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An address on the life, character and services of William Henry Seward (Volume 1) online

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loudly commanded the waves to retire. The flatterers
understood the hint, and were abashed by this
withering illustration of the " higher law."

In the declaration of his policy in these three
speeches Mr. Seward was substantially supporting
what had been agreed upon as within the line of
the administration of General Taylor. And, so far
as it was successfully carried out under his auspices,
it must be admitted that it greatly contributed to
remedy the evils anticipated from the slave-holding
intrigues of twenty years. He was now, to all out-
ward appearance, on the top wave of fortune, not



unlikely to infuse into the national system a much
more consistent system of principles than it had been
its fortune to contain for many years. A single
stroke from the higher law brought all his castle-
building to the ground. A few days of illness, and
the President was no more. To cite the words of
an old poet :

" Oh, frail estate of human things,
And slippery hopes below !
Now, to our cost, your emptiness we know,
Assurance here is never to be sought ;
He toiled, he gained, but lived not to enjoy."

Scarcely could a blow be more overwhelming.
The loss of the President was, in due course, supplied
by the accession of the Vice-President, Mr. Fillmore.
But with him came in the conservative section of
the party, which had never reposed confidence in
Mr. Seward. From that moment he was reduced
once more to his old position as depending exclu-
sively on his own powers, and had, as before, nothing
to look for in official influence but opposition. The
turn of things was decisive. The leading advocates
of the policy of compromise freshened up to their
labors, and the result was the adoption of a series of
measures passing under that term, which the purblind
authors fondly hoped would indefinitely postpone the
earthquake, at the very moment rumbling under their
feet. This memorable compact, entered into by three


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of the most eminent of our statesmen in the present
century — Mr. Calhoun, Mr. Clay, and Mr.. Webster —
will forever remain as a proof of their own infatua-
tion, and of nothing else. They might just as well
have attempted to stop the torrent of Niagara with
a drag-net.

One effect of this proceeding was soon made per-
ceptible. It proved a death-blow to one of the party
organizations. At the succeeding presidential elec-
tion, the conservative section of the Whigs having
failed in securing a nomination of a candidate to
suit their views, rather than to vote for General
Scott, understood to represent other sentiments,
passed almost in mass over to the Democracy, and
voted for Franklin Pierce. The result was, that the
most insignificant and unworthy candidate ever yet
presented to the suffrages of the people, in a con-
tested election, was chosen by a greater majority
than ever was given to the best.

From this moment the course of things rapidly
assumed a more natural and consistent shape. The
new Administration was soon found to be entirely
under the control of the ultra slave-holders, and the
policy of forcing slavery into the unoccupied regions
of the West was unscrupulously pushed with their
connivance. With these proceedings began the
great reaction in the North and West. At last the
election of 1856 displayed the fact that parties had


The Address.

thrown off disguises, and were placing themselves
upon the real issues vital to the country. Although
the result still favored the slave-holders, and James
Buchanan was made to succeed Franklin Pierce, the
severity of the struggle indicated but too plainly the
beginning of the end. From this moment the
Republican party became the true antagonist to
that domination.

Mr. Seward now, for the first time, enjoyed the
great advantage of being perfectly free from em-
barrassments springing out of a union with paralyzing
associates in the same party. He took the field with
all his vigor, and the speeches which he made, both
in the Senate and before the people, remain to testify
to his powers, and his success. The effects of the
new union, reenforced by the extreme policy adopted
by the opposite side, were made perceptible in the
steady increase of the minorities in both Houses
of Congress. The opening of the Thirty-sixth
Congress showed that in the popular branch the
Republican party counted a plurality of the members.
After a long-continued struggle, they succeeded in
electing their Speaker. It looked as if the hand-
writing would soon be visible on the wall.

