Evarts, William Maxwell (ĕvˈərts) [key], 1818–1901, American lawyer and statesman, b. Boston; grandson of Roger Sherman. After attending Harvard Law School he began (1841) to practice law in New York City, where, with Charles E. Butler, he formed (1843) a firm that became one of the best known in the country. Evarts was government counsel in the abortive trial of Jefferson Davis for treason and later eloquently defended President Andrew Johnson in the impeachment proceedings. He was one of the counsel for the United States in the Geneva arbitration proceedings (1871–72) on the Alabama claims, and in 1877, as Republican counsel before the electoral commission, he argued the claims of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency. He was U.S. Attorney General under Johnson (1868–69) and Secretary of State under Hayes (1877–81). Confronted in the latter capacity with the activity of French interests in constructing an isthmian canal, he stated forcefully that any canal must remain under American control, thus formulating a policy subsequently maintained in American foreign relations. He was U.S. Senator from New York from 1885 to 1891, a period marked by failing eyesight, which resulted in total blindness for the last 11 years of his life.
See B. Dyer, The Public Career of William M. Evarts (1933, repr. 1969); biography by C. L. Barrows (1941).