Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Edwin M. Stanton

Edwin M. Stanton, whom President Lincoln selected for his Secretary of War, notwithstanding the fact that he had served in the cabinet of Buchanan, was born at Steubenville, Ohio, December 19th, 1814, and died in Washington, D. C., December 24th, 1869.

When fifteen years old he became a clerk in a book-store in his native town, and with money thus accumulated, was enabled to attend Kenyon College, but at the end of two years was obliged to re-enter the book-store as a clerk.

Thus through poverty he was deterred from graduating, but knowledge is just as beneficial, whether acquired in school or out. Thurlow Weed never had the advantages of a college, but stretched prone before the sap-house fire, he laid the foundation upon which he built that splendid reputation as an able editor; Elihu Buritt never saw the inside of a college school-room as a student, but while at the anvil, at work as a blacksmith, with book laying on a desk near, he framed the basis of that classical learning which made him, as master of forty different languages, the esteemed friend of John Bright and others of the most noted people the world has ever known.

As it was with them, so it was with Stanton. He had but little advantages, but he would not ‘down.’ It is said that if Henry Ward Beecher had gone to sea, as he desired to do, he would not have long remained, for in him was even then a ‘slumbering genius,’ But he himself once said that had it not been for his great love of work he never could have half succeeded. Ah, that’s it; if ability to accomplish hard ‘digging’ is not genius, it is the best possible substitute for it. A man may have in him a ‘slumbering genius,’ but unless he put forth the energy, his efforts will be spasmodic, ill-timed and scattered.

“Full many a gem, of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

Young men, there is truth hidden in these words, despite what some writers would make you think. They would argue that if you are to be a Milton, a Cromwell, a Webster, or a Clay, that you cannot help it, do what you will. Possibly, this may be so; it may not be thought proper for me to dispute their lordship, but it does seem to me that such arguments can give but little hope; if they have influence at all it cannot be an inspiring one. No, never mind the reputation; never pine to be a Lincoln, or a Garfield, but if you feel that your chances in youth are equal to theirs, take courage—WORK.

If you are a farmer strive to excel all the surrounding farmers. If a boot-black, make up your mind to monopolize the business on your block. Faculty to do this is the ‘best possible substitute for a slumbering genius,’ if perchance you should lack that ‘most essential faculty to success.’ At any rate, never wait for the ‘slumbering genius’ to show itself,—if you do, it will never awake but slumber on through endless time, and leave you groping on in midnight darkness.

But to return to Stanton. Whether he possessed a ‘slumbering genius’ does not appear, but certain it is that by down-right hard work he gained a knowledge of the law, and was admitted to the bar in 1836, when in his twenty-first year. While yet a young lawyer he was made prosecuting attorney of Harrison county. In 1842 he was chosen reporter of the Ohio Supreme Court, and published three volumes of reports.

In 1847 he moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but for nine years afterward retained his office in Steubenville, as well as that in Pittsburgh. In 1857 his business had so expanded that he found it necessary to move to Washington, D. C., the seat of the United States Supreme Court. His first appearance before the United States Supreme Court was in defence of the State of Pennsylvania against the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company, and thereafter his practice rapidly increased.

In 1858 he was employed by the national government as against the government of Mexico on land titles, deeds, etc. This great legal success, together with several others, won for him a national reputation. It has been stated by one of the leading jurists in the United States that the cause of nine out of ten of the failures in the legal profession is laziness, so common in lawyers, after being admitted to the bar. Once in, they seem to think that they have but to ‘sit and wait’ for business. Possibly their eye has, at one time or another, caught those sentiments so dear to some writers in regard to ‘the slumbering genius.’ Be that as it may, it is very evident that Stanton had never been idle, and was seldom obliged to ‘refer to his library’ before answering questions in relation to the law.

He was called to the high position of attorney-general in President Buchanan’s cabinet, and on January 11th, 1862, nine months after the inauguration of Lincoln, he was placed in the most responsible position in his cabinet at that time,—Secretary of War. His labors in this department were indefatigable, and many of the most important and successful movements of the war originated with him. Never, perhaps, was there a more illustrious example of the right man in the right place. It seemed almost as if it were a special Provincial interposition to incline the President to go out of his own party and select this man for this most responsible of all trusts, save his own.

With an unflinching force, an imperial will, a courage never once admitting the possibility of failure, and having no patience with cowards, compromisers or self-seekers; with the most jealous patriotism he displaced the incompetent and exacted brave, mighty, endeavor of all, yet only like what he exacted of himself. He reorganized the war with Herculean toil. Through all those long years of war he thought of, saw, labored for one end—victory. The amount of work he does in some of these critical months was absolutely amazing by its comprehension of details, the solution of vexed questions, the mastery of formidable difficulties, wonder was it his word sometimes cut like a sharp, quick blow, or that the stroke of his pen was sometimes like a thunderbolt. It was not the time for hesitation, or doubt, or even argument. He meant his imperiled country should be saved, and whatever by half-loyalty or self-seeking seemed to stand in the way only attracted the lightning of his power.

The nation owes as much to him as to any one who in council or in field contributed to its salvation. And his real greatness was never more conspicuous than at the time of Mr. Lincoln’s assassination. His presence of mind, his prompt decision, his unfailing faith and courage strengthened, those about him, and prevented the issue of a frightful panic and disorder following that unexpected assault upon the life of the republic. To have equipped, fed, clothed and organized a million and a-half of soldiery, and when their work was done in two days, to have remanded them back to the peaceful industries from which they had been called; to have had the nation’s wealth at his disposal, and yet so incorruptible that hundreds of millions could pass through his hands and leave him a poor man at the end of his commission, shattered in health, yet from necessity obliged to resume his legal practice, must for all time rank him among the world’s phenomena. Such a man, so true, so intent upon great objects must many a time have thwarted the greed of the corrupt, been impatient with the hesitation of the imbecile, and fiercely indignant against half-heartedness and disloyalty. Whatever faults, therefore, his enemies may allege, these will all fade away in the splendor with which coming ages will ennoble the greatest of war ministers in the nineteenth century. He will be remembered as “one who never thought of self, and who held the helm in sunshine and in storm with the same untiring grip.”

Nor were his services less valuable to his country when, after the surrender of the Confederate armies, the rebellion was transferred to the White House, and he stood the fearless, unflinching patriot against the schemes and usurpations of its accidental occupant. Mr. Stanton entered on his great trust in the fullest prime of manhood, equal, seemingly, to any possible toil and strain. He left his department incurably shorn of health. He entered upon it in affluence, with a large and remunerative practice. He left it without a stain on his hands, but with his fortune lessened and insufficient. Yet, when it was contemplated by some of his friends, after his retirement, to tender him a handsome gift of money, he resolutely and unhesitatingly forbade it, and the project had to be abandoned. He was as truly a sacrifice to his country as was the brave soldier who laid down his life in the prison-pen or sanctified the field with his blood. For an unswerving and passionate patriotism, for a magnificent courage, for rare unselfishness, for transcendent abilities, for immeasurable services to his country; the figure of the greatest war minister in modern times will tower with a noble grandeur, as undimmed and enviable a splendor as that of any in the history of the Republic; which, like his friend and co-worker, the great Lincoln, he gave his life to save.