John Quincy Adams
John C. Calhoun
William H. Seward
Salmon P. Chase
Sir John Alexander Macdonald, G. C. B.
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William H. Seward
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A year before the Civil War William H. Seward was the most distinguished American Statesman who opposed the extension of Slavery and lamented the authorization of "the peculiar institution" in our organic law. Of all the living public men, he had longest been the most radical. For many years, as the representative of but a comparatively small group of thinkers, and in the presence of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, he made but a sorry impression on National affairs; yet he fought the good fight and kept the faith. It seemed to the adherents at large of the new coalition called the National Republicans, that injustice was done to him when first Fremont and then Lincoln was made the standard-bearer of the new party rather than to intrust its leadership to the man who for ten years, beginning with the rebukes of Calhoun, had sustained all the insults that Freedom received from Slavery at the hands of Jefferson Davis, Henry A. Wise, Toombs, Stephens, and the rest of the slaveholding Secessionists.
Time proved that Mr. Seward, even as late as 1860, was far ahead of his age. The slower Lincoln, peace-loving by nature, was required to curb the impetuous Seward, who might have had us at war not only with ourselves, but with half the rest of the world beside.
Mr. Seward was defeated at Chicago, in 1860, when Lincoln was nominated for President, mainly because of the complexities of New York politics. Hamilton, Burr, and Clinton left a seemingly imperishable legacy of schism to their political heirs. It is idle to briefly attempt to untangle the history of factions in New York. It is a habit of the ruling party in that State to almost immediately form into at least two wings. We will name some of the New York parties or factions up to the time of the Civil War : Federalists, Republican-Democrats, Independent Democrats, Barn-Burners, Bucktail Tammany, Loco-focos (Buffaloes and Rumps), Masons, anti Masons, Clay, Webster, and Seward Whigs, Silver Grays, Woolly Heads, etc., Liberty Men, Abolitionists, Know-Nothings, Douglas Democrats, Free Soilers, Breckinridge Democrats, Union Men. The Know-Nothings split several times. The split which damaged Governor Seward at Chicago came from the disappointment of Horace Greeley and the advancement of Raymond, a rival New York editor. Greeley was an Oregon delegate to the Chicago Convention of 186o, and busied himself by laying bare the sore spots in New York politics, and warning delegates to go outside the State for a national candidate. Slavery had not been brought home to the people of the North. It was a foreign question a little too altruistic to shed blood for. Lincoln's waiting, drifting policy was requisite. Seward's propagandism finally brought the issue.
William Henry Seward was born nearly eight years earlier than Lincoln, in Florida, Orange County, N. Y., on May 16, 1801, and was the fourth of six children. His father, a physician, had three slaves who were domestic servants. He was sent to Union College, Schenectady, and, because his father would not dress him as fashion-ably as the other students were clothed, he ran away to Savannah, Ga., where he obtained a teacher's position in a new academy. The father secured the return of his son by writing an irate letter to the trustees, and William studied law six months at Goshen, N. Y. He then was permitted to join the senior class at Union College, and graduated in 1820 with honor. He was admited to the bar in 1822, and was taken into partnership by Elijah Miller, of Auburn, N. Y., whose daughter Frances he married October 2o, 1824. William H. Seward was not, up to this time, a favorite with his father.
The State's prison was, and is, at Auburn, and Seward distinguished himself, when a discharged convict was arrested for stealing again before he got out of town, by proving that the garment stolen was sewed, not quilted, and jean, not calico, as charged in the indictment, thus accomplishing the acquittal of the prisoner. This was his start in public life.
He was, nevertheless, a fearless young man in politics, and lost an office on principle as early as 1828. Governor Clinton had appointed him Surrogate of Cayuga County, and he went to Albany. There he attended a John Quincy Adams meeting; Clinton had declared for Jackson; so Seward's appointment was rejected by the State Senate. The Jeffersonian Democrats had split into Bucktails (Tammany) and Clintonians. Seward's father had been a Jeffersonian; Seward gradually veered about to Clinton, high tariff, and Erie Canal, and became friendly with Thurlow Weed, who was so often to dim the political hopes of Henry Clay. When Morgan, the Freemason, disappeared, it was soon learned that Masonic lodges in Western New York were acting as political bodies. Out-side candidates for local offices would be defeated where there had been no rival known. On this, Weed formed the great Anti-Secret Society party, which soon took on national aspects, running Wirt for President. The Anti-Masons were opposed to Jackson, Van Buren and .Calhoun. Seward was elected State Senator on this ticket in 183o. He was twenty-nine, small and slender, with blue eyes, light sandy hair, a smooth face, and a youthful air. He seemed like a boy among the elderly men who sat in the Senate, a body which, at that time, was also the court of Iast resort, like the English House of Lords. Seward gave much attention to the judicial work of the Senate.
