On April 15, 1865 when Andrew Johnson became president upon the death of Abraham Lincoln the former inherited Lincoln’s cabinet, which included War Secretary Edwin Stanton. On 28 May Johnson announced a Reconstruction plan based upon his executive authority. According to Stanton the plan was thoroughly discussed in the cabinet where nobody expressed any “doubt of the power of the executive branch…to reorganize the [Southern] states.”
During the next three years, however, Johnson would battle a Radical Republican Congress over Reconstruction. Stanton increasingly sided with Congress but remained in the cabinet, essentially as a spy. In order to protect Stanton’s advantageous position, on March 3, 1867 Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act over Johnson’s veto. The Act specified that no cabinet member could be removed without consent of the Senate. If the Senate were not in session, it would vote when it reconvened.
When Johnson learned that Stanton had earlier withheld a military court’s clemency recommendation for the only female member of Lincoln’s assassin conspirators he could no longer abide the subordinate. Thus, he appointed Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant as temporary War Secretary with the understanding that if Stanton’s removal was not sanctioned by the Senate when it returned Grant would either keep his temporary title thereby enabling Johnson to take the dispute to the Supreme Court, or give Johnson time to replace Grant with another appointee who could likewise trigger judicial review. Johnson correctly believed the Tenure of Office Act to be unconstitutional. (Ironically, so did Stanton when the bill was initially submitted.)
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On January 4, 1868 Grant learned the Senate had rejected Stanton’s removal. The general vacated the office but did not, according to Johnson, keep his word to notify the president. As a result, Stanton reoccupied the office. Johnson next instructed Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to order Stanton out and to take over the office, but Stanton refused to leave.
Stanton had to physically remain in his office until the conflict between Congressional and Presidential authority was settled. It took months and was ultimately determined by the failed Andrew Johnson impeachment trial…But that’s another story, and a good one.
Initially, however, Stanton needed to adapt to living continuously in his office in order to keep General Thomas from moving in. Bodyguard Sergeant Louis Koerth, became Stanton’s steady companion. Stanton asked his wife, Mary, to provide the two with regular meals. Mary, however, thought her husband was behaving childishly and refused to send anything over. Consequently, Koerth got groceries and the two men prepared a stew that they cooked in an office fireplace.
They dozed off watching the flames. Suddenly the sergeant awakened upon hearing: “Koerth! Koerth! Wake up man, the stew is burning!”
Stanton tried Mary a second time by sending one of his sons to see her. Mary relented and sent her husband food, clothing, blankets, and pillows.
Perhaps H. L. Mencken had a similar story in mind when he quipped decades later:
“A man may be a fool and not know it…but not if he’s married.”