THE problem with Seward is exactly the reverse of that with Stanton. In Stanton’s case we had to discover the strong qualities which enabled the man to make his way in spite of an extreme and well-founded unpopularity. Seward, on the other hand, was generally popular, and aimed to be so, to such an extent that it might at first be questioned whether this was not the main basis of his distinguished success.
He played politics as naturally as he breathed. In 1830, when only twentynine years old, he entered the Senate of his native state, New York. With suitable intervals of law, he became Governor and United States Senator, and did all that a party leader could do to be nominated for the presidency, instead of Lincoln, in 1860. Failing this, he was content to be, on the whole, the ablest and most influential member of the Cabinet under Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
He studied, or acquired without study, the art of influencing and persuading men. He was not a great orator, like Webster, or even Sumner, had no stately and impressive manner, no orotund and swelling declamation. His voice was not attractive and his carriage not always graceful. Yet what he said had great force, because it was simple, direct, and natural. He spoke in public like a man talking at his fireside, and persuaded you, because he seemed to be taking you right into the movement of his thoughts. Yet with this appearance of candor he had the very great art of combining the most careful study and preparation. Halleck’s scornful remark about him, that ‘these infernal old political humbugs cannot tell the truth even when it is for their interest to do so.' is quite inappropriate. Seward knew perfectly well when to plan to tell the truth and when not.
He worked out his speeches with the utmost care, turned them over to the reporters before he delivered them, and always, always looked far beyond the immediate audience, — whether it was the United States Senate, or a nondescript political gathering, — to the vast congregation of the American people. Few of our statesmen have made themselves so widely listened to and appreciated as he. This Lincoln knew, and estimated Seward’s eloquence exactly at its true value. They were once making a trip in a sleeping-car together, and when they stopped, there was great clamor for a speech. Lincoln absolutely refused, said he had to do enough of it in Washington. Then, rolling over in his berth, he murmured, ‘Seward, you go out and repeat some of your poetry to the people.’
But Seward had resources of political management far broader than his tongue. His partial biographer says that he had no capacity for political intrigue. On the other hand, one who knew him well and admired him greatly declares that ‘ he combined men largely through their selfishness, not their holier affections; their love of themselves, rather than of their fellow creatures or of God. As a consequence he was followed to his grave by only a few men beholden to him for political favors — outside of his own townsmen.’
It is certain that, whether by intrigue or not, Seward had an extraordinary faculty of developing and directing political movements. He had two qualities of the greatest value in this regard. One was the ability to give an impression of power, whether he had it or not. This particularly affected Schurz. ‘He made upon me, as well as upon many others, the impression of a man who controlled hidden, occult powers which he could bring into play if he would.’ Seward’s other gift was that of enlisting the devoted service of men who admired and believed in him and were able and willing to do things he did not care to do himself. By far the most important among these followers was Thurlow Weed, who may be regarded as Seward’s evil angel or his familiar devil, just as you please. Accident brought them together and mutual usefulness bred a deep affection. Weed was by no means the thoroughly corrupt New York politician of later days. He played the game more for the pleasure of it than for personal profit. But he knew every move and invented some not known to others, and as manager, mentor, and scapegoat, all in one, he was an indispensable aid in the perfecting of Seward’s ample career.
It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that Seward’s popularity was all a matter of political calculation. He was liked because he was likeable, because he was amiable, because he met with courtesy, not only courtesy but discourtesy and churlishness as well. He himself said, ‘We never can succeed by making people mad’; and though there are some who pursue this policy to the point of exasperation, Seward apparently did not. If his antagonists abused him, he turned it off with a soft answer. ‘Benjamin,’ he said, after the Jewish senator had been particularly violent, ‘give me a cigar, and when your speech is printed, send me a copy.’ Lincoln said of him that he was ‘a man without gall,’ and Dana that, though forever in fights, he had almost no personal enemies.
Seward himself repeatedly contributes his own testimony as to this beatific atmosphere in which he lived. He had no enemies, he tells us; he was on good terms with every one; all the senators were well disposed toward him. As to his own state, he asserts, with touching candor, ‘I have not one enemy in this section to forgive. I know not one who will utter a personal complaint against me.’
It is true, there are some discordant voices. The temper on which the Secretary prided himself did flaw occasionally, as when he told the President that there were too many secretaries of state in Washington, or snapped out at a troublesome applicant for office, ‘ Why come to me about this? Go to the White House! I, who by every right ought, to have been chosen President, what am I now? Nothing but Abe Lincoln’s little—clerk.’
