Charles Francis Adams.

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

. (page 4 of 5)
Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsAn address on the life, character and services of William Henry Seward (Volume 1) → online text (page 4 of 5)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

I now come to a point where what appears to me to
have been one of his greatest quaUties, is to be set
forth. It is impossible for two persons, in the rela-
tions of the President and the Secretary of State,
to go on long together without taking a measure
of their respective powers. Mr. Lincoln could not
fail soon to perceive the fact that, whatever estimate
he might put on his own acute judgment, he had to
deal with a superior in native intellectual power, in
extent of acquirement, in breadth of philosophical
experience, and in the force of moral discipline. On
the other hand, Mr. Seward could not have been
lonor blind to the deficiencies of the chief in these
respects, however highly he might value his integrity
of purpose, his shrewd capacity, his vigorous ratioci-
nation, and his generous and amiable disposition.
The effect of these reciprocal discoveries could
scarcely have been other than to undermine confi-
dence, and to inspire suspicion in the weaker party
of danger from the influence of the stronger. He
might naturally become jealous of the imputation of
being led, and fearful lest the labors of his secretary
might be directed to his own aggrandizement at his
expense. On the other hand, Mr. Seward might
not find it difficult to penetrate the character of these
speculations, and foresee their probable effect in
abridging his powers of usefulness, and, perhaps,
unsettling the very foundation of his position, should

The Address.

ambitious third parties scent the opportunities to
edo^e him out.

Whether all that I have here described did or did
not happen, I shall not be so bold as to say. But
one thing I know, and this was, that, in order to cut
up by the roots the possibility of misunderstanding
from such causes, Mr. Seward deliberately came to
the conclusion to stifle every sensation left in him
of aspiration in the future, by establishing a distinct
understanding with the President on that subject.
The effect of this act of self-abnegation was soon
apparent in the steady subsequent union of the
parties. Thus it happened that Mr. Seward volun-
tarily dismissed forever the noblest dreams of an
ambition he had the clearest right to indulge, in
exchange for a more solid power to direct affairs for
the benefit of the nation, through the name of
another, who should yet appear in all later time to
reap the honors due chiefly to his labors.

I am not going to touch upon the incidents of the
great war. It is enough to say that Gettysburg and
Vicksburg turned the tide ; and the Administration
had nothing more to fear from popular distrust. The
election confirmed it in power, and little was left to
do but to heal the wounds inflicted, and restore the
blessed days of peace and prosperity. Scarcely had
the necessary measures been matured, and Fortune
begun once more to smile, when the hand of an


The Address.

assassin, unerring in its instinctive sagacity, vented
all the rage of the baffled enemy upon the heads of
the two individuals, of all others, who most distinctly
symbolized the emancipation of the slave and the
doom of the master's pride. Then followed a suc-
cessor to the chair, sadly wanting in the happiest
qualities of his predecessor, but readily moulded to
the very same policy which had been inaugurated by
him. In his earnestness to save it, Mr. Seward sub-
ordinated himself just as before. But the change of
person proved little less disastrous to his hopes than
it had been sixteen years before in the case of General
Taylor. Nevertheless, he steadily and bravely ad-
hered to the chief, for the sake of the policy, to the
last, and quietly bore the odium of a failure he had
no power to avert. It would have been worth all
it cost, could he have succeeded. But, as it was, rarely
has it been the fate of the same statesman to meet
with two successive instances of such human vicis-

In the spring of 1869 he bade a last farewell to
public life. The veteran who had fought for years
for the establishment of the great principles of liberty,
clear of all hampering compromises, who bore on his
front the gash received because he had worked too
well — a scar which would have made a life-long
political fortune for any purely military man — was
permitted to repair in silence to his home, now


lonely from the loss of those who had made it his
delight, with fewer marks of recognition of his bril-
liant career than he would have had if he had been
the most insignificant of our Presidents. Such is one
more example of the fate that awaits " those who
hang on princes' favors," whether the sovereign be
one or be many. And now his native State having
bestowed on him all the honors within her gift during
his life, with the natural pride in the career of so
great a son, has sought outside of her borders for
one of the humblest of his disciples to cull a few
fleeting flowers and spread them on his grave. While
I do honor to this manifestation on her part, I trust
I may be pardoned for remembering that he did not
save the State alone —


