William Henry Seward
WILLIAM HENRY SEWARD.
He was elected by a majority of two thousand, in a district (the seventh) which had given a large majority the other way in the previous year. Scarcely thirty years old, he entered the Senate as the youngest member who had ever attained that honor, and found himself, politically, in a small minority, at a time when party lines were sharply defined. Yet he fearlessly entered the lists, throwing down the gauntlet to the Jackson power and the Albany Regency, taking part in all debates, advocating the claims of abolition of imprisonment for debt, the amelioration of prison discipline, opposition to corporate monopolies, the extension of the popular franchise, the common-school system, the Erie railroad and internal improvements, etc. His maiden speech was on a militia bill, in which he proposed, substantially, the same system of volunteer uniform companies as that at present in use in New York State; and during the second session of his term he delivered a speech in advocacy of a national bank, which, with others of similar import, gave rise (by concentrating an opposition in the Senate) to what subsequently developed as the Whig party. In the summer of 1833, during the recess of the Senate, Mr. Seward made a hurried visit to Europe, adding largely to his reputation by the letters which he wrote home, and which were published in the Albany "Evening Journal."
In September, 1834, he was nominated for governor by the Whig State Convention, against William L. Marcy, but was defeated, although running ahead of his ticket in every county. Resuming his practice, Mr. Seward, in 1836, settled in Chautauqua county, as the agent for the Holland Land Company; and, in 1838, was again nominated by the Whigs, and elected governor by ten thousand majority. In 1840, he was re-elected. During his administration occurred the celebrated anti-rent difficulties; the Erie canal was enlarged; the State lunatic asylum was founded; imprisonment for debt, and every vestige of slavery were eradicated from the statute-books ; important reforms were effected in elections, in prison discipline, in bank laws, and in legal courts. One of the most important events of his administration was the controversy with the Governors of Virginia and Georgia, in which the latter claimed from him the rendition of certain colored sailors, charged with having abducted slaves from said States. Governor Seward refused compliance, and argued the ease with a firmness and ability which attracted the attention of the whole country; and when his course was denounced by the Democrats, after their accession to power, and he was requested to transmit their resolutions to the Governor of Virginia, he declined to do so—remaining inflexible, despite the retaliatory measures threatened by the State of Virginia against the commerce of New York. A similar instance of firmness and sagacity was manifested by him, in his refusal to surrender, to the British Government, Alexander McLeod, charged with burning the steamer Caroline, during the Canadian rebellion of 1837, a refusal in which he persisted, in spite of the British minister's threats of hostilities, the advice of President Tyler's administration, and the strong intercession of many of his own political friends. In January, 1843, Mr. Seward, declining another nomination, resumed the practice of law, devoting himself; for the ensuing six years, assiduously to business, attaining a large practice in the highest State courts, and—owing to a particular aptitude for mechanical science—having a considerable number of patent-cases, which brought him into association with the best legal talent of the country. He also gave freely, not only his professional services but his means, in behalf of certain friendless unfortunates, whose cases and trials form some of the most interesting records of criminal jurisprudence.. Conspicuous among these was the case of the insane negro Freeman, the murderer of the Van Nest family, in Orange county, New York, a case which, in spite of derision, obloquy and reproach, Mr. Seward never forsook, until the death of his client, "caused by the disease of the brain, satisfied even the most prejudiced, that his course had been as wise as it confessedly was humane and generous." He also gratuitously defended, before the United States Supreme Court, in 1847, the case of John Van Zandt, charged with aiding fugitive slaves to escape from Kentucky; his argument in the case being pronounced "a masterly exposition of the inhumanity and unconstitutionality of the Fugitive Slave act."
