Edwards Pierrepont was a well-known lawyer, judge, and orator before serving as attorney general of the United States under President ULYSSES S. GRANT.
Pierrepont was born on March 4, 1817, in North Haven, Connecticut. When baptized, he was given the name Munson Edwards Pierpont. He legally discarded his given first name and changed the spelling of his family name. He graduated from Yale University in 1837 and Yale Law School in 1840 and then moved to Columbus, Ohio, to open his first law practice. By 1845 he had returned to the East Coast and entered a legal partnership in New York City. Over the next decade, he established a reputation of being a tough trial attorney and gifted courtroom orator.
In 1857 he was elected a judge of the Superior Court of the City of New York; he held the position until 1860 when he resigned to resume the PRACTICE OF LAW.
In the years before the U.S. CIVIL WAR, Pier-repont was said to have had his fingers on the pulse of the nation. He was often asked to speak at civic and political functions, and he privately advised ABRAHAM LINCOLN on issues of the day both before and after Lincoln was elected president. During the war Pierrepont represented the government against prisoners of state confined in U.S. military prisons and forts.
As a Lincoln confidant and supporter, Pierre-pont was among those who organized the president's 1864 reelection effort. When the campaign was aborted by an assassin's bullet, the government appointed Pierrepont to handle the prosecution of John H. Surratt for his part in Lincoln's murder.
Pierrepont left Washington, D.C., and returned to New York after the war, but he remained in the public eye. As a private attorney, he continued to represent high-profile clients who included railroad barons and postwar industrialists. He also resumed his interest in politics at the state level. In April 1867 he was elected to participate in an effort to revise the state constitution, and he helped to organize local support for the 1868 presidential bid of General Ulysses S. Grant.
In recognition of his efforts, Pierrepont was appointed U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York in 1869, but he resigned just six months later to join the Committee of Seventy established in 1870 to force State Senator William Marcy ("Boss") Tweed from office. (After the Civil War, New York City government was dominated by TAMMANY HALL, a corrupt and abusive DEMOCRATIC PARTY patronage organization that operated under Tweed's direction.)
Pierrepont continued to support Grant when he ran for a second term in 1872. Following Grant's reelection, Pierrepont declined a diplomatic post in Russia because he was still involved in the efforts to clean up New York City government. But when Grant offered him a cabinet post in April 1875, Pierrepont was ready to accept.
He served as attorney general of the United States from May 1875 to May 1876. On the domestic front, Pierrepont did not depart significantly from the policies of his predecessor, GEORGE H. WILLIAMS; he maintained Williams's MORATORIUM on CIVIL RIGHTS prosecutions in the South and generally ignored the issues surrounding white violence against blacks. He was more interested in restoring the international economic influence and political clout that the United States had lost during the years following the war.
As attorney general, Pierrepont is most often remembered for his contributions to INTERNATIONAL LAW, including opinions that addressed issues of natural and acquired nationality and grounds for EXTRADITION (15 Op. Att'y Gen. 15 ; 15 Op. Att'y Gen. 500 ).
In May 1876 Pierrepont was named U.S. minister to Great Britain. Before Pierrepont's term of service, the English court rarely gave U.S. presidents and their representatives special treatment. When President Grant visited London in 1877, Pierrepont worked to ensure that Grant would be accorded the same honors and treatment as royal heads of state. Other governments soon followed Great Britain's example in acknowledging the United State's elected leaders.
During his years in London, Pierrepont devoted much of his time to studying England's financial system. When he returned to the
United States in 1878, he published a number of pamphlets on the subject of U.S. and international financial systems, including a controversial 1887 flyer that advocated an international treaty to establish monetary policy, and recommended a common currency based on the value of silver, rather than the gold standard of the day.
In his later years, Pierrepont continued to practice law and edited many of his famous speeches for publication. He received many awards and citations during his long career, including honorary degrees from Yale University, Columbia College in Washington, D.C., and Oxford University in England.
In May 1883, at the age of sixty-six, Pierre-pont accompanied his son, Edward Willoughby Pierrepont, to the far reaches of Alaska. Upon their return, father and son published a widely praised paper entitled "From Fifth Avenue to Alaska," for which the son was awarded a fellow-ship in the Royal Geographical Society of England. Although the rigors of the journey took a toll on the younger man, who died in 1884, the elder Pierrepont lived until 1892. He died March 6, 1892, in New York City.