Let me turn from this subject to the more agree-
able task of pointing out to you some peculiar
qualities of Mr. Seward, which merit close attention
in any view taken of his character. Of these the
most marked was his indomitable courage. By
superficial observers among his contemporaries, the
breadth of his popular theory was set down as little
more than the agitation not unusual with most of
our ordinary demagogues. Hence the prejudices
more or less imbibed by many of his own party, and
others who knew nothing of him personally. Yet


The Address.

the fact is indisputable that very few pubhc men in
our history can be cited who have shown so much
indifference, in running directly counter to the popu-
lar passions when highly excited, as he did. And in
such action it is clear that he could have been
prompted by no motive other than the highest of
personal duty.

Hitherto, I have treated only of his public life.
I now propose to touch on his professional career,
to which, though not attractive to him, he steadily
adhered so long as it was practicable. Had he
devoted himself to it exclusively, I have not a
shadow of doubt he would have attained a position
of the very first rank. I dwell on it now only in
connection with a single case which will serve to
illustrate as well his courage as his power. This is
the case of the miserable negro William Freeman.
The fact of his murdering at night all the members
of a highly-respectable family in the neighborhood
of Auburn, without any apparent motive, is too well
remembered here to this day to need repeating the
honible details. It is sufficient to say that the
passions of the people in all the country round about
were fearfully but not unnaturally aroused. They
demanded immediate justice with so much vehemence
that, from fear of violence, extraordinary measures
were resorted to by the State authorities to hasten
the trial, in the very vicinity of the outrage. In the

L8] 87



State prison at Auburn it had so happened that,
shortly before, a white convict had killed one of
his associates. He had called upon Mr. Seward
to defend him at his trial, and he had consented to
appear. This act of his had not been viewed favor-
ably in the neighborhood. But, when the crime of
the negro was soon afterward divulged, the popular
indignation rose to such a height that it was with
much difficulty he could be conveyed in safety to the
jail. So great was the rage, that nothing but the
public declaration of one of the county judges,
made on the spot, not only that he must certainly
be executed, but also that " no Governor Seward
would interpose to defend him," availed to shelter
him from summary vengeance. Immediately after-
ward, the law partners of Mr. Seward assumed the
responsibility of confirming that promise of the
judge, without consulting him.

At that moment Mr. Seward had happily been
absent from home. But, when he was expected to
return, there was great anxiety among his friends
and relatives, lest he should meet with insult, if not
positive outrage, in his transit from the railway-station
to his house. The excitement had scarcely abated
when the two cases came up for trial. In the first,
Mr. Seward endeavored to procure a postponement,
but it was in vain. The popular feeling would not
submit to it. With the utmost difficulty were per-


The Address.

sons found fitted to make a jury. The argument
rested on the insanity of the prisoner. But it carried
no weight. Within a month the convict was tried,
condemned, and executed. In this instance Mr.
Seward had performed his part in the regular course
of professional service. But, when the offense of
the wretched creature Freeman was about to be
submitted to the consideration of the court, it
immediately appeared that not a soul of the large
crowd present entertained the smallest sympathy for
him. He was told that he might have the assistance
of counsel if he would ask for it. His answer indi-
cated utter ignorance of the meaning of the words.
Under such circumstances what was to be done to
comply with forms of law ? There was a solemn
pause in that thronged assembly. At last the silence
was broken by the judge, who, addressing the pro-
fessional men before him, asked, in a hopeless tone,

" WILL any one defend this man T

And here again was a breathless pause, broken at
last by a quiet movement of a solitary man, as he
rose in his place, who, in the face of the eager crowd,
briefly replied, " May it please the court, / appear as
counsel for the prisoner."

This volunteer was William Henry Seward,
the very man whom the excited multitude had
already warned not to interpose to defend him.