In 1851, he defended, at Detroit, fifty men on trial for conspiracy, who could find but one lawyer in Michigan courageous enough to undertake their case. It was a four months' trial,
In the Thirty-third Congress, he introduced a bill for the construction of a Pacific railroad, another for establishing steam mails between California, China, Japan, and the Sandwich Islands; besides measures for the modification of the Tariff, the Homestead Bill, Miss Dix's effort for the Relief of the Insane, etc., etc.—all of which matters, however, gave place to the all-absorbing discussion of Senator Douglas's Nebraska bill, which, it is needless to say, met with all the persistent and powerful opposition which Mr. Seward could bring against it. The measure, however, was finally passed. In addition to the elaborate speeches made on this topic, Mr. Seward pronounced chaste and discriminating eulogies on Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and during the summer of this year (1854) delivered the annual oration before the literary societies of Yale College on "The Physical, Moral, and Intellectual development of the American People;" and at the commencement exercises, received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. In October following, he made his celebrated and elaborate argument in the United States Circuit Court in the "McCormick Reaper case." During the second session of the Thirty-third Congress, Mr. Seward, in addition to his continued advocacy of all the leading measures of public improvement, strenuously opposed Senator Toucey's bill protecting government officers in the execution of the Fugitive Slave act, and gave his affirmative vote to a substitute proposed during the debate, repealing the Fugitive Slave act of 1850.
In February, 1855, Mr. Seward was re-elected to the Senate for the term of six years, notwithstanding a most determined opposition from the "Know Nothing" or American party, and the Democratic party. His election, which was everywhere considered as a triumph of the advocates of freedom, assumed a national interest; and Mr. Seward was tendered public receptions at various places along his homeward route, after the extra session of Congress, all of which, however, he respectfully declined. During the State canvass in the fall of 1855, he delivered at Albany, Auburn, and Buffalo, speeches in which the political issues of the times were sketched with a master's hand—and, having enjoyed an immense circulation in newspaper and pamphlet form, were still further honored by being the subject of allusion in President Pierce's annual message. On the 22d of December, 1855, Mr. Seward delivered, at Plymouth, Massachusetts, an address commemorative of the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers, well worthy of the occasion, and his own high reputation as a statesman and scholar. During the protracted debates on the Kansas difficulties, in the thirty-fourth session of Congress, Mr. Seward bore a conspicuous part; his speeches being elaborate and exhaustive, and his labors indefatigable. The affairs of Kansas were also discussed by him, in two able speeches on the "Army bill," at the extra session in August. After the adjournment, he almost immediately plunged into the canvass of the coming Presidential election, in support of Fremont—two of his speeches, those delivered at Auburn and Detroit, displaying more than ordinary ability. Upon the re-assembling of Congress in December, he pronounced an eloquent and touching eulogium upon his old friend, Hon. John M. Clayton, and during the session he advocated the claims of Revolutionary officers; the prospect of government aid to the proposed Atlantic telegraph; a bill for a telegraph line to California and the Pacific coast; the overland mail route, and also the railroad to the Pacific; a revision of the tariff, by which the popular interests should be protected, etc. He also reviewed the Dred Scott decision, and proposed such a re-organization of the United States courts, as should give all sections of the Union a more equable representation, and meet, more fully, the wants of the growing West. During the Thirty-fifth Congress, Mr. Seward spoke on a larger variety of subjects than usual; opposing manfully the admission of Kansas into the Union under the "Lecompton Constitution," and from first to last, advocating the principle that the people of Kansas should be left perfectly free to decide upon their own organic law; advocating the increase of the army in Utah for the suppression of rebellion there; insisting upon reparation being demanded from the British Government for aggressions committed by their cruisers upon American vessels in the Mexican Gulf; favoring the admission of Minnesota and Oregon into the Union, as States; and various interesting speeches, more or less elaborate, upon the Pacific Railroad, Treasury Notes, the Walker "filibustering" expedition, rivers and harbors, and eulogiums upon Senators Rusk of Texas, Bell of New Hampshire, and J. Pinckney Henderson of Texas, of which the first named has been considered as one of