William Maxwell Evarts

The American lawyer and statesman William Maxwell Evarts (1818-1901) was secretary of state under President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Born in Boston, William M. Evarts was educated at Boston Latin School and Yale College, from which he graduated in 1837. He attended the Dane Law School at Harvard and entered practice in New York City in 1841. In 1843 he married Helen Minerva Wardner. Evarts achieved early eminence at the New York bar, and in 1859 he formed what became one of the nation's most successful corporate law firms.

As a Whig, Evarts defended the Compromise of 1850 and played no part in the antislavery movement except to win the Lemmon slave case (1860). The decision upheld the right of the state of New York not to return to slavery any African Americans brought by sea from a slave state and sequestered in a free state for subsequent shipment back into slavery in a third state.

In 1860 Evarts, now a Republican, preferred William Seward to Abraham Lincoln as the Republican presidential candidate. During the Civil War, Evarts played only a minor diplomatic role; he was sent to England to help prevent the equipping of the Confederate Navy. As a conservative Republican, he found favor with Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, by successfully leading the defense of the President in the 1868 impeachment proceedings. Evarts was named attorney general, serving until the end of Johnson's term in 1869.

Although never a favorite of President U.S. Grant, Evarts was named, with Caleb Cushing and Morrison R. Waite, as counsel before the Geneva arbitration tribunal in the Alabama Claims case. The three lawyers won a settlement for Civil War damages from England and established a precedent for the arbitration of international disputes.

In 1877 Evarts was counsel for the Republican party before the electoral commission appointed to settle the disputed presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden. As Evarts urged, the commission counted the disputed votes for Hayes.

During the Hayes administration (1877-1881) Evarts served as secretary of state. He worked for the expansion of American trade around the world. Like many New Yorkers of his class, Evarts was friendly to England, despite the commercial competition of the two countries. However, he did protest the English intrusion into Guatemala and negotiated with Colombia to frustrate the French attempt to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The French failed for other reasons, but Evarts had foreseen that the United States could powerfully enhance its world trade position by having such a canal under its domination. Evarts's most significant achievement was in Far Eastern affairs. He pursued an aggressive policy, increasing American trade with Japan; and after aiding Hayes in writing the veto for a flagrantly anti-Chinese bill favored in California, he negotiated a treaty with China limiting the importation of coolie laborers into the United States and relaxing the barriers against American exporters trading in China. He also arranged for the establishment of an American base in Samoa.

From the days of the Lincoln administration onward, Evarts's name was mentioned whenever a vacancy occurred on the Supreme Court, but that goal always eluded him. In 1885 the New York Legislature sent him to the U.S. Senate for one term.

Second in fame only to his defense of President Johnson was Evarts's winning of acquittal for Henry Ward Beecher in the sensational trial involving alleged sexual improprieties. Still, it was in the realm of corporate law that Evarts made his great reputation as a lawyer. He won innumerable cases important in the advancement of business enterprise and was long regarded as a leader of the New York bar. He died in his New York home in 1901.


Further Reading on William Maxwell Evarts

Chester L. Barrows, William M. Evarts: Lawyer, Diplomat, Statesman (1941), is an excellent biography.