The Reaper Case: A Prelude for Greatness to Come?

Source: The Reaper Case: A Prelude to Greatness to Come?

Just returned from a road trip with my family from Mt Rushmore, Keystone, South Dakota. Carved on the granite mountain top are the faces of 4 influential American Presidents- Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt.

Among American Presidents leaders, Lincoln stands out tall. He is consistently counted among the top two in most lists of American Presidents by the public as well as by historians. His greatness shines through despite having had no formal education and a start from very humble beginnings. This story provides a window into this great mind who shaped American history in the most profound manner.

1854 AD- United States:

A watershed year in American history. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, reopens the divisive question of the expansion of slavery into the territories. In Springfield, Illinois, a small frontier state capital, a tall gaunt looking ‘awkward and clumsy’man by the name of Abraham Lincoln is practicing law after a few unsuccessful forays in state politics.

Who would have even thought in 1855 that this 46 years-old gangly man (with no formal education to speak of, practicing law in a small rural frontier town after an unsuccessful foray into politics), would be propelled into the pantheons of American history  as one of the greatest American President just within a decade. Lincoln’s legacy has stood the test of time for over 160 years as he is consistently ranked  as one of the greatest American presidents by scholars and the public alike.

His imposing bigger than life busts, on  Mt Rushmore and the Lincoln Memorial in he Mall at Washington, DC are symbols of his everlasting legacy and contributions to his country and countrymen. The  Lincoln Memorial is the very place where almost 100 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the ‘I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963.

How did this’ gentle giant’ despite the many disadvantages in his early life, reach the pinnacle in American minds. Was it an accident? Or were the seeds of greatness already there when the ‘Reaper Case’ fell in his lap in the summer of 1855?

Summer of 1855:

The McCormick-Manny patent infringement case, famously called the “Reaper Case’ caught the nations interest. As farming grew in the bread basket of America- the Midwestern Plains,  farm equipment such as the reaper brought greater efficiency into farm production. 

It was a David and Goliath battle that pitted a nearly penniless Rockford inventor of a wheat reaper, John H. Manny, and his local partners, against the industrialist, Cyrus H. McCormick, Chicago’s largest employer. The stakes were high. If McCormick won, Manny would have had to stop producing his reapers plus pay McCormick $400,000.

Manny, heavily in debt at the time, hired two of the nation’s most prominent patent lawyers – George Harding and Peter H. Watson, as well as an up-and-coming attorney named Edwin Stanton. McCormick retained Edward M. Dickerson, a patent lawyer from New York, and Reverdy Johnson, one of the leaders of the American Bar. 

The lines of battle were drawn with the case to be heard in Springfield at the end of September. Manny decided it was worth the effort to hire a local lawyer from Springfield with some influence on the local judge. With the other lawyers being expensive, Manny wanted a ‘cheap’ lawyer and chose Abraham Lincoln. Although not tremendously impressed with the disheveled-looking Lincoln, Watson gave Lincoln a $500 retainer and promised that he would give the closing argument in the trial.

Lincoln started work on the brief with enthusiasm, travelling to Rockford to learn more about the Manny reaper over the next few months. Two weeks before the trial was set to begin, the case got abruptly reassigned to Cincinnati for the convenience of the presiding judge. But no one bothered to tell Lincoln. On Sept. 20, 1855, he arrives in Cincinnati prepared for trial, only to realize that he had been rudely excluded out of the company’s legal team which is now lead by Edwin Stanton as lead counsel. He and his legal preparation were ignored and he was not even invited to sit at their table in the courtroom.

When Lincoln arrived dressed in his best suit, Stanton saw him, and commented, in his brusque and abrupt way “Where did the long-armed baboon come from?” He described Lincoln as “A long, lank creature from Illinois, wearing a dirty linen duster for a coat, on the back of which perspiration had splotched two wide stains that,  emanating from each armpit, met at the center, and resembled a dirty map of a continent.” 