the finest specimens of mortuary eloquence ever delivered before that body. After the adjournment of Congress, Mr. Seward made an argument on the "Albany Bridge case," which added largely to his reputation, by the remarkable knowledge which it displayed of the subject of navigation and the constitutional questions involved. In the autumn campaigns of 1858, lie displayed his usual ardor and ability in the canvass for State officers and members of Congress; his speeches causing profound sensations, especially that at Rochester, New York, in which, speaking of the collision between the free and slave systems of labor, he said, " Shall I tell you what this collision means? They who think that it is accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators, and therefore ephemeral, mistake the case altogether. It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation." These significant words were severely denounced by the Democrats as revolutionary and dangerous, but they became the rallying cry of the hosts of Freedom, and they have been more than vindicated by subsequent events of our national history. Mr. Seward's services during the last session of the Thirty-fifth Congress, were rendered in behalf of those important and beneficent measures of which he was always a consistent and persistent friend, viz., the Homestead bill, the Pacific railroad, etc. In 1859, he made a second trip to Europe, to restore his health, impaired by incessant labor, and returning, devoted himself vigorously, in 1860, to the canvass of the Western States, in behalf of Abraham Lincoln. He had, indeed, himself been the prominent candidate for the presidency, in the National Republican Convention of that year, his nomination being regarded as certain by his friends. On the second ballot he received one hundred and eighty-four and one half votes, but on the third was defeated by Mr. Lincoln. During the same year he entertained at his table the Prince of Tales and his suite, who were then making a tour of the United States—on which occasion he casually intimated to his guests, in a jocular but significant remark—which was afterwards remembered when he was Secretary of State, during the civil war, that it would be a dangerous matter for England to meddle with the United States in any other way, than that of friendly rivalry. Mr. Seward had already foretold the "irrepressible conflict," and when it loomed up in still more threatening guise, and before the expiration of his second senatorial term in March, 1861, he boldly asserted his position thus—"I avow my adherence to the Union with my friends, with my party, with my State, or without either, as they may determine ; in every event of peace or of war, with every consequence of honor or dishonor, of life or death."
Immediately upon Mr. Lincoln's election to the presidency, he tendered to Mr. Seward the chief cabinet office, that of Secretary of State. It was accepted by the latter, and the difficult and perplexing duties which he thus assumed, were discharged with signal ability and success. His judicious administration of the office during the early part of Mr. Lincoln's first term, tended more than any other cause, to ward off intervention on the part
It is well known that, during Mr. Lincoln's administration, Mr. Seward was, in most matters, the ruling spirit, and in general it must be admitted that he used his power well. There was dissatisfaction, not wholly causeless, at the freedom with which he used the power of arbitrary arrest; some complaint of the capricious, and at times not wholly respectful, manner in which he treated the representatives of the weaker foreign powers; some displeasure at his apparently open defiance of Congress in relation to the Mexican question, in offering to recognize Maximilian, after Congress had voted by a large majority to give moral support only to the Juarez government. These and other measures of his, so greatly dissatisfied the Republicans, that at their National Convention in Baltimore, in 1864, they passed a resolution requesting the President to reconstruct his cabinet. Mr. Seward tendered his resignation, as did some of the other cabinet officers, but Mr. Lincoln, who knew well Mr. Seward's value in the cabinet, in spite of his faults and errors, refused to accept his resignation, and retained him in his place.
Mr. Seward is by nature an optimist, always looking on the favorable side of a subject, and indulging, perhaps too much for the highest order of statesmanship, in glowing reveries and predictions of the wonderful growth, progress, and prosperity of our country in the immediate future. During the war, he excited some amusement by his oft repeated prophecies that it would close in sixty or ninety days. The second of these predictions, in his correspondence on the Mason and Slidell affair, furnished food for mirth among our enemies in the British Parliament for years.
After Mr. Lincoln's second inauguration, he re-appointed Mr. Seward for his second term, and in the closing events of the war in the east, the secretary rendered him great service.