In 1833, Dr. Seward, the father, invited William H. Seward, the son, to accompany him to Europe. They visited Lafayette at La Grange. When the Whig party formed in 1834, Seward ran for Governor, a hopeless race, which, however, made him a future leader. For four years he was a land agent or attorney in Chautauqua County. In 1838, the Whigs again nominated him for Governor, and he was triumphantly elected. But the Legislature was in the hands of the Democrats. During his administration a clash between Canada and New York State (the wreck of the steamer Caroline and the McLeod arrest) resulted in diplomatic complications between England and America. Governor Seward did not think Secretary of State Webster treated him with courtesy. Similar questions have come up since (as in the Italian affair at New Orleans), and are always difficult. Here ensued the public discord between Seward and the Webster Whigs, and from this time Webster leaned to Clay, compromise, and Slavery. It is thought Webster Had kept Seward out of General Harrison's Cabinet.
Governor Seward started the Slavery question between New York and Virginia by refusing to deliver to Virginia a citizen charged with helping fugitive slaves. The Governor of Virginia retorted by refusing to honor a requisition for a New York forger. The two magistrates fell to letter writing on a grand scale, and Seward became well hated in the South. The Virginia Legislature even taxed vessels going to or coming from New York. John Quincy Adams thought Seward had the best of the argument, but he foresaw that the Whigs of New York would sacrifice their Governor to the South. The Democratic Legislature of New York resolved : "Stealing a slave, contrary to the laws of Virginia, is a crime, within the meaning of the Constitution." The Governor was requested to transmit this "doughface" resolution to the Governor of Virginia. His refusal was the last important communication or act of his term, which expired in January, 1843. He ever after popularly bore the title of "Governor."
He returned to Auburn in reduced private circumstances, with his party disorganized. Tyler, elected on the Whig ticket, was acting with the Democrats, and the Whigs blamed Seward for their ill-fortune. In 1844 he spoke for Clay and against Texas, receiving many marks of honor from the anti-Slavery voters. It was generally seen, when Clay made the move toward the annexation of Texas, that Governor Seward was not so far ahead of the true Whigs, after all, and the rich members of his party felt far better disposed toward him. He continued the practice of his profession until 1848, when he entered the Taylor campaign and "stumped" New York, New England, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Ohio. At Boston he first met Abraham Lincoln. The twain agreed that Slavery was the real question of the future. Governor Seward made it the keynote of all his speeches. The success of his labors was rewarded in New York in February, 1849, by his election to the United States Senate. He arrived at Washington as the curtain was falling on Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, just in time to behold that last and greatest act of compromise that made the dying Clay's name immortal. For Seward it was an untoward entry.
After the excitement attending the speeches of the three Senatorial magnates, the Senate would be naturally empty when the unmajestic and uncompromising Seward rose to make his address of opposition. Clay wrote to his son : "Mr. Seward's late Abolition speech has eradicated the respect of almost all men for him." It gave the Southern Senators the utmost offense to hear Slavery discussed in their presence as a moral question. His statement of a "higher law" than the Constitution was the corollary of Calhoun's appeal to the same tribunal, and Jefferson Davis responded that Slavery was "a blessing, established by God's decree, and sanctioned by the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation." Senator Seward advocated "emancipation with compensation," the idea which possessed Lincoln until 1862. What little weight Seward had as a Whig Senator under a Whig President, was swept away when General Taylor died. The Clay Compromise was odious to the New York Whigs,, and Fillmore proceeded to remove New York postmasters and other Federal place-holders whose newspapers were not subservient. The Fillmore Whigs were named Silver Greys. They called Seward's wing Woolly Heads. A Southern Senator threatened to move the expulsion of Senator Seward from the upper chamber, and the Whig party in New York seemed again in process of rapid disintegration. Yet the Clay Compromise had left, in the Fugitive Slave Law, a sufficient brand to again light the conflagration. Massachusetts was displeased with Webster's 7th of March surrender, and sent Sumner to the Senate; New York reinforced Seward with Senator Fish, and Ohio elected Sena-tor Wade. More slaves were captured in the North and sent South in one year than in all the previous sixty years. The people of the North were impatient and even rebellious. But in Mississippi the Compromise bore good fruit, and Jefferson Davis, Secessionist, was defeated for Governor.
