William M. Evarts

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William Maxwell Evarts
William M. Evarts - Brady-Handy.jpg
Former U.S. Senator from New York
From: March 4, 1885 – March 3, 1891
Predecessor Elbridge G. Lapham
Successor David B. Hill
27th United States Secretary of State
From: March 12, 1877 – March 7, 1881
President Rutherford B. Hayes
Predecessor Hamilton Fish, I
Successor James G. Blaine
29th Attorney General of United States
From: July 17, 1868 – March 4, 1869
President Andrew Johnson
Predecessor Henry Stanbery
Successor Ebenezer R. Hoar
Party Whig (before 1860)
Republican (since 1860)
Spouse(s) Helen Minerva Wardner

William Maxwell Evarts (February 6, 1818 – February 28, 1901) was a lawyer and Moderate Republican[1] from New York who was the state's U.S. senator for one term from 1885 to 1891. A member of the congressional "Half-Breeds" faction,[2] he previously served in the presidential administration of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Although sometimes extolled as a brilliant statesman, Evarts, like most Half-Breeds, supported civil service reform at the expense of blacks who had benefited from the patronage of pro-civil rights "Stalwarts," the conservative wing of the GOP.


Evarts was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Jeremiah F. Evarts and the former Mehitable Prescott Sherman. After attending Boston Latin School, he enrolled at Yale College, where graduated in 1837.[3] Evarts then attended Harvard Law School, proceeding to move to New York City and being admitted to the bar the following year.

Political career

During his earlier political career, Evarts was a member of the Whig Party.[4] Unlike other Northern Whigs who would later join the Republican Party, Evarts was not an abolitionist and even defended the Compromise of 1850 drafted by Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. His only involvement in the anti-slavery crusade was in the 1860 Lemmon case, which upheld authorization for the state of New York not to return any blacks who came by sea from slavery into another state where slavery was practiced.[4]

During the 1860 presidential election, Evarts supported the Republican nomination of William H. Seward over Abraham Lincoln.[4] Lincoln, however, obtained the nomination and would win the general election.

In 1861, Evarts unsuccessfully sought the Class III Senate seat from New York;[3] the party nomination instead went to Ira Harris.[5]

Evarts defends Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat who assumed the presidency following the assassination of Lincoln, pushed for a lenient course on Reconstruction and came into odds with congressional Radical Republicans who wanted harsher policies. Radical Republicans passed the Tenure of Office Act, which Johnson violated by firing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and subsequently faced impeachment over.

Evarts served in the defense team on behalf of Johnson in the Senate trial,[4] a position he retained at the decision of the president following the urging of William H. Seward.[3] His influence was regarded as instrumental in saving the president,[6] as Johnson was expected to be convicted due to a strong Republican majority, though ultimately was acquitted due to a "nay" from Kansas Republican Edmund G. Ross.

Afterwards, Evarts obtained a post in the Johnson Administration as Attorney General.[3][4]

Vain revolt against Conkling, 1873

In the 1872–73 elections, Evarts again ran for New York's Class III Senate seat which this time was held by Republican Roscoe Conkling, a staunch conservative and leader of congressional Stalwarts who adamantly supported civil rights. Seeking the position with Liberal Republican Party credentials, he obtained only one vote in the state legislature as Conkling easily won re-election.[7]

Support for Hayes, Compromise of 1877

Hayes, who Evarts helped become president through the Compromise of 1877.

The 1876 presidential election between Rutherford Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden was tainted with Democrat election fraud, voter suppression, and subsequent controversy. At the urging of Evarts and other Republicans, a commission to review and examine the election was established.[4] Evarts served as a counsel to the Republicans in the commission, and helped ensure the presidency went to Hayes by successfully convincing commission member Joseph P. Bradley, a Supreme Court justice, to grant a number of disputed electoral votes to Hayes.[6]

Despite the presidency still retained by the Republican Party, a backdoor deal with Southern Democrats that involved Hayes-allied Republicans such as Evarts was agreed to: federal troops would be completely withdrawn from Southern states, ensuring all but a Jim Crow Democrat takeover of the region.[6]

Thus, Hayes, along with like-minded Half-Breeds such as Evarts, William Wheeler and George McCrary, coldly turned their back on Southern blacks.[8]

Secretary of State

Hayes subsequently nominated Evarts to become U.S. Secretary of State in spite of objections by Sen. Conkling, and further alienated Republicans in nominating Liberal Republican Party leader Carl Schurz to become Secretary of the Interior.[9] The fact that Evarts previously turned against the party on a crucial issue of the Johnson impeachment caused Hayes' nomination of him to irritate more than merely congressional Stalwarts.[8]

The opposition in the Senate included that of Maine Republican James G. Blaine,[3] who opposed civil service reform. However, Evarts' nomination was approved on March 10, 1877, and his tenure began two days later.