Then came the moment when a candidate of the
party, at last thoroughly organized, was to be nomi-
nated for the presidency of 1861. Mr. Seward, in
his ten years of service in the Senate, had completely


developed his capacity as a great leader in difficult
times. With the singular mixture of boldness and
moderation which distinguished him from all others,
he had maintained his ground against all the assaults
made upon him by the ablest of the slave-holding
statesmen in their stronghold of the Senate. He
had known how to pursue that narrow path between
license in discussion on the one hand, and personal
altercation on the other, which is so seldom faith-
fully adhered to by public men, especially when
cunning fencers are ever lying in wait to entrap
them. He had also enjoyed the benefit of ex-
perience in his administration while Governor of
New York, which had made him familiar as w<?ll with
executive as with legislative forms of business. The
older men of great note had vanished, so as to make
his party prominence more marked than ever. As
a consequence, when the nominating convention
assembled at Chicago, the eyes of all were turned
toward him as the candidate, of all others, the most
distinguished by the qualities that recommend people
to high places. A large plurality had been chosen
as delegates friendly to him, and the general expec-
tation was that he would be nominated at once.
But it was remembered that, in 1844, Henry Clay
was defeated because he had a long record of public
service, from which many marked sayings and doings
might be quoted to affect impressible waverers.


and James K. Polk was elected because nobody
could quote any thing against him, for the reason
that he had never said or done any thing worth
quoting at all. Furthermore, the ghosts of the
higher law and of the irrepressible conflict flitted
about to alarm excited imaginations. Last but not
least came in the element of bargain and manage-
ment, manipulated by adepts at intrigue, which is
almost inseparable from similar assemblies. The
effect of afl these influences united was to turn the
tide at last, and Mr. Seward, the veteran champion of
the reforming policy, was set aside in favor of a
gentleman as little known by any thing he had ever
done as the most sanguine friend of such a selection
could desire. The fact is beyond contradiction that
no person, ever before nominated with any reason-
able probabiHty of success, had had so little of public
service to show for his reward.

Placing myself in the attitude of Mr. Seward, at
the moment when the news of so strange a decision
would reach his ears, I think I might, like Amiens,
in the play, have moralized for an instant on man's
ingratitude, and been warned by the example of
Aristides, or even the worse fate of Barneveld and
the two De Witts, not to press further in a career
in which the strong were to be ostracized, because
of their strength, and the weak were to be pushed
into places of danger, on the score of their feeble-




ness. To be elected for the reason that a person has
never done any thing to display his powers of use-
fulness to bring about positive results, would seem
to be like making elevation to power the prize of
the greatest insignificance. Under such circum-
stances, a successful man might fairly infer that the
selection of himself implied, on its face, rather an
insult than a compliment.

But Mr. Seward, when he heard of it, did not
reason on this low level. That he deeply felt such a
refusal to recognize the value of his long and earnest
labors in a perilous cause, I have every reason to
believe. For it was precisely at this moment that
the intimacy with wiiich he sometime honored me
dates its commencement. I had been long watching
his course with the deepest interest, sometimes fearful
lest he might bend toward the delusive track of
expediency, at others impatient at his calmness in
moments fit to call out the fire of Demosthenes, yet,
on the whole, if I may be so bold as to confess it,
fastened to his footsteps by the conviction that he
alone, of all others, had most marked himself as a
disciple of the school in which I had been bred
myself. In this state of mind I had indulged a
strong hope, not only that his splendid services
would meet with a just acknowledgment, but that
his future guidance might be depended on in the
event of critical conjunctures.

I was at the time in the pubUc service at Wash-
ino-ton, and much cast down on hearing of the result.
Mr. Seward had been at Auburn, and was just
returned. I had not seen the answer to his friends,
written from that place on the 31st of May, signifying
his ready acquiescence in the result, and, if I had, I
might not have put entire trust in it as a full expres-
sion of his inmost heart. The day after his return
he called in his carriage at my door and asked me
to get in and drive with him to the Capitol. He
had never done this before, but I promptly accepted
his offer. Full of disgust at the management con-
trived to defeat his nomination, I did not hesitate in
expressing it to him in the most forcible terms. But
I found no con-esponding response. I saw that he
had been grievously disappointed, and that he felt
the blow so effectually aimed at him. But he gave
no sound of discontent. On the contrary, he calmly
deprecated all similar complaints, and at once turned
my attention to the duty of heartily accepting the
situation for the sake of the cause. The declaration
of principles put forth by the convention was per-
fectly satisfactory, and it now became his friends to
look only to the work of securing their establish-

