Edwin Stanton: Facial Hair Rock Icon

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (111-B-4559)
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (111-B-4559)

Attorney General, Secretary of War, Supreme Court Justice, inspiration for ZZ-Top?

Whether the bearded rock band drew their inspiration from Stanton is unclear, but one thing is certain: Edwin Stanton would have made a fine rock star, playing by his own rules and shaking things up in Washington. In fact, perhaps the most fascinating thing about Edwin Stanton’s beard is that it’s the least fascinating thing about a man who defined three US presidencies.

  • As a lawyer, he once remarked “Why did you bring that damned long armed ape here?” about an attorney on his law team. The man was future President (and boss) Abraham Lincoln.*
  • In 1859, he was the first American lawyer to successfully use the plea of temporary insanity to protect his client, future Union General Daniel Sickles, from the charge that he killed the son of Francis Scott Key.
  • In 1860, President James Buchanan appointed Stanton as Attorney General, and it was Stanton who is largely credited with keeping the Buchanan administration in check during its final months in office.
  • Following Lincoln’s assassination, then-Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was ultimately responsible for the fate of John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators as they were tried in military, not civilian courts.
  • When Andrew Johnson assumed office, Stanton stayed on as Secretary of War much longer than Johnson preferred, barricading himself in his office and leading to Johnson’s near-impeachment.
  • As if this all weren’t enough, in 1869 the Senate confirmed Stanton (and by extension, his beard) as a Supreme Court Justice, though he died before he could sit on the court.

Not a bad track record for a man and his beard.  Learn more about Edwin Stanton by searching for him in our Archival Research Catalog, and be sure to catch “Discovering the Civil War” to discover other rock stars of the Civil War.

*Scholars disagree over the exact wording, but not the sentiment.

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