So, who was Edwin McMasters Stanton, born in Jefferson County, Ohio, on December 19, 1814? Well we could say that he was the only person born around these parts who was maybe the Country’s most eminent trial attorney, who also served as the U.S. Attorney General, U.S. Secretary of War, and was nominated and approved as a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Maybe the initial question should be not who was he, but who were his ancestors, such that he came to be born there? He came from Massachusetts Quaker stock. Before the Revolution, his forebears left New England for North Carolina, where in 1774, his paternal grandfather Benjamin Stanton, married Abigail Macy. In 1800, Benjamin died and Abigail and much of the family moved to the Northwest Territory purchasing a tract of land in what became the village of Mount Pleasant in Jefferson County. That locale, never amounting to much more than 500 persons, became not only a center of abolitionist press in the early 1800’s but also produced a cast of characters ranging from politicians, serial killers, to a major league baseball player. Rather than deviate from my original theme, I will save that under the heading “another issue, another column.”
Edwin’s father was David Stanton a physician who located his practice in Steubenville, Ohio. David married Lucy Norman, the daughter of a Virginia slaveholding family who also happened to profess the Methodist faith. These two traits were anathema to the Ohio Quakers. Edwin was their first born child. Unfortunately, Dr. David Stanton died when Edwin was about thirteen. This loss triggered a serious loss of financial status for the family such that Lucy opened a store on the first floor of the home and young Edwin went to work at a bookseller’s store. Yet he was able to enter Kenyon College, the first private college in Ohio. Again, miss-fortune struck as he lacked the financial resources to complete a degree. He dropped out and attempted to earn sufficient funds to continue selling books. When this plan failed, he set a new course: “when all else fails, become a lawyer.” Seems I did that myself, some fifty years ago. Although there were about five law schools at the time: Harvard, William & Mary, Yale, Universities of Maryland Virginia and Cincinnati and Dickinson College all hosted law schools in 1834. However, if he couldn’t afford to attend Kenyon, law school was not a very likely option. What was an option was the tried and true method of attaching oneself to a lawyer’s office and “reading law” until one was qualified to pass a bar examination. He proceeded to the task of reading law and passed a Bar exam in 1835. To be sure bar exams of that day were not the two or three day affairs of the last century. Rather when one was deemed ready he sat for an oral exam with two or three older and experienced lawyers who questioned him on his knowledge of the law. The entire process might last an hour or two. Thomas Mellon founder of Mellon Bank described his 1838 bar examination: “The examining board were not very punctual nor attentive to their duties, though frequently exacting and critical when once in session; and it was only after several efforts and abortive attempts that we procured a meeting.” Mellon then goes on to describe being asked a question by a sitting Judge concerning procedure, which he answered in accordance with the judge’s prior rulings. Another examiner took exception to the answer. What ensued was an argument between the examiners for the duration of the exam. The next morning he received a note that he had passed.
Presumably Stanton’s experience was a brief examination in each county where he chose to practice. It is reported that within ten years he was one of the busiest lawyers in Ohio. He maintained separate law partnerships with George W. McCook in Steubenville, S.G. Peppard in Cadiz, Theobald Umbstaetter and John H. Wallace in New Lisbon, as well as loose associations with firms in St. Clairsville and Harrison, Ohio. In essence he was a one-man mega firm. All of this set the stage for his entry into the Pittsburgh Legal Community in 1847. He was far different from the noted Pittsburgh trial attorneys of his day, who were “stage performers who played to the gallery and composed their arguments as though they were telling stories around a campfire: they let their narratives unfold chronologically, laden with elaborate detail and punctuated with witty asides to keep the crown alert, drawing their audiences in and leading them to an inevitable punch-line the moral of the story….” In the early 19th century audiences flocked to Courtrooms to see and hear these lurid and florid performances. Edwin Stanton was generally dismissive of drama and exaggerated oratory. Once he is reported to have responded to an opponent’s humorous opening statement by jumping to his feet and declaring: “Now that this extraordinary flow of wit has ceased, I will begin. To which the opposing counsel responded, “Wit always ceases when you begin.” Although the papers reported that the jury laughed greatly at the exchange, they reported a Stanton victory. It seems that his style was to break down the case into simple logical and connected statements. It may be described as “here is what happened, and why we are here. In fact, he is reported to have conducted press interviews during the Civil War in the same manner, and is given much credit for the development of the news media’s inverted pyramid reporting style. Essentially the five W’s, Who, What, When, Where and Why, could all be contained in the initial sentence and more information about it gained from the following verbiage. His first major victory in Pittsburgh occurred in 1848 when he successfully prosecuted rioting workers. However his career around these parts was made the following year by representing Pittsburgh interests in the Wheeling Bridge case. Pittsburgh interests were always fearful that a bridge would be built downriver at Wheeling, Virginia which might be so low as to inhibit river traffic to Pittsburgh. Thus, freight would have to be unloaded at Wheeling and reshipped by water or road to Pittsburgh. In 1847 business interests in Wheeling, VA and Belmont, OH got together to successfully raise money for such a venture. The resulting bridge 1,010 foot bridge will reach its 175th anniversary soon, and most of us have seen it or crossed it. Steamboats or packets of that period were several stories highland had high stacks for emitting smoke and drawing in air, all engineered to each specific ship. The bridge may have had a high center point. was built with a slope so that the stacks on the largest packets could not go underneath. Stanton argued the case under the original jurisdiction clause of the U.S. Constitution as a dispute between states. He allegedly argued brilliantly and presented cogent facts that raising the bridge to a level to permit all packets to pass beneath would not materially alter its cost. Ultimately the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Pennsylvania interests giving them their full relief and awarding costs to them.
With this result under his belt, the nation’s legal community took note and he was sought for many major cases.