Harding described Lincoln as “a tall rawly boned, ungainly back woodsman, with coarse, ill-fitting clothing.” They decided that “the mere sight of him might jeopardize the case…”.During the week-long trial, “the defense team never included Lincoln in their deliberations, nor even invited him to join them for their meals at the hotel. Judge John McLean entertained all the lawyers at a dinner at his home, but Lincoln was not invited.” 

Lincoln was pushed aside, humiliated and mortified and was rudely forced to watch the entire proceedings as a spectator. He told William Herndon, his law firm partner later that he had been “roughly handled by that man Stanton.” According to Herndon, “Lincoln felt that Stanton had not only been very discourteous to him, but had purposely ignored him in the case, and that he had received rather rude, if not unkind, treatment from all hands.”  

However despite all of the happenings, Lincoln was struck by the brilliance of Edwin Stanton in the court. Seeing Stanton’s arguments, when Lincoln left the city, he told a friend: “Emerson, I am going home to study law. You know that for any rough-and-tumble case (and a pretty good one, too) I am enough for any man we have out in that country; but these college trained men are coming West. They have had all the advantages of a life-long training in the law, plenty of time to study and everything, perhaps, to fit them. Soon they will be Illinois, and I must meet them. I am just going home to study law, and when they appear I will be ready.”

Fast-forward 1961-1865:

Abraham Lincoln is elected as the 16th American President in the spring of 1861. A month later, April 12, 1961 the firing of the canons at Ft Sumter heralds the beginning of the bloodiest four years in American history. Civil war breaks out between the Southern and the Northern states over the question of slavery.

One year into his presidency, with the war effort in a mess, President Lincoln is forced to let go of his Secretary of War Simon Cameron for his incompetence at the War Department. As Lincoln is scouring the landscape to find the best person for the job, his mind goes back to the ‘Reaper case’. Despite his painful personal recollections of the unfoldings in Cincinnati, he is also reminded of the brilliance of the man- Edwin M. Stanton.

Lincoln asks and appoints  attorney Edwin M. Stanton as his next Secretary of War in 1862.

Not only was this appointment a surprise because Stanton was a Democrat but as the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “Unimaginable as it might seem, after Stanton’s bearish behavior, at their next encounter six years later, Lincoln would offer Stanton ‘the most powerful civilian post within his gift’ — the post of secretary of war. 

Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller noted: “Stanton in 1860 and 1861 stood about as far as could be from Lincoln, by party, by ideology, and — especially important — in his personal appraisal and personal relationship.” 

Stanton quickly took the reins of the War Department and mobilized the department in a way no one had done before. Stanton was a complex and driven man — who combined the moral certainty of an Old Testament prophet with the compulsion of a crusader.

A man of immense mental power, he was energetic, forceful, personally honest, a prodigious worker and a master of detail. He was supremely confident of his own ability to cope with any problem. Was he not one of the most successful lawyers in the land, whose fees were averaging $50,000 a year? Stanton was an easy man to dislike, for he was intense, hard-driving, opinionated, and quick-tempered. He could be rude and overbearing. He did not suffer fools or bores gladly. 

‘I never knew a man who could do so much work in a given time. He was  a man utterly absorbed in the idea of the republic one and indivisible; and he lived for it, wore himself out in the service…consumed by his devotion to public duties.” “Night after night he remained in his office until a late hour and sometimes until daylight; not infrequently would his carriage be found standing at the door waiting for him when daylight came.”  

No two men were ever more utterly and irreconcilably unlike in their temperaments.  Stanton was the perfect foil to the qualities Lincoln had and they complemented each other like a sword in a scabbard. “The secretiveness which Lincoln wholly lacked, Stanton had in marked degree; the charity which Stanton could not feel, coursed from every pore in Lincoln. Lincoln was for giving a wayward subordinate seventy times seven chances to repair his errors; Stanton was for either forcing him to obey or cutting off his head without more ado. Lincoln was as calm and unruffled as the summer sea in moment of the gravest peril.; Stanton would lash himself into a fury over the same condition of things. Stanton would take hardships with a groan. Lincoln would find a funny story to fit them. Stanton was all dignity and sternness, Lincoln all simplicity and good nature.” Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote. 