I know not what others may think of this simple
picture, but, in my humble view, it presents a scene
of moral sublimity rarely to be met with in the
paths of our ordinary life. At this juncture, had
William H. Seward been found anywhere at night
alone, and unprotected by the powerful law-abiding-
habits of the region about him, his body would
probably have been discovered in the morning hang-
ino- from the next tree. What motive could have
impelled him to encounter so much indignation for
this act ? He had been not at all insensible to the
pleasure of popularity in public life. Here he was
not only injuring his own interests, but that of the
party with which he was associated. In vain did it
labor to disavow all connection or sympathy with
him. The press on all sides thundered its denunci-
ations over his head. The elections all went one
way. The Democratic party came sweepingly into
the ascendant. And all about the life of a negro

I think I do not exaggerate in expressing an
humble opinion, that the argument in the defense is
one of the most eloquent ever made in the language.
I have no time to dwell on it, further than to quote
a few passages assigning his reason for his conduct :
" For William Freeman as a murderer, I have no
commission to speak. If he had silver and gold
accumulated, with the frugality of a Croesus, and





should pour it all at my feet, I would not stand an
hour between him and his avenger. But for the
innocent, it is my right — it is my duty — to speak.
If this sea of blood was mnocently shed, then it is
my duty to stand beside him, until his steps lose
their hold upon the scaffold. 'Thou shalt not kill'
is a commandment, addressed not to him alone,
but to me, to you, to the court, and to the whole
community. There are no exceptions from that
commandment, at least, in civil life, save those of
self-defense, and capital punishment for crime in the
due and just administration of the law. There is
not only a question, then, whether the prisoner has
shed the blood of his fellow-man, but the question
whether we shall unlawfully shed his blood. I should
be guilty of murder if, in my present relation, I saw
the executioner waiting for an insane man, and failed
to say or failed to do, in his behalf, all that my abil-
ity allowed."

And again he says : " I am arraigned before you
for undue manifestations of zeal and excitement. My
answer to all such charges shall be brief. When this
cause shall have been committed to you, I shall be
happy indeed if it shall appear that my only error
has been that I felt too much, thought too intensely,
or acted too faithfully."

But the significant and most eloquent passage is
this : " I plead not for a murderer. I have no induce-



The Address.

ment, no motive to do so. I have addressed my
fellow-citizens in many various relations, when re-
wards of wealth and fame awaited me. I have been
cheered on other occasions by manifestations of
popular approbation and sympathy ; and, where there
was no such encouragement, I had at least the grati-
tude of him whose cause I defended. But I speak
now in the hearing of a people who have prejudged
the prisoner, and condemned me for pleading in his
behalf He is a convict, a pauper, a negro, without
intellect, sense, or emotion. My child, with an affec-
tionate smile, disarms my care-worn face of its frown
whenever I cross my threshold. The beggar in the
street obliges me to give, because he says ' God bless
you ' as I pass. My dog caresses me with fondness
if I will but smile on him. My horse recognizes me
when I fill his manger. But what reward, what
gratitude, what sympathy and affection can I expect
here ? There the prisoner sits ; look at him. Look
at the assemblage around you. Listen to their ill-
suppressed censures and their excited fears, and tell
me where among my neighbors or my fellow-men,
where even in his heart can I expect to find the
sentiment, the thought, not to say of reward or
acknowledgment, but even of recognition. I sat
here two weeks during the prehminary trial. I stood
here between the prisoner and the jury nine hours,
and pleaded for the wretch that he was insane, and


The Address.

he did not even know he was on trial. And when all
was done, the jury thought — at least eleven of them
thought — that I had been deceiving them, or was
self-deceived. They read signs of intelligence in his
idiotic smile, and of cunning and malice in his stolid
insensibility. They rendered a verdict that 'he was
sane enough to be tried' — a contemptible compro-
mise verdict in a capital case — and then they
looked, with what emotions God and they only
know, upon his arraignment. The District Attorney,
speaking in his adder-ear, bade him rise, and, read-
ing to him one indictment, asked him whether he
wanted a trial, and the poor fool answered ' No.'
' Have you counsel ? ' ' No.' And they went
through the same mockery, the prisoner giving the
same answers, until a third indictment was thundered
in his ears, and he stood before the court silent,
motionless, and bewildered. Gentlemen, you may
think of this evidence, bring in what verdict you can,
but I asseverate before Heaven and you that, to the
best of my knowledge and belief, the prisoner at the
bar does not at this moment know why it is that my
shadow falls on you instead of his own. I speak
with all sincerity and earnestness, not because I ex-
pect my opinion to have weight, but I would disarm
the injurious impression that I am speaking merely
as a lawyer speaks for his client. I am not the pris-
oner's lawyer. I am, indeed, a volunteer in his behalf.


