|The Stanton House, Morris, pictured in winter|
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Our grand Stanton House has connections to greatness
Edwin M. Stanton was a highly accomplished American in the 19th Century who helped preserve the Union. Abraham Lincoln came away with iconic status for doing that. Winning the Civil War is not a task that can fall on one man's shoulder's, though. Edwin Stanton was secretary of war under Lincoln during that tragic but (apparently) necessary test for the young U.S. nation. Alistair Cooke called the war "a firebell in the night."
Just recently there was a big-screen cinematic release called "Lincoln." He became the face of the Union side. But Stanton seemed a most essential right-hand man. And, we ought to care out here in West Central Minnesota. Edwin had a son named Lewis who came out here and helped give Morris its early personality. If my research is correct, Lewis must have been very young when coming here, like just out of high school. I have heard that Morris was judged a good place for him to live based on climate. He had some health issues.
It's hard to find much detailed information about Lewis. But he left behind a house that stands as his symbol. It's one of the several grand Victorian-style houses that were built here in the 1880s, a prosperous time. The houses were built like fortresses which was no coincidence. The outside world still had its share of dangers. We were a rough-hewn nation as you proceeded west.
You should know the Stanton House still stands. You can see it straight ahead as you turn off Pacific Avenue and head toward West Wind Village. Indeed, it still looks very grand. It dates back to 1880. It came to be known as "the Chimneys," along with the rather disparaging "Stanton's folly." Perhaps it was more ostentatious than needed? More trouble than it was worth?
I have been inside this grand old mansion. I interviewed a couple of exchange students there in my work for the local print media. I found the house to be quite agreeable in all respects. It's on Park Avenue in west Morris. Park Avenue had a grand and prestigious place in Morris' early history. It was the ideal place to take a buggy ride on a summer evening. Pacific and Park were the main arteries going through west Morris.
West Morris seems to have been planned with 90-degree angles not very much in mind. Whatever, it has blossomed into a quite fine place for many Morris residents to live. (I took a photo once of the infamous "five-way intersection.")
West Morris had the greater prestige in the days when Morris had the well-understood dichotomy of "east side" and "west side." People of English stock tended to settle on the west side. They had a natural advantage with their mastery of the English language. Non-English speaking immigrants tended to settle on the east side.
Today the old residential core of Morris is all quite homogeneous. If anything, it has a problem with aging homes. I suppose the main "prestige" is projected now by those new additions out on the eastern fringe, out toward the bypass and river. Our civilization plods along.
I predict that with our aging population and smaller families, small houses will become more trendy.
Edwin Stanton: dynamic person
The father of Lewis Stanton had the kind of life that should keep his name more high-profile. History can be odd in how it bestows attention. For example, the Union Civil War General name of George Thomas should be much better-remembered than he is. Another example is Edwin Stanton.
Edwin was an Ohio native and began his political life as a lawyer in that state, and as an antislavery Democrat. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1847 and to Washington, D.C. in 1856. In 1859 he was the defense attorney in the celebrated trial of Daniel Sickles, who would become a Union general. Sickles was tried for murdering his wife's lover (son of Francis Scott Key, incidentally). Sickles was acquitted after Stanton used the insanity defense which was then barely established.
Stanton was appointed U.S. attorney general under President James Buchanan. His adventures continued as he was sent west, way west of Morris, as he became an agent for land claims in California. The year: 1858. It was the year Minnesota became a state. In California Edwin broke up a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government of vast tracts of land.
Edwin developed a rock-solid commitment to preserving the Union. He is credited for influencing Buchanan's position away from entertaining thoughts of secession or perhaps accommodating it. Those thoughts instead gravitated to denouncing secession as unconstitutional and illegal. Such a commitment put Stanton in Lincoln's inner circle of public servants who would make the maximum commitment toward preserving the Union.
Stanton in fact became old Abe's closest advisor. He took the helm as Lincoln's secretary of war on January 15, 1862. He rolled up his sleeves for administering the huge (and presumably bureaucratic) war department. He was wary about any officers who were suspected of sympathies for the South. Lincoln said "without him, I should be destroyed." Stanton made a political switch, becoming a Republican.
The so-called "rebellion" of the South was put down, albeit with tremendous cost, sacrifice and tragedy. Indeed, a "firebell in the night."
The messy business was hardly over, though. How to come together again? In this respect Stanton fell into a deep conflict situation. He disagreed with the new president, Andrew Johnson, whose chief fame was - you're well aware if you stayed awake in history class - getting impeached.
Those were the days of "the bloody shirt." Politicians waved it, figuratively speaking, as a way of affirming the Union's efficacy. Johnson's problem? He seemed a little lenient. Stanton disagreed with Johnson's plans to readmit the seceded states to the Union without guarantees of civil rights for the freed slaves. Slavery! It must have gotten established here under the guiding hand of the Devil. The Civil War was the bloody price we paid.
We have a wonderful monument in Morris to the commitment of the Union cause: the Sam Smith statue at Summit Cemetery.
President Johnson tried to force Stanton from office in 1867. Stanton refused and the U.S. Senate stood behind him. Stanton had a central role in trying to impeach Johnson. The president escaped ouster by a single vote in the Senate.
Stanton went back to the legal profession after his significant government career. Ulysses Grant appointed Stanton to the Supreme Court but Stanton died four days after he was confirmed by the Senate. He was the second American other than a president to be on a U.S. postage stamp, good ol' Ben Franklin having been the first. It was Franklin, you might recall, who wanted the turkey, not the eagle, to be the national symbol. ("Turkeys are industrious.") This seven-cent stamp was issued in 1871.
Lewis was part of Edwin's second family. Edwin was first married to Mary Lamson in 1836. To that union two children were born. They resided in Cadiz OH. Mary died in 1844. Edwin married Ellen Hutchinson in 1856. This marriage was blessed by four children, Lewis coming along in 1862 (when the war's fury was at its height). The other three children were Eleanor (born in 1857), James (1861) and Bessie (1863).
What a tremendous mark Edwin left on our still-young nation. It was Edwin who gave the famous quote as Lincoln passed away: "Now he belongs to the ages." We can say the same of Edwin and his unflagging moral convictions, sharp legal mind and hesitance to compromise. I hope the 19th Century stays well preserved in Morris historical annals. Just close your eyes and imagine you're guiding a horse and buggy along Park Avenue on a nice still summer Sunday.
Click on the permalink below to see a vintage photo of Morris' Stanton House, from the Minnesota Digital Library.
I'm wondering if maybe Michael Eble's art students at UMM could begin doing paintings of scenes from Morris' past, to complement the current subject matter they portray? Old photos from the digital library would be the guide. How about the alfalfa arch?
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org