Governor Seward, an ardent foe of the Compromise, was chagrined by the attitude of the Northern Whigs at the Convention which nominated General Scott for President in 1852. "When will there be a North?" he cried. He foresaw defeat, and Pierce was elected. The further humiliation of the North was soon to come in the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, whereby territories north of the old line of 36 deg. 30 min. could obtain Slavery (by Squatter Sovereignty). The Kansas-Nebraska bill, whereby the Democrats meant to make two slave States out of free territory settled by Northern pioneers, caused the growth of Free-Soil and Anti-Nebraska parties, and toward these the Know-Nothings were inclined to move in the forming of a National body of voters. "I am heart-sick of being here," Seward wrote. "I look around me in the Senate, and find all demoralized. Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont!!! All, all, in the hands of the slaveholders; and even New York ready to howl at my heels, if I were only to name the name of Freedom, which once they loved so well."
As the Know-Nothings could not coalesce with outside elements, the Whigs, Free-Soilers and anti-Slavery Democrats of the West formed Republican State parties, and the Seward and Webster Whigs and Free-Soilers of the East seemed to be driven together. The Know-Nothings could not defeat Seward, and he was reelected Senator. In this campaign (1854) Greeley was not made Governor, and wrote Seward a letter expressing undying personal hostility. The Know-Nothings expelled 30,000 "brothers" who had supported Seward, and yet carried the State the following autumn. Governor Seward was so full of alarm lest a compromise should be made with the Know-Nothings at the first National Republican Convention, that he practically refused to be a candidate for President. To his astonishment, when Frémont was chosen, it was on "a complete Seward platform." Yet it is doubtful if the people thought so. They were not yet ready for Seward. The Republican masses desired only to drive the Slavery Senators back within the constitutional lines. Governor Seward did not enter heartily into the Frémont campaign, partly because there was a long session of the Senate. Buchanan was elected President, but there was at last a Solid North in the House of Representatives, with reinforcements to the panel of anti-Slavery Senators, making them twenty in all.
President Buchanan's Administration opened with a disagreeable imbroglio concerning the Dred Scott decision and obiter dicta of the Supreme Court, it being alleged that the inaugural address heralded the celebrated decision. It was charged that in the obiter dicta there was a carefully prepared political document, and the Abolitionists put the most radical construction upon its language. Buchanan tried to force Kansas into the Union as a slave State, and Seward's speech against that act was circulated in the North to the extent of 162,000 copies. Governor Seward made some telling speeches against Tansy's action, and the Chief Justice retorted that if Seward were to be elected President, he (Taney) would not administer the oath of office. In the autumn of 1858, Seward struck the keynote of the campaign of 1860, when he declared in a speech at Rochester, N. Y., that there was an "irrepressible conflict between Freedom and Slavery."
In the summer and autumn of 1859 Governor Seward was in Europe. When he returned, John Brown had gone down to Harper's Ferry, and had been hanged as a felon.
Jefferson Davis was in Calhoun's place in the Senate. Pro-Slavery resolutions of the most arbitrary character were offered with loud declamation, as the only terms of National Union. It is generally said that a price of $50,000 had been set on Governor Seward's head in the South, while $25,000 was the highest reward offered for any other Republican.
Governor Seward, when the Chicago Convention of 1860 met in May, was a great national character. But he had been long in office, and the eight or ten disbanded regiments of politicians in New York could each easily muster around a camp-fire to cripple his popularity. Mr. Lincoln was adroit, and his name created a furore wherever he was known. Governor Seward was always in the hands of Thurlow Weed. Ohio was for Chase. Pennsylvania was for Cameron, and jealous of New York. Governor Seward was put aside, as John Quincy Adams, Van Buren and Henry Clay had been slighted before, and as Blaine was afterward, to the profound disappointment of the National party as a whole. But Governor Seward sup-ported Lincoln cheerfully, and was offered and accepted the State Department. It was probably thought by Mr. Weed that Governor Seward could control Lincoln, and, at Lincoln's prompt repudiation of this idea, Seward declined to serve, but was induced to withdraw his refusal. The Eastern men were shocked by the familiarity of Mr. Lincoln's metaphors, and there was a shudder on the part of the "silk-stocking" element to think that Mr. Lincoln had so little awe for kid gloves and dress coats. Governor Seward, naturally a gentle and cultured man, was by no means insincere in his feelings of personal degradation when he heard that Mr. Lincoln said in public, that he had shown "Seward shouldn't take the first trick, and if the Cabinet slate were to be broken anywhere, it would be at the top."
As Secretary of State, Governor Seward found ambassadors from the Confederate States of America on his very threshold. With these audacious persons he was soon entangled in a controversy concerning Fort Sumter. The President was not only determined to let events drift, but he was not a rapid man of business. He sometimes appeared to get behind with the work that he really intended to do. Governor Seward was soon demanding "a policy," and it is not likely that the two men ever cordially admired or trusted each other. Charles Francis Adams was appointed, at Goveronr's Seward's solicitation, to be Minister to England. On the very day he landed at Liverpool, the Queen's proclamation was issued, recognizing the Southern States as belligerents. Governor Seward at once wrote a dispatch that was tantamount to a hostile declaration. The President cautiously toned down this document, and then sent it, not to the English Prime Minister, but to Minister Adams, for his guidance but not as a dispatch to be read to the English Ministry. While the War Department was practically in rebel hands, the Secretary of State took charge of arrests under the arbitrary methods excused by war, and much odium attached to his course among the friends of the arrested conspirators.
