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25 to July 1, 1862) on lack of reinforcements, which he attributed to Stanton’s personal antagonism, “especially in conjunction with the abolitionist motive of postponing victory.” Stanton’s advocacy of emancipation infuriated him.
The cabal against McClellan intensified with the decision to bring east a general whom McClellan could not abide, to command a newly created Army of Virginia. This was John Pope, whose orders were to drive away the Confederates being led by Generals “Stonewall” Jackson and Richard B. Ewell. Henry W. Halleck, the General-in-Chief of the Union Army, ordered McClellan to bring his army north to strengthen and support Pope.
Because of the toxic political environment he had created, Stanton bears some responsibility for the disaster at the battle of the Second Manassas (August 28 to August 30, 1862). Despite orders, McClellan failed to reinforce Pope at Manassas. He feared being subordinate to Pope or that his troops would be given to Pope. Stanton worried, in turn, that once McClellan’s and Pope’s armies made contact, Halleck would give the command to the former, or at least allow McClellan to have his own larger army. Instead of doing everything in his power to succor Pope, Secretary Stanton was busy circulating a petition to have McClellan dismissed from command.
Marvel suggests the irony: Had the Secretary of War helped instead of hindered McClellan, the war might have ended sooner without such great loss of life and treasure. The South then would have been free to deal with slavery where it already existed. Lincoln and Stanton mistakenly rejected McClellan’s March 1862 plan to move troops by water to a point on land for an attack on Richmond. General Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, whom Marvel describes as the best natural soldier the United States has ever known, thought that with adequate reinforcement, McClellan could have captured Richmond. This would have brought the conflict to an early end.
Marvel acknowledges that Stanton was a capable manager and that he wrought order out of the chaos in the War Department. He even says no one could have done a better job. But then he says that others—McClellan, for example—could have done as well, and without such reckless and needless violation of Americans’ civil rights.
Once he solidified his control over the War Department, Stanton’s thirst for power over others now had a full field for indulgence. As the biographer lasers in on that, he loses sight of the context: that the Union was fighting for its life and that Copperheads and Confederate spies posed a real danger. The Secretary persuaded a credulous President to vest him with the power to make extraordinary arrests, that is, arrests without cause and imprisonment without due process. Therefore, the government “lapsed into virtual dictatorship.”
Stanton’s malign influence on Reconstruction is prefigured in a book that Marvel published in 2011, Tarnished Victory: Finishing Lincoln’s War, where the target of criticism was not Stanton, especially, but the Radical Republicans with whom he allied after the war was over. That book described Congressman Thaddeus Stevens’ (R-Pa.) use of the public outcry against President Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policies “to mobilize a congressional supermajority” that would reverse those policies and inflict harsh punishment on the Southern states while elevating the freedmen to position of “immediate political equality.” By so doing, the nation’s leaders, wrote Marvel, “squandered the enormous sacrifices of Mr. Lincoln’s war” by settling in the end for a sullen reunion—achieved by consigning the freedmen to a reconstructed version of slavery. In the biography of Stanton, which draws frequently from the diary of the pro-Johnson Navy Secretary, Gideon Welles, who hated Secretary Stanton, Marvel claims that along with his Radical Republican friends, Stanton feared the possibility that once Reconstruction ended, a coalition of conservative forces North and South would dominate the country.
Portraying Stanton at his most vindictive, Marvel shows him assiduously stirring up hatreds and divisions between the North and the South and maneuvering to place President Johnson in a bad light so as to eliminate the possibility of a moderate, conciliatory settlement between the two sections. He withheld from President Johnson the request from the Union general in New Orleans for orders to prevent a race riot in case the local authorities attempted to stop a march by blacks and white Union loyalists. Receiving no response, General Baird was helpless to prevent the slaughter of 46 blacks. Stanton then blamed President Johnson for the massacre.