Early in April, 1865, while Mr. Seward was riding in his carriage, the horses became frightened and ran, and in attempting to jump out, he was thrown to the ground, and his right arm was broken, and both sides of the lower jaw fractured. He was severely prostrated by this accident, and, for a time, serious fears were felt for his recovery. While thus confined to his bed, he narrowly escaped falling a victim to the fiendish plan of the conspirators who assassinated President Lincoln. Almost simultaneously with the attack upon Mr. Lincoln, an assassin forced his way into Mr. Seward's chamber, and striking down Mr. Frederick Seward, and overcoming the opposition of a male nurse, who was in attendance, reached the secretary's bedside and inflicted upon him three stabs in the face, which, however, failed of their deadly intent, although they greatly protracted his recovery. The assassin fled, but was subsequently arrested, convicted, and executed.
There have been those, even among the strongest friends of Mr. Seward in the past, who have been so uncharitable as to regret, for his sake, that the assassin failed of the complete accomplishment of his purpose at that time; for, they have argued, his career up to that time had been honorable to himself and a glory to the nation, and he would have died in the odor of sanctity, and with a martyr's halo around his brow, and have been remembered in all the future as the great statesman, who loved his country intensely, and laid down his life for her sake.
Without avowing any sympathy with this view, candor compels us to say, that Mr. Seward's course since his recovery from those wounds of the assassin, was not wholly worthy of his previous illustrious career. Forgetful, apparently, of his past intense loyalty and devotion to freedom, he sustained Mr. Johnson in every attempted usurpation, of power; assumed a supercilious tone in addressing the people, while yet their servant, was vacillating and self-contradictory in his intercourse with foreign powers, and attempted to distract the attention of Congress from the usurpations and crimes of his chief, by the purchase of extensive territories away from our previous geographical limits, and of which we stood in no need. These purchases were made without any consultations with Congress, and solely upon his own judgment; the prices he offered for them were exorbitant, and they were understood to be but the stepping stones to further and still more extensive negotiations.
We are glad to say that with his retirement from the cabinet in March, 1869, his eyes seemed to be opened to his departure from the principles to which his life had been for so many years devoted. With the glamour, which in official position had deceived him, removed from his vision, and the stern realities of a future life in which he must give an account of his stewardship, confronting him, in feeble health and with a partially paralysed body, this man prematurely old, from the hot fevers of partisan strife and political action, had leisure to review his career, and to see clearly the errors he had committed. When he had partially recovered from his illness, his active and restless spirit, impatient of confinement, led him, feeble as he still was, to undertake a journey round the world. Traversing first our neighbor republic of Mexico, where, notwithstanding his former inclination to recognize Maximilian's Empire, he was received with great cordiality and many honors, he subsequently traversed our Pacific States, and thence by steamer visited Japan, China, India, Palestine and Egypt, and the principal states of Europe. Everywhere he was received with high honor, and his ability and statesmanship fully recognized. In the autumn of 1871, he returned to his luxurious home at Auburn, and has since been engaged in the preparation for speedy publication of a narrative of his journeyings.
He will, not in all probability, take any part hereafter in public or political life, and perhaps has no desire to do so; but there is a lesson for all statesmen to learn from his career. While engaged in the defence of a great principle, the advocacy of a great right, or the attack on a great wrong, they can afford to sacrifice present popularity for the abiding and deliberate judgment of the future; they can be sure that they will not long remain misunderstood ; but if these same statesmen when known, honored, and loved, depart from the principles they have so long and fearlessly advocated, if tempted by the glittering gauds of office, fame and political power, they forget to practise those great doctrines which it has been their glory to sustain, no length of public service, no deeds of past patriotism, no lofty aspirations in the past, will save them from that deep and settled distrust, on the part of the masses, which will eventually bury them beneath the waters of oblivion.
Mr. Seward, though a man of rare gifts and extraordinary talents, is not prepossessing in personal appearance; small of stature, slender and pale, careless in dress and manner, and with an habitually sad expression of countenance, he wins confidence but slowly; yet he has the art to attach his friends to him "as with hooks of steel."
Let us hope that, when he shall sleep under the clods of the valley, there may be in the hearts of the people a kindly remembrance of his great services to his country during forty
Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872
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