When Mason and Slidell were taken from a British vessel, England demanded their surrender with an apology. The British Minister carried an ultimatum in his pocket. Governor Seward realized the gravity of the situation, and, profiting by Mr. Lincoln's previous alteration of his dispatches, prepared the statesmanlike document which restored Mason and Slidell to their status quo ante, and prevented a declaration of war by Great Britain.
In the autumn of 1862 a cabal of Senators attempted to compel the President to expel Governor Seward from the Cabinet, Chase and Seward failing to agree. Both Secretaries tendered their resignations. Lincoln practically drove both statesmen back into place, and resented the arbitrary action of Congress.
Governor Seward, as Secretary of State, dealt, while his hands were tied by a civil war, with a haughty and unfriendly government in Great Britain, whose sympathies were with Slavery. The St. Albans, Vt., raid, and the move on Mexico by France and England, were tantalizing acts, to harry us into war while we were weak and divided. Mr. Gladstone was eloquently against us. Mr. Bright was our firm well-wisher. Governor Seward was forced to look as far as Russia for a powerful friend, and, with great astuteness, he bid for the favor of that Empire by the purchase of Alaska.
April 5, 1865, Governor Seward was thrown from his carriage, and was so badly injured that for a time his life was despaired of. His right shoulder was dislocated, and his jaw broken 0n both sides. Mrs. Seward, an invalid, then at Auburn, hastened to Washington. Nine days later, while Booth was assassinating President Lincoln in Ford's Theater, an unknown man (Payne) burst into Governor Seward's chamber, and with a bowie-knife stabbed the sick man in the face and throat. The wife, aroused by the screams of her daughter, was s0 horrified by what she saw that she became violently ill, and died June 21. The daughter, also a victim of the shock, caused by seeing the bloody affray, fell ill, and survived only a year. By the aid of mechanical contrivances holding his face aright, the shattered man was able to leave his bed within a few months, and he was sometimes carried in a chair to the State Department. He was cruelly maimed, and piteously desolate.
Andrew Johnson was a man of the type of Jackson and Lincoln, but with some unfortunate personal habits that tended toward rash action. Congress was in the hands of still more headstrong men, and one of them Ben Butler was likely to go to any lengths. Congress decided to ride pell-mell 0ver Johnson, possibly because it had treated two other promoted Vice-Presidents with similar disdain. Mr. Johnson was called "Acting President" and "President ad interim." He was informed that he could not choose even the Cabinet officers that he desired, and finally he was impeached by Butler, and tried by the Senate and the Supreme Justice sitting as a High Court. Five Republican Senators refused to join the hue and cry, and were politically ostracized forever; but they spared the Nation an act of injustice, for Andrew Johnson was a much nobler man than Ben Butler. Through all these troubles, Governor Seward kept his place at President Johnson's side, sharing the obloquy heaped on anyone who dared oppose a dominant political party, swollen with civil and military victory. In most of the matters of dispute, time demonstrated that Johnson and Seward were logically, practically, and patriotically right. The same junto of legislators had determined to attempt to hunt down Mr. Lincoln, had not death cheated them of their quarry.
March 4, 1869, Governor Seward very gladly laid down an office which the arrogations of Congress had made extremely burdensome, and attempted to divert his mind by travel. He visited his purchase of Alaska, went down the coast to Mexico, crossed the Isthmian lands, and returned to New York by way of the West Indies. He then made his celebrated journey around the world, of which the account remains in book-form, from his dictation. The Mikado of Japan unveiled his face to him. The Prince-Regent of China rose from a sick bed to visit him. The native monarchs of India and the British Governors received him with distinction. He everywhere evoked expressions of the highest respect.
After his return he passed the remainder of his days either at his homestead in Auburn, or in a cottage on the banks of Owasco Lake. His strength failed gradually, but his mind remained clear and his temper tranquil. He was at work on his notes of travel on the very morning of his death, October Io, 1872.
Governor Seward's personal defeats bore heavily on the spirits of his friends and townsmen. They believed he should have been President. In his old age, his people, moved by these remembrances, contributed unceasingly to show their affection and reverence for him. Such acts of kindness were very grateful to him, and, despite the domestic losses he had sustained, the closing years of his life were peaceful and happy.