If President Buchanan’s experience is a precedent, Trump’s internal critic may privately flatter him.
By Adam Rowe
the Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2018
Donald Trump isn’t the first president to be undermined by a senior official who claims to be saving the Republic from the chief executive he formally serves. The role of secret internal resister within the White House was first pioneered by Attorney General Edwin Stanton, perhaps the most relentless schemer in American political history. Stanton’s strange career is also an object lesson on the folly of trusting those claiming to play a role that, after all, requires a talent for deception.
Stanton joined the cabinet of lame-duck President James Buchanan on Dec. 20, 1860, the same day South Carolina seceded from the Union. Buchanan, a Democrat who was both loyal to the Union and personally friendly with many of those bent on destroying it, didn’t know what to do about the crisis in which he found himself. Mostly he blamed the Republicans and pitied himself, while many of his most trusted advisers did everything they could to weaken the government before resigning to serve the Confederacy.
Before joining the cabinet, Stanton’s most noteworthy achievement had been successfully defending Buchanan’s friend Rep. Daniel Sickles of New York, on murder charges. Sickles had fatally shot his wife’s lover, who also happened to be U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, in the middle of the day, steps from the White House. Stanton argued that Sickles was morally and legally justified in killing his wife’s seducer because—well, wouldn’t you? That was enough for the jury. Sickles was carried out of the courthouse like a hero, and Stanton earned Buchanan’s gratitude.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1863.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1863. PHOTO: BUYENLARGE/GETTY IMAGES
Immediately after taking office as attorney general, Stanton offered himself to several prominent Republicans as a spy within the administration. He mortified them with tales of imbecility and treason. One of them, Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, recalled that it was “strikingly providential” that Buchanan had brought “that strong, rugged, downright, patriotic man” into his cabinet at such a fateful hour. In secret midnight meetings, Stanton told Wilson of his heroic efforts to save the republic from its treacherous chief executive.
“The President—poor, weak old man—trembled and grew pale,” Wilson quoted Stanton as saying. But for himself, Stanton claimed, the nation would have been dismembered by traitors before Lincoln and the Republicans took power. It’s a dramatic story, but alas, Stanton was lying—to the Republicans, to Buchanan, to everyone.
“I believe him to be a perfectly honest man,” poor, bewildered Buchanan later wrote, privately, of Stanton. “He was always on my side, and flattered me ad nauseam.” Stanton’s letters to Buchanan bear out this characterization. He praised Buchanan’s policy unequivocally and contrasted it with the “imbecility” of his successor. “The first month of [Lincoln’s] administration,” Stanton wrote to Buchanan on April 3, 1861, “seems to have furnished an ample vindication of your policy.”
The most charitable interpretation of Stanton’s career is that he was as sincere in his loyalty to the Union as he was treacherous in his loyalty to individuals. But that doesn’t explain why he continued to write Buchanan fawning letters even after Lincoln had arrived in the White House. In sending Buchanan a scathing indictment of Lincoln’s administration after the Union defeat at Bull Run, Stanton observed it was only a matter of time “until Jeff Davis turns out the whole concern. The capture of Washington seems now inevitable.” Whatever happened, Stanton planned to be on the winning side.
Stanton possessed an almost incredible ability to convince everyone—abolitionists, secessionists and many in between—that he was their faithful ally. “It is hard to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, but Stanton seems to have mastered the difficulty,” his predecessor as attorney general, Jeremiah Black, later marveled. “If he kept up this fraudulent deceit for 30 years, and thereby got the highest places in the gift of both parties, he was the most marvelous imposter who ever lived or died.”
Stanton soon became secretary of war under his new Republican friends, despite condemning them unsparingly to his old Democratic friends. And it is one more measure of Lincoln’s greatness that even this dishonest opportunist served him loyally and well. But Lincoln’s bumbling successor, Andrew Johnson, brought the conniver back out. Stanton praised Johnson warmly to his face and condemned him unsparingly to his enemies.
When the 1867 Tenure of Office Act came up in the cabinet, “Mr. Stanton was more earnest and emphatic in the expression of his objections than any member of the Cabinet,” Orville Hickman Browning noted in his diary. A second cabinet member’s diary corroborates the observation. The Tenure of Office Act was a trap radical Republicans passed to build a case for impeachment, and it revolved around Stanton. It stipulated that the president couldn’t remove certain officeholders without Senate approval.
When Johnson asked Stanton to write the message vetoing the bill, Stanton demurred on grounds of poor health. For good reason, Johnson wanted Stanton’s “emphatic” views in writing, and for equally good reason, Stanton did not. Stanton later cited the act in defying the president’s authority to remove him from office. The resulting quarrel between the president and his subordinate was the direct cause of the first presidential impeachment in American history.
History’s recurring rhythms are never exact repetitions. But if Stanton’s example is any guide, President Trump’s harshest anonymous critic may also be his warmest admirer.
Mr. Rowe is a teaching fellow in the social sciences at the University of Chicago.