But society and mankind have the deepest interests
at stake. I am the lawyer for society, for mankind,
shocked beyond the power of expression at the
scene I have witnessed here, of trying a maniac as a

There cannot be a doubt that, in this statement of
his motives, Mr. Seward uttered nothing more than
the simple truth. It was to rescue from violation
the broad principle of morals, that guilt can only be
measured by responsibility in the reciprocal relations
of the human race. Yet, the jury brought in a ver-
dict against the prisoner, and the judge pronounced
the sentence of execution. Nothing daunted by all
this, Mr. Seward persisted in interposing every pos-
sible dilatory measure, until the evidence of the con-
dition of the man gradually forced itself so vividly
upon the conviction of the very judge who had tried
and condemned him, that, when officially called
upon to go over the work once more, he declined it
as impracticable. Mr. Seward was now clearly
proved to have been right, so far as his action had
gone before the law. But, when the time came for
the end of Freeman by a natural death, seven phy-
sicians of the vicinity were summoned to a post-
mortem examination of his brain, and the result at
which they arrived was that it displayed indications
of deep, chronic disease. Mr. Seward had been right
from the start. He had upheld a broad general


The Address.

principle at enormous personal hazard, and he never
received the smallest return for it, excepting in the
satisfaction to his own conscience of a work faith-
fully performed.

I pass from this illustration ot the resolute will
and courage of the man, to another of a wholly dif-
ferent and still higher kind. I shall not weary your
patience by going over the well-known details of the
seizure by our gallant countryman, Admiral Wilkes,
of the two rebel emissaries. Mason and Slidell, by
forcibly taking them from a British passenger-
steamer, then on her way over the high seas to a
British port. You can all remember how much
delighted every body was with the news. Few
stopped to think of the possible consequences as
affecting the rights of neutral nations. Some erro-
neous precedents were published in the journals
which quieted possible doubts. Admiral Wilkes
immediately received the official approbation of the
House of Representatives and the Secretary of the
Navy, and rose in a moment to the height of a
popular hero. Crowded public meetings everywhere
joined in their acclamations, proudly exultant at the
gallant deed. On the other hand, the effect of
the violent proceeding, when divulged in Great
Britain, no one had a better opportunity to under-
stand than I myself It was at once presumed to
have been authorized by the Government, so that

[9] 63

The Address.

no course was regarded as left to the ministry-
other than to demand immediate satisfaction for the
insult. War was considered as inevitable ; hence
provision was promptly made by many to remove
American property out of the risk of confiscation,
The dock-yards resounded by night as well as
by day with the ring of the hammers, fitting out
the largest iron-clads, and orders went forth to
assemble the most available troops for immediate
embarkation to the points in America closest upon
our northern border. A cabinet council was
promptly assembled. Four dispatches were drawn
up on the same day, the 30th of November, three
of them addressed to the British minister at Wash-
ington, Lord Lyons, and one to the Lords Commis-
sioners of the Admiralty. All of them distinctly
anticipated an immediate rupture, and made pro-
vision for the event. One of these, very carefully
prepared, instructed Lord Lyons to protest against
the offensive act, and, in case the Secretary of State
should not voluntarily offer redress by a delivery of
the men, to make a demand of their restoration.
The second directed Lord Lyons to permit of no
delay of an affirmative answer beyond seven days.
Should no such answer appear within that time,
his lordship was formally instructed to withdraw
with all his legation and all the archives of the
legation, and to make the best of his way to Lon-


The Address.

don. The fourth letter, addressed to the Admiralty,
contained instructions to prepare all the naval
officers stationed in America for the breaking out
of hostilities.