But there are problems with Marvel’s interpretation. He is determined to accentuate the negative, unlike those who have tried to take in the whole of Edwin M. Stanton. New York diarist George Templeton Strong, writing throughout the war, offered a balanced judgment of Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Considering the Secretary’s good points, “he was honest, patriotic, able, indefatigable, warm-hearted, unselfish, [and] incorruptible,” and his bad, “arbitrary, capricious, tyrannical, vindictive, hateful, and cruel,” Strong concluded that, “when joined with the personal loyalty he offered Lincoln, [all of these qualities] enabled Stanton . . . to serve greatly. He was the man for those extraordinary times, and he did a titanic job in the face of enormous difficulties.”
Because of assumptions not made clear in this book, its depiction of Stanton is, with few exceptions, aggressively negative. Again, looking to the author’s previous work is of assistance. In Mr. Lincoln Goes to War (2006), Marvel argued that had Lincoln known in advance the cost in blood and treasure of the war he blundered into, he would have reconsidered launching it. By accepting secession, the equality of all could have been achieved without war. The Confederacy would then have been free to resolve the issue of slavery. Such a peaceful settlement “would have been truly inspired statecraft,” he wrote in 2006. But that was not to be.
Curiously, none of the sources cited there (to support the Marvellian view that allowing the Confederate states to secede would have led to a “more peaceful emancipation on some scale”) actually support that view. Just the opposite, in fact. Early in the book he cited Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s Partisan Review essay, “The Causes of the Civil War: A Note on Historical Sentimentalism,” which outright refutes the revisionist view that Marvel embraces.
Mr. Lincoln Goes to War portrayed a President who “arrogated extraordinary authority to the executive branch,” unilaterally initiated warfare, arbitrarily suspended civil liberties, and jailed thousands on suspicion or political whim. By personality and industry, Stanton was perfectly suited to render indispensable aid to Lincoln’s reckless course.
All of this flows from the counterfactual framework adopted in Mr. Lincoln Goes to War: that it would have been better had the war not been fought. By abstracting from the deeply held moral and political beliefs in the promise of the Union and the wrong of slavery, Marvel cannot judge the costs of not fighting the war. Had the Union allowed the South to secede, it would have destroyed the moral and political character of what was left of the United States and caused terrible internal conflict over the concessions made. Furthermore, Marvel cannot render balanced, sympathetic judgments of the great leaders of the war.
Once we set aside his counterfactual approach, and take seriously the convictions of these great men, a very different factual as opposed to counterfactual history emerges—for example, the one that Marvel claims to improve upon, Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold Hyman’s 1962 Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Whereas Marvel says (even more clearly in Tarnished Victory than in Lincoln’s Autocrat) that the Radical Republicans were responsible for the end of slavery, the fact is that Lincoln had to reject some Radical Republican actions in order to win the war and free the slaves. For example, he had to nullify the premature declarations of emancipation by Radical Republican generals, such as Frémont and Hunter that would have risked losing the border states. Thomas and Hyman also claim that Stanton’s intimacy with Radical Republicans in Congress was aimed at bringing them and the President closer to a moderate position on Reconstruction.
As for the matter of Stanton versus McClellan, Marvel’s reason for taking McClellan’s side is that he is drawn to the general’s limited war aims. However, there is a real question whether McClellan could even have achieved the limited objective of preserving the Union. Marvel mentions McClellan’s “preternatural caution” but not the danger he posed to the Union. Lincoln believed McClellan reluctant to do serious damage to the enemy, and that his warning to the President that his army would not fight to get rid of slavery threatened civilian control of the military. Lincoln became convinced that McClellan contemplated a coup d’état. It could be that Stanton was needlessly duplicitous in undermining the general, but McClellan clearly had to go.
Because of his revisionist framework, Marvel is in no position to appreciate the heroic contribution of Lincoln’s Secretary of War to Union victory. He is reduced to tarnishing the reputation of a great man.
 Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold Hyman, Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War (Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), p. 362.
 See Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Little, Brown, and Company, 1974), pp. 4-5; Claudia Dale Goldin, Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820-1860 (University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 126; and Robert Evans, Jr., “The Viability of Slavery,” in Did Slavery Pay? Readings in the Economics of Black Slavery in the United States, edited by Hugh G.J. Aitken (Houghton Mifflin, 1971), p. 205.
 Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “The Causes of the Civil War: A Note on Historical Sentimentalism,” 16 Partisan Review (October 1949), 977, 980-981.
 Thomas and Hyman, p. 316.