Sometimes, the joys of parenthood are special. Today is the 37thbirthday of my middle son. He just happens to be an attorney in Pittsburgh. He and his wife Stephanie have two young sons and live in Sewickley, PA. Both he and his wife were raised in Weirton and graduated from Weir High where they were both excellent students and standout soccer players. He graduated in 2003 and she graduated in 2005. When Stephen was thinking about college and beyond I frequently told him that I would pay to send him wherever he wished for school and that he could study anything he wished. That is with one exception, I always said “I won’t pay one dime for law school.” My justification was that I didn’t know many happy lawyers. Well he made me eat my words. After graduating from Washington & Jefferson College, he decided to attend law school at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. It brought us closer together because almost every day when his classes were finished he would call to discuss something that he learned that day that he found to be of interest. As he is a lawyer now that doesn’t happen, he can’t discuss his client’s matters. Sometimes he can discuss results of a trial or settlement, but that is rare. Sunday was an exception. “Dad, that case about the Bridge at Wheeling, I remember that from law school. Did you know that one of the early cases of Bridges over the Ohio, between West Virginia or Kentucky and Ohio had to involve Pennsylvania and Virginia as parties because of the uncertainty of colonial boundaries? And if you think about the Commerce clause of the constitution putting a low bridge over a navigable stream is no different than the robber barons in Germany who had chains that they could raise on the Rhine and other rivers until a satisfactory toll was paid. 

A little further exploration of Stanton’s legal acumen discovered one of his unique tactics in the Wheeling Bridge case. A few days prior to the official opening of the Bridge the steamer “Messenger” attempted to pass under it and could only do so by cutting off seven and one-half feet of her stacks. Shortly thereafter the steamer “Hibernia No. 2” chose to unload all of its passengers and cargo before the bridge rather than amputate its stacks or ram its way through. The owners of these ships became parties in the lawsuit, represented by Stanton, and claimeddamages to their property and profits. Stanton won the case on all counts and the bridge had to we raised to a higher level.

Other big cases came Stanton’s way. Of note was the McCormick Reaper patent case in 1854 where his opposing counsel was a former U.S. Attorney General. The case pitted impoverished Rockford Illinois inventor John H. Manny and his investors against Cyrus H. McCormick, Chicago’s largest employer and inventor of the legendary “McCormick Reaper” one of the machines that revolutionized American agriculture. Both litigants had patents on various parts of their machines. McCormick brought the suit to stop Manny from manufacturing and selling his reaper, alleging patent infringement. Lincoln was hired as local counsel for the Manny legal team. Stanton headed the team and when he first observed Lincoln he is alleged to have said: “Where did that long armed baboon come from?” The trial was moved from Illinois to Cincinnati, lessening the need for an Illinois co-counsel. Stanton did not permit Lincoln to actively participate in the trial, and reportedly snubbed him by refusing to dine with him or even walk into the Courthouse with him, the end result was that Stanton won the trial and a subsequent appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

Following this, in 1856 Stanton left the area to practice in Washington D.C. There he played a prominent role in the defense of Congressman Daniel Sickles who had killed his wife’s lover. Stanton employed the defense of temporary insanity, in other words when Sickles found out that his wife was having an affair, he became temporarily insane and thus not responsible for his actions. This was one of the first successful uses of the defense. Sickles became a Union General and a corps Commander in the Army of the Potomac. His actions at Gettysburg were questionable at best, and could have opened the door to a Rebel victory there, but the Union forces prevailed. 

Stanton was an anti-slavery Democrat and President James Buchanan appointed him U.S. Attorney General in 1860. Upon Lincoln’s election and inauguration Stanton was replaced. However, Stanton remained in Washington acting as an outside advisor to Lincoln’s first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron. As a result of miss-management of contracts for production of war material Lincoln removed Cameron and, at the urging of Secretary of State, William Seward, and Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln appointed Stanton as his Secretary of War. This is the role for which most Americans who have heard his name know of Stanton.