Mr. Lincoln’s judgment often differed from Stanton’s — especially on cases of military discipline and pardon. The punishment for deserting ones post was to be shot in front of the firing squad for which the Secretary of War had to give approval. U.S. Marshal Ward Hill Lamon recalled: “On refusal of Mr. Stanton to accommodate in many such cases, Mr. Lincoln was appealed to, and his invariable reply was: ‘I cannot always know whether a permit ought to be granted, and I want to oblige everybody when I can; and Stanton and I have an understanding that if I send an order to him which cannot be consistently granted, he is to refuse it. This he sometimes does.’This state of things caused him to say to a man who complained of Stanton, ‘I have not much influence with Administration, but I expect to have more with the next.’” However, despite all his abrasiveness, there was a softness underneath that he revealed to few besides Lincoln. He would cry in private when he had to sign of no declining pardons to deserters.

Stanton aide Albert Johnson recalled: “While President Lincoln in everything he did or said was to one purpose, the exercise of power within the scope of the constitution, Mr. Stanton was for saving the Union whether the constitution was saved or not, since war with him could brook no hampering or limiting bounds, and as he said, to save the constitution at the expense of the Union, would only result in destroying both.”“Stanton’s will to win was as great as Lincoln’s, and he could pour himself into a fight to the death in a way that no other kind of war would have satisfied. He had a yearning for vengeance that merged seamlessly with the demands of patriotism.” Stanton and Lincoln just as quickly developed a working relationship — despite their very different. Their loyalty to each other and the nation was unquestioned and despite all the critique that came up to Lincoln, he was most unwilling to displace the Secretary and soon learned to deem the Secretary indispensable.

The two leaders’ relationship was solidified in the summer of 1862 when they began occupying adjoining cottages at the Soldiers’Home on the outskirts of Washington and rode back and forth together in deep discussions about the war.  Stanton’s friendship with Mr. Lincoln was also deepened in 1862 when they shared the deaths of their sons. Mr. Lincoln’s son Willie died in February and Stanton’s infant son James died in early July. Stanton became one of his closest friends, wherein they spent spent countless hours and helped alleviate some of his loneliness and it was one of those deep friendships which in particular had lasting consequences and contributed mightily to the Union victory.

Lincoln believed that at no period during the war, after Stanton had entered the Cabinet, did Lincoln feel that any other man could fill Stanton’s place with equal usefulness to the country. He had the most unbounded faith in Stanton’s loyalty and in his public and private integrity. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “Implacable and abrasive as Stanton could be, his scrupulous honesty, energy, and determination were invaluable to Lincoln.”  “had been stubborn champion of the Union in the darkest months of its history. He had dealt with treason and stratagem without mercy. His patriotism was of the most unflinching kind.”

In the fall of 1864, President Lincoln discussed with General Ulysses S. Grant the possibility of a vacancy in the War Department. At this White House conference, Grant commented: “I doubt very much whether you could select as efficient a Secretary of War as the present incumbent. He is not only a man of untiring energy and devotion to duty, but even his worst enemies never for a moment doubt his personal integrity and the purity of his motives; and it tends largely to reconcile the people to the heavy taxes they are paying when they feel an absolute certainty that the chief of the department which is giving out contracts for countless millions of dollars is a person of scrupulous honesty.”

One midnight, when Lincoln was heard climbing the stairs to the War Department telegraph office for news of his armies, someone heard Stanton tell the telegrapher to hide telegrams giving bad news and to find something favorable to that Lincoln would be able to sleep that night.” 

On another occasion, Lincoln was informed that the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, had refused to execute a presidential order-and further, had called the president a “damn fool.”  “He called me a damn fool?” Lincoln asked.  “Yes!  Not once, sir, but twice!” replied the excited congressman, who had brought him this news.  “Well, Stanton speaks what is on his mind, and he is usually right about what he speaks, so if he called me a damn fool, I must be a damn fool.  I will go to him now and find out why.”