Looking at these proceedings as calmly as I can
from our present point of view, it seems impossible
for me to doubt that the issue of this peremptory
demand had been already prejudged by her Majesty's
ministers. They did not themselves believe that the
men would be restored. Hence what seems to me
the needless offensiveness of these preliminaries
prompted, no doubt, by the violence of the popular
feeling, which w^ould insist upon an immediate dis-
play of what would be called a "proper spirit."
Yet, had it been judged possible to await for a few
days the reception of official intelligence, then on its
way from Washington, these gentlemen would have
learned from Mr. Seward that they were precipitate
in their action at least, and wholly w^ithout a basis in
presuming evil intentions. Moreover, they would
have had the assurance that the act was without
authority, and that the Government was ready to
listen to any reasonable representation that might
be forthcoming. It thus appears that her Majesty's
Government had placed themselves at the outset in
a false position, needlessly offensive, and only prov-
ocative of war without a cause. For the peremp-
tory nature of the overture, however clothed in


JHE p.


moderate terms, merely complicated the difficulty
of responding in any tone that would at all quiet
the excited temper of the American people.

It was the writing of that preliminary dispatch
that saved the dignity of the country. Mr. Seward
could point to it to prove that his action, when
finally taken, had not been prompted by intimida-
tion. The precipitate British course had betrayed
the rudeness of distrust, and nothing more. He
had been ready to hear and discuss the question
impartially, and solely on its merits. But the people
of the United States had thought of none of these
things. They were satisfied with the fancied glory
of the deed, and very far from disposed to sanction
the smallest recantation. As to the demand for
the surrender of the men, the thino- was not to be
thought of. They must be retained at any hazard.
Such was the universal sense, and it is this which
generally controls the actions of those who hold
office in a popular government. Yet the fact was
to me clear from the first that the act was not
justifiable. Many of the most enlightened neutral
nations had signified as much in a friendly way, and
had wished to open to us some easy method of
retreat. A war with Great Britain to maintain an
unsound principle, merely because the people made
a hero of Admiral Willies, would probably have
ended in a triumph of the rebelhon and a perma-

The a


neiit disruption of the Union, furnishing ever after
a new example with which " to point a moral and
adorn a tale." When the time came for the assem-
bly of the cabinet to decide upon an answer to
Great Britain, not a sign had been given by the
President or any of the members favorable to con-
cession. Mr. Seward, who had been charged with
the official duty of furnishing the expected answer,
assumed the responsibility of preparing his able
argument upon which a decision was predicated to
surrender the men. Upon him would have rested
the whole weight of the popular indignation had
it proved formidable. If I have been rightly in-
formed, when read, it met with but few comments
and less approbation. On the other hand, there
was no resistance. Silence gave consent. It was
the act of Mr. Seward, and his name was to be
chiefly associated with it, whether for good or for
evil. That name will ever stand signed at the foot
of the dispatch. In my firm belief, that act saved
the unity of the nation. It was like the fable of
the Roman Curtius, who leaped into the abyss
which could have been closed in no other way.
The people acquiesced rather than approved, and
to this day they have never manifested any sign of
gratitude whatever.

In 1869 Mr. Seward returned home to Auburn,
the wreck of his former self. The continuous con-


The Address.

flicts of twenty years, and especially those of the
last eight, with the assassin s knife, had told heavily
on his frame. That home, too, was no longer what
it had been, when the gifted partner of his life and
a beloved daughter spread over it sunshine and joy,
in peaceful times. Worst of all, the symptoms of a
subtle disease, creeping slowly from the extremities,
came to warn him that repose would be synony-
mous with decay. Nothing daunted, he determined
to fight the enemy to the last. He undertook the
laborious task of a journey around the globe.
What he modestly and yet sadly says of it himself
is found in the reply he made to the welcome given
him by his neighbors and friends on his return : " I

1 2 4

Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsAn address on the life, character and services of William Henry Seward (Volume 1) → online text (page 4 of 5)