Edward Bates, U.S. Attorney General

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Edward Bates

Birthdate: (75)
Birthplace: Goochland County, Virginia
Death: Died
Place of Burial: Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO
Immediate Family:

Son of Thomas Fleming Bates and Caroline Matilda Bates
Husband of Julia Davenport Bates
Father of Colonel Julian Bates (Missouri militia); Lieutenant Fleming Bates (CSA); Nancy Coalter Bates; Joshua Barton Bates; John C. Bates, Army Chief of Staff and 2 others
Brother of Frederick Bates, 2nd Governor of Missouri; Fleming Bates; Charles Fleming Bates; James W. Bates, US Congress; Tarleton Bates and 6 others

Occupation: US Attorney General-Lincoln's Cabinet
Managed by: Terry Hubert Brown
Last Updated:

About Edward Bates, U.S. Attorney General


Edward Bates (September 4, 1793 – March 25, 1869) was a U.S. lawyer and statesman. He served as United States Attorney General under Abraham Lincoln from 1861 to 1864. He was the younger brother of Frederick Bates, second governor of Missouri, and James Woodson Bates, who was an attorney and politician in Arkansas.


Born in Goochland County, Virginia on his family's Belmont plantation, Bates was tutored at home as a boy. When older, he attended Charlotte Hall Military Academy in Maryland.


Edward Bates served in the War of 1812 before moving to St. Louis, Missouri Territory in 1814 with his older brother James, who started working as an attorney. Frederick Bates was already in St. Louis by that time, where he had served as Secretary of the Louisiana Territory and Secretary of the Missouri Territory.

Edward Bates studied the law with Rufus Easton and boarded with his family. Easton was Judge of the Louisiana Territory, the largest jurisdiction in U.S. history after the Louisiana Purchase. After being admitted to the bar, Bates worked as a partner with Easton.

In 1817 the two organized the James Ferry, which ran from St. Charles, Missouri to Alton, Illinois. Easton had founded the latter town, naming it after his first son Alton.

Bates's private practice partner was Joshua Barton, who would be the first Missouri Secretary of State. Barton became infamous for fighting duels on Bloody Island (Mississippi River). In 1816 Bates was the second to Barton in a duel with Thomas Hempstead, brother of Edward Hempstead, the Missouri Territory's first Congressional representative. The fight ended without bloodshed. Barton would be killed in a duel on the island in 1823.

Bates' first foray into politics came in 1820, when he was elected as a member of the state's constitutional convention. He wrote the preamble to the state constitution—an honor that later influenced his fight against the radical Missouri Constitution of 1865. He next was appointed as the new state's attorney general.

In 1822, Bates was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives. He moved up to the United States House of Representatives for a single term (1827–1829). He was elected to the State Senate from 1831 to 1835, then to the Missouri House from 1835. He ran for the U.S. Senate, but lost to Democrat Thomas Hart Benton.

Bates became a prominent member of the Whig Party during the 1840s, where his political philosophy closely resembled that of Henry Clay. During this time, he became interested in the case of the slave Polly Berry, who in 1843 gained her freedom decades after having been held illegally in the free state of Illinois for several months. Bates argued as her attorney in the separate freedom suit which she filed for her daughter Lucy Berry, then about age 14. According to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, since the mother had been proved a free woman at the time of her daughter's birth, Lucy also gained her freedom. During this time, Orion Clemens, brother of Mark Twain, studied law under Bates.

In 1850 President Millard Fillmore asked Bates to serve as U.S. Secretary of War, but he declined. Charles Magill Conrad accepted the position. At the Whig National Convention in 1852, Bates was considered for the vice-presidential slot on the ticket, and he led on the first ballot before losing on the second ballot to William Alexander Graham.

After the breakup of the Whig Party in the 1850s, Bates became a Republican, and was one of the four main candidates for the party's 1860 presidential nomination. He received support from Horace Greeley, who later switched to supporting Abraham Lincoln. The next year, after winning the election, Lincoln appointed Bates as his Attorney General, an office Bates held from 1861 until 1864. Bates was the first Cabinet member to hail from the region west of the Mississippi River.

Attorney General

Bates's tenure as Attorney General generally met with mixed reviews. On the one hand, he was important in carrying out some of Lincoln's earlier war policies, including the arbitrary arrest of southern sympathizers and seditious northerners. On the other hand, as Lincoln's policies became more radical, Bates became increasingly irrelevant. Bates disagreed with Lincoln on emancipation and the recruitment of blacks into the Union Army. In 1864, Lincoln nominated Salmon P. Chase to be Chief Justice, an office which Bates had wanted, and he decided to resign his office.

Later activities

Bates returned to Missouri after leaving the cabinet. He participated in the conservative struggle against the adoption of the Missouri constitution of 1865. He authored seven essays arguing against the constitution. He particularly objected to the "ironclad oath" required as a proof of loyalty, and the disfranchisement of rebel sympathizers. But his efforts proved unsuccessful.

After the new constitution was ratified in the summer of 1865, Bates retired from politics altogether. He provided commentary on political events in the local newspapers, but never again played a prominent role in public policy. He died in St. Louis in 1869.

Marriage and family

Bates married Miss Julia Coalter from South Carolina. They had 17 children together. Her brother David Coalter lived in St. Louis, and her sister Caroline J. Coalter married Hamilton R. Gamble, another attorney of the city, who became the chief justice of the State Supreme Court.

Bates was, for the most part, happy with his large family. During the Civil War, his son Fleming Bates served with the Confederates, under the command of General Sterling Price. This was a cause of tension between the father and the son, and Bates rarely mentioned Fleming in his war-time diary. Another son, John C. Bates, served in the US Army and later became Army Chief of Staff. The youngest son, Charles, was still at West Point during the war

He was Attorney General in Lincoln's Cabinet when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed

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Edward Bates, U.S. Attorney General's Timeline

September 4, 1793
Goochland County, Virginia
Age 30
Age 33
Age 39
Age 40
Age 48
St. Charles County, Missouri
Age 50
March 25, 1869
Age 75