Edwin M. Stanton could be a pill. Irritable, sarcastic and often completely unreasonable, no doubt many of the Union Generals who had to deal with him often thought that they were dealing with a very mad man. Mad in an emotional sense Stanton often was, anger often seeming to be the prime emotion he displayed throughout his career, at least after the death of his beloved first wife in 1844 which had a souring impact on his disposition. However, he was also a very able man, and that compensated for his complete lack of tact in dealing with virtually everyone he came into contact. Prior to becoming Secretary of War he had been one of the ablest attorneys in the country. Doubtless his most famous, or rather infamous case, was in the defense of future Union general Daniel Sickles.
Sickles in 1859 was a Democrat Congressman from New York, already notorious for having been censured for bringing a prostitute into the New York General Assembly chamber. Leaving his pregnant wife at home, on a trip to England he had introduced the same prostitute, Fanny White, to Queen Victoria under an alias, the surname of which was that of a political opponent in New York. Sickles obviously viewed his vow of marital fidelity with complete contempt. However he did not view the vow of fidelity given to him by his wife Teresa in the same light. When he found out on February 26, 1859 that his long-suffering wife was carrying on an affair with the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, Philip Barton Key II, the son of Francis Scott Key, the composer of the Star Spangled Banner, he murdered Key the next day in Lafayette Park across from the White House, shooting him through the heart. Sickles immediately surrendered to the Attorney General who lived just a few blocks away.
His trial was one of the most sensational in American history. Public opinion was almost totally on his side, painting Sickles as an outraged husband defending his wife Teresa from a villain who had seduced her. Sickles engaged a stellar defense team which included Stanton. The defense team had a problem. No matter what the public thought as to his motivation, Sickles was manifestly guilty. Stanton hit upon the idea of raising the novel defense of temporary insanity which had never before been successful in the United States. This was a true stroke of legal genius. It allowed the defense to put on endless lurid testimony as to the affair and, in effect, have the dead man tried rather than Sickles. In his closing argument Stanton portrayed the ever adulterous Sickles as a defender of marriage:
May it Please Your Honor: it becomes my duty to present some considerations in support of the points of law which had been submitted by the defense, and which points are in conformity with those which may be given to a jury…. there are two classes of cases in which a man may be exempted from judicial punishment for killing, namely, self-protection, which is a natural right, and, secondly, the defense of one’s household from a thief or robber. But there is a third class, arising from the social compact, for the law holds family chastity and the sanctity of the marriage bed, the Matron’s Honor and the Virgin’s Purity, to be more valuable and estimable in law than the property — or life — of any man.
The present case belongs to that class. The instructions presented by the defendant brings to the attention of the court two consistent lines of defense: one, that the act of the prisoner at bar is justified by the law of the land under these circumstances; the other, that whether justified or not, he is free from legal responsibility by reason of the state of the prisoner’s mind. “The family,” says a distinguished moralist, “is the cradle of sensibility, where the first lessons are taught of that tenderness and humanity which cement mankind together; and were they extinguished, the whole fabric of society would be dissolved.” If the adulterer be found in the husband’s bed, he is taken in the act, within the meaning of the law. If he provides a place for the express purpose of committing adultery with another man’s wife, and be found leading her, accompanying her, or following her to that place for that purpose, he is taken in the act. If he not only provides but habitually keeps such a place and is accustomed, by preconcerted signals, to entice the wife from the husband’s house, to accompany him to that vile den, and if he be found watching her, Spyglass in hand, and lying in wait around the husband’s house, he is taken in the act. If, moreover, he has grown so bold as to take a child of the injured husband, his little daughter, by the hand, to separate her from her mother, to take the child to the house of a mutual friend in order to enjoy the mother, it presents a case surpassing all that has ever been written of cold, villainous, remorseless lust. Who, seeing this thing, would not exclaim to the unhappy husband, “hasten, hasten hasten to save the mother of your child. Although she be lost as a wife, rescue her from the horrid adulterer; and may the Lord, who watches over the home and the family, guide the bullet and direct your stroke.” [Applause here]. The death of Key was a cheap sacrifice to save a young mother from the horrible fate which, on that Sabbath day, hung over this prisoner’s life and the mother of his child. The husband here beheld the adulterer in the very act of withdrawing his wife from his room, from his presence, from his arm, from his wing, from his nest; meets him in that act and slays him; and we say that the right to slay him stands on the firmest principles of self-defense. [Thunderous applause and cheers.]
In spite of the novelty of the defense, the verdict of not guilty was a foregone conclusion by the end of the trial. Sickles went on to play a colorful and controversial role in the Army of the Potomac. He publicly forgave his wife and took her back, which outraged public opinion far more than the murder of Key. Stanton was now perhaps the most famous attorney in the country, being appointed by James Buchanan as his Attorney General in December of 1860 where he vigorously opposed secession. Serving as legal advisor to Secretary of War Simon Cameron under Lincoln, he stepped into Cameron’s shoes as Secretary of War on January 15, 1862.