April 1865:

Lincoln barely in his second term as President, unfortunately becomes one of the last victims of the Civil War as he is fatally shot by  the Wilkes Booth while watching a play at Ford Theatre. Stanton’s arrives at Peterson House on the night of President Lincoln’s assassination: “After consoling Mrs. Lincoln, Secretary Stanton was briefed on the overall situation. Then, bracing himself, he went to the back bedroom. As he looked down at the president, Surgeon General Barnes whispered the obvious: Mr. Lincoln cannot recover. Acknowledging with a faint nod, Stanton lowered himself into a chair next to the bed. All eyes turned to him in anticipation of some pronouncement, but instead he burst into loud, convulsive sobs.” “Mr. Stanton alone was in full activity” that night at the Peterson House, noted Assistant War Secretary Charles A. Dana. “…he began and dictated orders, one after another, which I wrote out and sent swiftly to the telegraph. All these orders were designed to keep the business of the Government in full motion until the crisis should be over. It seemed as if Mr. Stanton thought of everything, and there was a great deal to be thought of that night. The extent of the conspiracy was, of course, unknown, and the horrible beginning which had been made naturally led us to suspect the worst. The safety of Washington must be looked after. Commanders all over the country had to be ordered to take extra precautions. The people must be notified of the tragedy. The assassins must be captured. The coolness and clearheadedness of Mr. Stanton under these circumstances were most remarkable.

it was none other than Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s reluctant co-counsel in the Great Reaper trial, who intoned: “He now belongs to the ages.”

Do you have the discipline to sculpt our character?

Over the years, I have read this story numerous times. It is hard not to be moved by these two great personalities who wrote this crucial chapter in American history. If not for their efforts in saving the Union of the States during this inflection point, America would have fragmented into numerous countries instead of the superpower it is today.

This story not only highlights why Lincoln is considered one of the greatest American President but also the tremendous qualities which Edwin Stanton possessed. Magic happens when such collaboration occur. Lincoln’s journey suggests that the true measure of a leader lies not in how much we cultivate and exploit our strengths, but in how we work on tapping, in Lincoln’s words, the “better angels of our nature” to use our strengths in the service of a cause much higher than our own personal gain.

The Reaper case did not bring Lincoln fame, but it taught him lessons which shaped him into the great man he became during his presidency. With very little in way of formal learning, his learning experience came from the ‘school of hard knocks.’ He learned from the little things in his life. Those little things changed the outcome of Lincoln’s future and the nation he served. Lincoln’s choice of Stanton revealed a singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness.

Lincoln’s life story holds a candle light for future generations looking for guidance in their lives. The question to ask ourselves is  whether  we see the potential for gradually sculpting one’s character over time, the way Lincoln did.What kind of life story could you craft for yourself if you chose to do that?

Post-script- the years after:

The relationship between Stanton and his new boss, however, was anything but harmonious due to differences over the Reconstruction Policy being applied in the South after the war; Stanton wanted stricter measures to be carried out. The president finally tried to remove Stanton from office, but Stanton refused to budge and resulted in the first ever impeachment proceedings (2nd being Bil Clinton) against a sitting President.  This face-off between the secretary of war and the president ended with Stanton deciding to relinquish his position on May 26, 1868, and return to practicing law.

Post the Lincoln era, in 1869, despite what occurred during President Andrew Johnson’s administration, Stanton was once again promoted by a president: President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Stanton to the U.S. Supreme Court. Tragically, the newly appointed Supreme Court justice died just four days later, on December 14, 1869, of respiratory failure, at age 55.

When Stanton died in 1869, Robert Todd Lincoln wrote the Secretary of War’s son, Edwin L. Stanton, that “when I recall the kindness of your father to me, when my father was lying dead and I felt utterly desperate, hardly able to realize the truth, I am as little able to keep my eyes from filling with tears as he was then.”

The super candid secretary of war is played by actor Bruce McGill in the 2012 film Lincoln, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln; previously, Stanton was portrayed by Kevin Kline in the 2010 movie The Conspirator, a film about bringing those behind the Lincoln assassination to justice.


Copiously borrowed from Wikepedia and Doris Kearns Goodwin book “Team of Rival”

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