Also, there is the crusty Welles, who leaves no illusions unshattered and liked Seward very little better than he liked Stanton. Temper? He can tell stories of the Secretary’s temper! No enemies? It sounds well, but the truth is, Seward is universally distrusted and disliked, and not without some cause. As for the state of New York, Welles accompanied a presidential party to the Secretary’s home town, Auburn, and found it a nest of little political bickerings and jealousies.
But Welles must not mislead us, and Seward’s great personal charm, in private life as well as in public, is undeniable. Socially he seems to have been delightful. He liked ease and good cheer to such a point that absurd charges of excess were sometimes brought against him. He was a most interesting and vivid talker; and what is curious about the record of his conversation is that it is not in the least that of a man who was making an effort to please or to seduce, but of one who was frank, straightforward, and thoroughly personal, sometimes even to the point of indiscretion or oddity. Above all, he had the art, so rare in great talkers and in men who have made their way in the world, of being a good listener. In short, it appears that he had a remarkable and often exquisite gift of adaptability.
Then, he was by nature full of joy and hope. Occasional hints of depression do occur in the enormous mass of his correspondence, like the following: ‘This day has been a worthless one. I feel wretchedly always, when I have to retire to bed with the reflection that I have accomplished nothing that I ought to have done, and learned nothing that I ought to know.’ But these bits are very rare, and sound, like the above, as if written partly for effect. There are few men who have been so charmed at birth by the goddess of good humor. The touch of that deity sometimes gets her favorites into trouble. But, after all, could a man desire a sweeter eulogy than that bestowed upon Seward by his son: ‘The house was always cheerful when he was in it’?
Whether back of this constant amiability and gayety there was any very profound sympathy or tenderness is open to doubt. Do these bright cheerful spirits ever deal extensively in overpowering and concentrated emotion? Seward’s love for his wife and children is always manifest and always attractive. To his wife, especially, he writes with intimate candor and deep respect and regard for her most helpful judgment. Also, he did many acts of thoughtful kindness. As a single example of these one should read Mrs. Jefferson Davis’s account of his frequent visits to her husband during a severe illness and of the benefit derived from his serene and comforting presence. Another significant bit of real human feeling is the Secretary’s attempt to keep a diary when he first entered Lincoln’s Cabinet, and his decision to drop it, after a very few days, because, if veracious, it would involve recording so much that was petty and disagreeable. These scruples do not seem to have beset the worthy Gideon Welles. Moreover, Seward had unquestionably a keen sensitiveness to the sight of trouble and distress. Although an experienced lawyer, the torture to which one poor criminal was subjected in court affected him so deeply that he was obliged to leave the courtroom, completely overcome by tears.
Yet, in spite of all this, I do not get the impression of a man whose affections could ever seriously disturb his equanimity. There are even those who say that the amiability and kindness were largely rooted in wordly wisdom. Thus, the venomous Gurowski, after remarking that the Secretary of State is by no means given to speaking evil of any one, feels constrained to add that this is a matter of policy. And a far juster observer than Gurowski asserts, in contradiction of Seward’s own confession that he had no memory for injuries, that ‘he was a good hater and lay in wait to punish his foes,’ instancing the disasters which fell upon New York Republicans who had opposed the Senator’s nomination for the presidency.
So the penalty that falls upon a generally amiable and courteous manner — that of being called insincere — fell upon Seward, as upon many others. At the beginning of his public life Clay said of him that he had no convictions. At the end of it Andrew Johnson, with fine ingratitude, repeated, in his odd vocabulary, that ‘Mr. Seward seems to have no cardinals.’ Blair believed that the Secretary would betray any man who stood in his way, and Welles expresses or implies a similar view ad libitum.
Seward’s half-ironical fashion of talking encouraged many of these interpretations. Thus, he said to Piatt, condemning his own ‘higher law’ speech, ‘My young friend, we are warned to keep to ourselves what we do not believe. It is well, frequently, to conceal what we do believe. There is apt to be public damnation in both.’ In the very remarkable scene described so vividly by Mrs. Davis, when Seward had smilingly avowed to her husband that a good deal of his anti-slavery talk was merely for political purposes, and the great Southern leader, scandalized, asked, ‘But, Mr. Seward, do you never speak from conviction alone?’ the answer was, ‘Nev-er.’ To which Mrs. Davis adds the Secretary’s frank confession that truth should always be made subsidiary to an end, and that if another statement could subserve that end, he made it. Now, we see perfectly well that Seward was insincere in asserting his own insincerity. But such talk does harm with the uninitiated.
