Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

11.5 The Man Who Would Be Chief Justice: Attorney General Edward Bates


Lincoln's Attorney General, Edward Bates

Lincoln's Attorney General, Edward Bates

Edward Bates, Lincoln’s Attorney General, was also one of Lincoln’s opponents for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860.  An ardent Whig and former supporter of the Know Nothing Party (a fiercely “nativist” party that defined themselves as anti-immigration and anti-naturalization), Bates was controversial in his position on slavery:  although he opposed it, he also supported the deportation of freed blacks from the country.

Unlike his peers on the Cabinet, Bates did not jockey for superior positions or try to rival Lincoln in any way.  He respected the President as his leader, although he wondered if Lincoln had the political gumption to maintain order over the rest of the Cabinet (especially when contending with strong personalities such as Seward, Chase, and Stanton.)

One of Bates’ major accomplishments during his term in office was the establishment of a precedent for jurisdictions in military arrests.  Because the country had not entered into a conflict with the scope of the Civil War, this precedent had never been determined–who would try civilians arrested during the war?  Should it be the state/civilian courts?  Or would this task fall to the military?  Critically, Bates chose the latter option, as civilian conduct during war would fall under military codes of law.  Technically, in most cases, they would not be in violation of civilian statutes.

Although Bates had no ambition to grow himself towards the Presidency, there was one role he coveted greatly:  that of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  He as much as asked Lincoln for the role following the death of Chief Justice Roger Taney in October 1864.  He regarded the position as a capstone to his career, stating,  “I could not desire to close my public life more honorably, than by a brief term of service in that eminent position.”  He even went so far as to suggest he would only hold the position for 2 or 3 years, and resign after that time, allowing Lincoln to appoint a successor before he ended his second Presidential term.

However, it was not to be;  Lincoln instead appointed Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, a less logical but more politically expedient choice.  Bates resigned in November of 1864, before Chase assumed his new role on the Supreme Court.