Such was the burden of the conversation for the
greater part of the way. The tone was just the same
as that in the public letter, while the language was

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more simple and unreserved. To me it was a revela-
tion of the moral superiority of the man. I had
heard so much in my time of the management
attributed to New York politicians, from the days
of Aaron Burr to those of Martin Van Buren, that
I should not have been surprised to find him indulg-
ing in some details of the causes of his failure. But
there was not a word. An experience like this drove
me at once to the conclusion that, if such deportment
as this passed under the denomination of manage-
ment in New York, I should be glad to see its
definition of magnanimity.

Neither were these merely brave words followed
up by inaction or indifference. Mr. Seward entered
into the canvass in behalf of his rival with the
utmost energy. I was myself a witness and com-
panion through a large part of his journey in the
West. His speeches, made at almost every central
point, indicate, not simply the fertility of his powers,
but the fidehty with which he applied them to the
purpose in hand. They still remain with us to testify
for him themselves.

The election followed, making a new era in the
history of this republic. The slave-holding power,
which had governed for more than thirty years, had
at last ceased to control. No sooner was the result
known, than South Carolina lifted the banner of
secession, not having chosen to wait for any assign-


able cause of grievance. Congress assembled at
Washington to hold the last session under the
administration of Mr. Buchanan. Tied hand and
foot by the conditions under which he had received
his nomination four years before, his course had been
faltering and uncertain, meriting praise neither for
prudence nor patriotism. A strong appeal, immedi-
ately put forth, to the sound sense and sterling
principles of the honest, independent citizens of the
country, without regard to party, backed up by an
immediate preparation, quietly made, of the means
at hand to maintain public order, in any contin-
gency, might even then have put in check the ten-
dency of multitudes to plunge into evil counsels.
It does not appear that any thing of the kind was
ever thought of. Treason had crept into the very
heart of the cabinet, and a policy had been secretly
at work to paralyze rather than to fortify the re-
sources of the Executive. Every thing was drifting
at the mercy of the winds and waves. One single
hour of the will displayed by General Jackson, at
the time when Mr. Calhoun, the most powerful
leader secession ever had, was abetting active meas-
ures, would have stifled the fire in its cradle. But
it was not to be. The evil came from the misfor-
tune of a weak President in a perilous emergency.
Instead of taking this course, a message was sent
to Congress by Mr. Buchanan, lamenting the fact of

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what he chose to call a secession of several States,
but coupling with it a denial of any power to coerce
them. This was in its essence an abandonment of
all right to control popular resistance in that form.
In the condition things were at that moment, with a
cabinet divided, and both branches of the Legislature
utterly without spirit to concert measures, the effect
was equivalent to disintegration. Disaffection be-
came rife everywhere south of Mason and Dixon's
line. And, in the city of Washington itself, it became
difficult to find, among the residents, persons wholly
free from it. Rumors of some impending coup d'etat
vaguely floated in eveiy breeze. From communica-
tions made to me by persons likely to know, I have
every reason to think such projects were entertained
by the class of more desperate adventurers. A plan
of attacking the Constitution in its weakest part,
the form of declaring the election of President in
the month of February, had been gravely con-
sidered. Happily for the public peace, there was no
leader at hand equal to the consummation of any
such enterprise, so that more moderate counsels,
based upon the not unreasonable confidence that
victory was more sure by letting matters take their
course, prevailed.

