Name:  Edward Bates

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Born:  September 4, 1793
Died:  March 25, 1869
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Edward Bates, U.S. attorney general, was born in Goochland County, Virginia, to Caroline Woodson Bates and Thomas Fleming Bates, a merchant and planter. Young Edward was educated in Maryland by tutors and at a private academy. He served as a sergeant in the War of 1812, using the same musket that his father had used in the Revolutionary War. Honorably discharged in late 1813, he joined his older brother Frederick in St. Louis, where he studied law under the Missouri Territory’s most prestigious lawyer, Rufus Easton. In 1816 he passed the bar exam and established a successful law practice.

Bates’s rise in Missouri politics was rapid before it stalled for several years. In 1820 he was elected as a delegate to the state constitutional convention and was soon appointed as the state’s first attorney general. Two years he won a seat in the state legislature, then in 1826 was elected as the state’s only U.S. representative. As the second party system developed in the 1820s and 1830s, Bates’s nationalist views, including an advocacy of federal monies for internal improvements, led him to side with the National Republicans, then the Whigs. In Missouri, however, the Jacksonian Democrats gained preeminence under Thomas Hart Benton, causing Bates to lose his Congressional seat in the 1828 election. He resumed his law practice, but was elected to the state senate in 1830, then to the state house in 1834. Missouri’s Democratic majority still blocked greater political success for him. In 1850 he turned down an offer to serve as secretary of war in the Whig administration of President Millard Fillmore.

Like Abraham Lincoln and others, it was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that induced Bates to return to politics. He was not an abolitionist; rather, he had endorsed voluntary manumission by slaveowners and colonization of the freed slaves outside the United States. He was riled, however, by the new federal statute’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise line which had banned slavery north of 36° 30´ N. Since the Republican party struck him as too radical, he cooperated with the American (Know-Nothing) party while continuing to identify himself as a Whig, even after the party’s collapse. In September 1856 he presided at the Whig party’s final national convention, which endorsed the American party’s nomination of former-president Millard Fillmore for president.

In early 1860 Bates found himself the presidential favorite of conservative Republicans and, more unexpectedly, of radical abolitionist Horace Greeley, who was simply trying to stop the nomination of Senator William Henry Seward, the front-runner. Bates received 10 percent in the initial tally before Abraham Lincoln surged to capture the nomination on the third ballot. After the election, Bates accepted an offer from Lincoln to become U.S. attorney general. Bates wrote a legal defense of Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and successfully defended the administration’s naval blockade before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Increasingly, though, the president and his attorney general were at odds over policy, with Bates opposing Lincoln’s use of martial law and military trials against civilians, the admission of West Virginia as a state, and the employment of black troops, while only reluctantly accepting the Emancipation Proclamation. The two men also took separate sides concerning the tumultuous political situation in Missouri, with Bates favoring the conservatives and Lincoln leaning toward the radicals. Bates suffered a mild stroke in May 1864 and resigned later that year, effective December 1. He was disappointed when Lincoln bypassed him to name Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase to the vacant position of chief justice of the Supreme Court. Returning to Missouri, Bates supported the lenient Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson.

Sources consulted: American National Biography; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.











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