Shortest term on the Supreme Court, and an unexpected controversy

Real history has enough mystery and controversy in it that one need not make up fictions.

I posed a question about who served the shortest term on the Supreme Court.

I had stumbled across the fact, and found it interesting: Edwin McMasters Stanton was a Supreme Court Associate Justice for one day in 1869.

Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's Sec. of War, Or was he? In the comments to my previous post, Ray from Anything Goes Discussions Edutechation (or Education Technology, more formally) pointed out that the official list of members from the Supreme Court Historical Association denies that Stanton took the oath of office, and so does not list him as a Member of the Court. What are the facts?

One source I have said Stanton took the oath of office on his deathbed, and died within hours. (Wikipedia agrees, but on such an issue, without reference, one should not trust it unconditionally.) The list from the Supreme Court specifically mentions the need to take the oath of office to be a Member, and leaves Stanton off the list, suggesting that he did not take the oath. What’s the truth in this matter? I do not know.

Stanton was an outstanding man by most measures. A very successful lawyer in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and then Washington, D.C., he is credited with being the first lawyer to get a client off on a charge of murder with an insanity defense (the man murdered was the son of Francis Scott Key — what a web!) Stanton was appointed Attorney General by President James Buchanan in 1860. Stanton opposed the election of Abraham Lincoln.

When Lincoln took office, however, Stanton was persuaded to act as legal advisor to Sec. of War Simon Cameron.* Cameron was regarded as inefficient, and in need of strong aides. Stanton replaced Cameron as head of the War Department in 1862, becoming a member of the contentious cabinet of Abraham Lincoln memorialized by Doris Stearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals (see the first chapter, here). Stanton had his quirks — like persecuting Union officers he thought to be disloyal — but Lincoln defended him from criticism, and he ran the War Department well. Stanton learned to appreciate Lincoln, became a Republican, and upon Lincoln’s death offered words that became famous on their own: “Now he belongs to the ages.” And, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.”

Stanton stayed on as Sec. of War during Andrew Johnson’s administration, but the two did not see eye to eye. When President Johnson tried to fire Stanton, Stanton barricaded himself in his office — the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives claimed Johnson’s attempt violated the ill-thought Tenure of Office Act, and this was the chief count listed in the impeachment articles against Johnson, in the nation’s first impeachment of a president (Johnson was acquitted at trial in the Senate, by one vote). Stanton was the nexus of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

Stanton resigned, returning to the private practice of law. After members of the Senate and House of Representatives petitioned him to do so, President Grant nominated Stanton to the Supreme Court; the Senate confirmed the nomination on December 20, 1869. Stanton suffered a stroke, and died on December 24.

Thomas Nast penned one of his most famous cartoons, published in Harper’s Weekly on January 15, 1870, about complaints about Stanton after his death (see the previous post).

It’s a remarkable life. And it ends in mystery: Was he the shortest-tenured member of the Supreme Court? Did he take the required oath of office on December 24, 1869, before he died?



One Response to Shortest term on the Supreme Court, and an unexpected controversy

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