If such was the condition of the disaffected party,
it was scarcelv better with the loyal side. The
President-elect was still at home in Illinois, giving


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no sig-ns of life, and there was no one of the faithful
men vested with authority to speak or act in his
behalf That something ought to be done to keep
the control of the capital, and bridge over the inter-
val before the 4th of March in peace and quiet, was
manifest. It was no time to go into consultations
that would inevitably lead to delays, if not to dissen-
sions. Neither was it wise to spread uneasiness and
alarm. In this emergency, I have it in my power to
speak only of what I know Mr. Seward effected on
his sole responsibihty. Of his calmness in the
midst of difficulty, of his fertility in resource, of his
courage in at once breaking up the remnants of
party ties, and combining, as firmly as he could,
trusty men, whether in the cabinet, in the army, in
the municipal boards, or elsewhere, to secure the
object of keeping every thing steady, I had abun-
dant evidence. The hearty cooperation of Gen-
eral Scott, then Commander-in-Chief, although
surrounded by less than even lukewarm assistants,
proved of the highest value. The day is, perhaps,
not yet come, if it ever does, when all the details of
these operations will be disclosed. But, if it should,
it will only add one more to the many causes of
gratitude due by the country to the memory of Mr.

But, out of all the sources of anxiety and distrust
heaped up in this most fearful interval, that which


appeared to many the most appalling was the fact
that we were about to have, for our guide through
this perilous strife, a person selected partly on
account of the absence of positive qualities, so far
as was known to the public, and absolutely without
the advantage of any experience in national affairs,
beyond the little that can be learned by an occupa-
tion for two years of a seat in the House of Repre-
sentatives. The selection of Mr. Polk and Mr.
Pierce, on the same principle, though in a less
degree, for both of them had seen far more of serv-
ice, had been, in a measure, justified to the country
by their prompt recourse to the best-trained men of
the party, as supports and guides, in the cabinet.
But this was in times of profound internal quiet
when the State machinery moved almost of itself;
while, in this emergency, every wheel appeared
clogged, and even the tenacity of the whole fabric
was seriously tested. Neither was it any source of
confidence to find that day passed after day, and not
a syllable of intelligence came. It was clear, at least
to me, that our chances of safety would rest upon
an executive council composed of the wisest and
most experienced men that could be found. So it
seemed absolutely indispensable, on every account,
that not only Mr. Seward should have been early
secured in a prominent post, but that his advice, at
least, should have been asked in regard to the com-


pletion of the organization. The value of such
counsel in securing harmony in policy is too well
understood to need explanation. But Mr. Lincoln
as yet knew little of all this. His mind had not
even opened to the nature of the crisis. From his
secluded abode in the heart of Illinois, he was only
taking the measure of geographical relations and
party services, and beginning his operations where
others commonly leave off, at the smaller end.
Hence it was not until some time in the session that
he disclosed his intention to place Mr. Seward in
the most prominent place. So doubtful had some of
Mr. Seward's friends been made, by this proceeding,
of the spirit of the President, that they were dis-
posed to advise him not to assume any responsibility
under him. At least, this was the substance of what
I understood him to say, when he was pleased to ask
of me my sentiments. My answer was very short.
No matter what the manner of the offer, his duty
was to take the post. At the same time, it was quite
clear to me that he stood in no need of my counsel.
I should have mistaken his character if he had

Let me not be understood as desiring to say a
word in a spirit of derogation from the memory of
Abraham Lincoln. He afterward proved himself
before the world a pure, brave, capable and honest
man, faithful to his arduous task, and laying down



The Address.

his life at the last as a penalty for his country's safety.
At the same time, it is the duty of history, in dealing
with all human action, to do strict justice in discrim-
inating between persons, and by no means to award to
one honors that clearly belong to another. I must,
then, affirm without hesitation that, in the history of
our Government down to this hour, no experiment so
rash has ever been made as that of elevating to the
head of affairs a man with so little previous prepara-
tion for his task as Mr. Lincoln. If this be true of
him in regard to the course of domestic administra-
tion, with which he might be supposed partially
familiar, it is eminently so in respect to the foreign
relations, of which he knew absolutely nothing.
Furthermore, he was quite deficient in his acquaint-
ance with the character and qualities of public men,
or their aptitude for the positions to which he
assigned them. Indeed, he seldom selected them
solely by that standard. Admitting this to be an
accurate statement, the difficulties in the way of Mr.
Seward on his assuming the duties of the foreign
department may be readily imagined. The imme-
diate reorganization of the service abroad was im-
peratively demanded at all points. The chief posts
had been filled before that time with persons either
lukewarm in the struggle or else positively sympa-
thizing with the disaffected. One consequence had
been the formation of impressions upon the repre-