Patronage matters

Both Hayes and Evarts supported civil service reform,[10] and in 1878 the former along with Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman fired loyal Conkling Stalwart (and future president) Chester A. Arthur from the prestigious Collector of the Port of New York position. This was due to the fact that Arthur, a spoilsman, had hired thousands of Republicans into government positions on the basis of party affiliation without regard for qualifications.

Hayes himself wrote of civil service reform following the appointments of Evarts and Schurz:[9]

Now for civil service reform. . . . We must limit the area of patronage. We must diminish the evils of office seeking. We must stop interference of federal officers with elections.

—Rutherford B. Hayes, April 1877

The powerful New York patronage machine had for many years been controlled by Sen. Conkling, though Arthur's firing marked the beginning of its decline. Hayes and Evarts sought to rebuild the machine such that it would be loyal to reformers.[10][11][note 1] Indeed, Evarts along with Schurz had been appointed by Hayes a committee that would designate new rules for appointments to public offices.[9]

Foreign policy

Evarts helped spearhead efforts to expand American trade worldwide.[4] In spite of commercial competition between the U.S. and England, he was friendly towards the latter like most New Yorkers in his class though protested intrusion into Guatemala by the English.

In a negotiation with Colombia, Evarts helped stifle efforts by France to build a canal right through the Isthmus of Panama; the French effort ultimately failed, though the result was largely attributed to other factors.[4] Evarts continued efforts to heavily increase American influence on the world stage, particularly recognizing the potential of the U.S. controlling a crucial canal.

Among difficult decisions during Evarts' tenure was whether or not to recognize a newly established Mexican government under the leadership of Porfirio Díaz.[3] In contrast to previous Secretaries of State who simply recognized new governments of Mexico that overthrew the rule of previous ones, Evarts initially stated several conditions in return for recognizing the Díaz government, which included the right of American troops to cross the border in order to pursue Indian raiders.[3] Díaz responded with sharp opposition, though a potential escalation of conflicts was halted due to Evarts backing down and extending a recognition. However, the order that allowed for U.S. pursuit across the border was not repealed until 1880.[3]

Diplomacy with Eastern Asian countries proved to be Evarts' area of significant accomplishments.[4] He increased trade between the U.S. and Japan, in addition to successfully urging Hayes to veto a Chinese exclusion bill favored by left-wing populists from Western states such as California.[4]

U.S. Senate, 1885–91

Despite two previous defeats for U.S. Senate, Evarts emerged victorious in 1885 in the Class III seat against Democrat mayor Edward Cooper, garnering the votes of ninety-two state legislature votes to Cooper's sixty-five.[12] During his tenure, he sponsored the Judiciary Act of 1891 which created the United States Court of Appeals.[13]

According to a DW-NOMINATE analysis of Evarts' voting record in terms of ideology, he was on average more liberal than 64% of Republican senatorial colleagues during his tenure.[1] His ideology score was a 0.284, relatively lower than that of most party colleagues.

Evarts narrowly lost re-election in 1891 to Democrat Governor David B. Hill.[14]


Truth is to the moral world what gravitation is to the material.[6]


  1. 1.0 1.1 EVARTS, William Maxwell (1818-1901). Voteview. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  2. Welch, Richard E., Jr. (1968). George Edmunds of Vermont: Republican Half-Breed, p. 65. Vermont History. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Biographies of the Secretaries of State: William Maxwell Evarts (1818–1901). Department of the Historian. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 4.9 William Maxwell Evarts. Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  5. NY US Senate - R Caucus Race - Feb 02, 1861. Our Campaigns. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 William Maxwell Evarts. Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  7. NY US Senate Race - Jan 21, 1873. Our Campaigns. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Dehler, Gregory (April 27, 2020). Everything Wrong with the Hayes Administration. Libertarianism.org. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Newcomer, Lee (1937). CHESTER A. ARTHUR: THE FACTORS INVOLVED IN HIS REMOVAL FROM THE NEW YORK CUSTOMHOUSE. JSTOR. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  10. 10.0 10.1 The Remarkable Roscoe: Friend and Nemesis of Presidents (Part I). National Park Service. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  11. The Remarkable Roscoe, Part II. National Park Service. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  12. NY US Senate Race - Jan 21, 1885. Our Campaigns. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  13. William M. Evarts. Historical Society of the New York Courts. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  14. NY US Senate Race - Jan 21, 1881. Our Campaigns. Retrieved December 20, 2021.


  1. The evident irony of Hayes and Evarts' efforts were that, despite their support of civil service reform to rid corruption and patronage, they essentially sought after a political machine that would still be run in the fashion of a spoils system by some metrics.

Further reading

External links

  • Profile at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  • Papers at Harvard Library
  • Profile at Find a Grave