[71 49

The Address.

sentatives of foreign governments calculated in some
measure to mislead their policy Some were not
unwilling to assume the question as already prede-
termined, and to prepare to accommodate themselves
to the result of a divided sovereignty Others were
inclined only to watch the phenomena attending the
dissolution, in order to adapt their policy to the
variations, and take advantage of opportunities.
Besides which, the failure of the greatest ex-
periment of self-government ever made by a people
was not without its effect upon every calcula-
tion of possibilities nearer home. It may, then,
be easily conceived what an effect could be pro-
duced in all quarters by the equivocal, half-
hearted tone prevailing among the American
agents themselves.

Yet, assuming it to be indispensable that the
foreign service should be reorganized, a very grave
difficulty forthwith presented itself. The Republican
party had been so generally in opposition that but
few of its prominent members had had any advan-
tages of experience in office. And, in the foreign
service especially, experience is almost indispensable
to usefulness. Mr. Seward himself came into the
State Department with no acquaintance with the
forms of business other than that obtained inciden-
tally through his service in the Senate. He had not
had the benefit of official presence abroad, an advan-


The Address.

tage by no means trifling in conducting the foreign
affairs. A still greater difficulty was that, within the
range of selection to fill the respective posts abroad,
hardly any person could be found better provided in
this respect than himself Moreover, the President,
in distributing his places, did so with small refer-
ence to the qualifications in this particular line. It
was either partisan service, or geographical position,
or the length of the lists of names to commendatory
papers, or the size of the salary, or the unblushing
pertinacity of personal solicitation, that wrung from
him many of his appointments. Yet, considering
the nature of all these obstacles, it must be ad-
mitted that most of the neophytes acquitted them-
selves of their duty with far more of credit than
could have been fairly expected from the commence-
ment. I attribute this good fortune mainly to the
sense of heavy responsibility stimulated by the peril
of the country, and the admirable lead given by their
chief The marvelous fertility of his pen spread
itself at once over every important point on the
globe, and the lofty firmness of his tone infused a
spirit of unity of action such as had never been
witnessed before. The effect of this was that, from
a state of utter demoralization at the outset, the
foreign service rapidly became the most energetic
and united organization thus far made abroad. The
evidence of this will remain patent in the archives


of the nation so long as they shall be suffered to

It may be questioned whether any head of an
executive department ever approached Mr. Seward
in the extent and minuteness of the instructions he
was constantly issuing during the critical period of
the war. While necessarily subject to imperfection
consequent upon the rapidity with which he wrote,
his papers will occasion rather surprise at their gen-
eral excellence than at any casual defects they may
contain. Exception has been taken to his manner
on some occasions as not in the best taste. And
wiseacres have commented on his failure of sagacity
in making over-confident predictions. But what
was he to do in the face of all the nations of the
earth } Was it to doubt, and qualify, and calculate
probabilities? Would such a course have helped to
win their confidence ? I trow not. In the very darkest
hour his clarion-voice rang out more sharp and clear
in full faith of the triumph of the great cause than
even in the moment of its complete success. And
the consequence is, that the fame of William H.
Seward as a sagacious statesman is more widely
spread over every part of the globe than that of any
other in our history.

But, great as were the services of Mr. Seward in
his own peculiar department, it would be a mistake
to infer that they were restricted within that limit


The Address.

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsAn address on the life, character and services of William Henry Seward (Volume 1) → online text (page 3 of 5)