And so much for Seward the popular orator, the dexterous and insinuating politician. But there is another side of the man, a most important side. Perhaps I cannot introduce it better than with a striking passage written by Godkin, in 1859: ‘He has, through twentyfive years of public life, been the steady and fearless champion of an unpopular cause, and he has every year, in speeches and state papers, given abundant evidence of the possession of the highest order of talent. . . . Perhaps the greatest constitutional lawyer in America, the clearest-headed statesman, a powerful and above all a most logical orator, and of all the public men of this country perhaps the least of a demagogue and the most of a gentleman.’
While Seward’s keenest admirers today would hardly insist upon all of this eulogy, much of it can be supported by indisputable evidence.
Thus, however often he may have trifled, or appeared to trifle, there were times, many times, when he took life with energetic earnestness. He made his governorship a serious business, he made his senatorship a serious business, he made his secretaryship a serious business. It may be urged that in age he was more inclined to take things lightly than in youth; but I doubt it, though his own observation that in his younger years men were more serious than later may be read either way. Some say that he catered to temporary popularity; but did ever any fighter speak out with more trumpet-like resonance against unmanly yielding?
‘ They tell us that we are to encounter opposition. Why, bless my soul, did anybody ever expect to reach fortune, or fame, or happiness on earth, or a crown in heaven, without encountering resistance and opposition ? What are we made men for but to encounter and overcome opposition arrayed against us in the line of our duty?’
Again, he could be, not only earnest in thought, but a tremendous worker. As a lawyer, indeed, he shirked work, when he could, because he hated it.
Law to him was a waste of time and an enemy to the peace of life, whether lawyer’s life or client’s. In his vivid, petulant way he cries out, ‘I fear, abhor, detest, despise, and loathe litigation. The irascible, the headstrong, and the obstinate pity my peaceful disposition; yet they solicit my aid to extricate them.’ Still, even in law he could do more in hours than others in days, and in his political calling he would labor enormously. As governor, as senator, as secretary, he performed cheerfully more than the duty thrust upon him; and he had that instinct for system which doubles the result of labor while it halves the burden. As with other things, he saw clearly what his own faculty of labor was, and, as with other things, he could make a jest of it. To Weed, who had suggested various matters that needed attention, he writes, ‘I thought I had as much industry as anybody around me, and with it a little versatility. But I know nobody and never did know that one man who could do all you seem to think I neglect, as well as all the labor I actually perform.’
Some survey of the various lines of his activity will bring out more clearly how positive and unfailing it was. Of course the great political question all through his career was slavery, and on this he certainly cannot be ranked among the ardent idealists. It is true that in the earlier years of his senatorship the great wave of anti-slavery enthusiasm lifted him, to some extent, off his feet, and carried him to the climax of asserting that there was a law higher than the Constitution, a climax which probably astonished him as it did every one else, especially when it became one of the most telling catchwords of the reforming party. But we have seen him admitting to Davis that his sympathy with the slaves was at least partly assumed, and in his very remarkable conversation with Godkin and Norton, after the war, the same attitude is even more obvious. ‘The North has nothing to do with the Negroes. I have no more concern for them than I have for the Hottentots. They are God’s poor; they always have been and always will be so everywhere. They are not of our race. They will find their place. They must take their level.’
Schurz remarks, with much justice, that in his conduct of diplomacy Seward would never take the full advantage that the slavery question afforded him. He was careful to instruct our representatives at foreign courts not to insist too strongly on the moral issue at the bottom of the struggle, and to make it clear that the government was not endeavoring so much to destroy slavery as to maintain the Union.
It is on this last point that Seward’s abundant and energetic patriotism is at all times manifest. The unity, the solidarity of the American people, in the light of their historic past and their incomparable future, was such an intense reality to him that he would not allow for an instant that it could be shattered, that there was any danger of its being shattered. This overconfidence may at times have made him blind to the perils of the situation, but beyond doubt it was a splendid, animating force to him and to others.
It was this love of the Union which, during his senatorship, made him resist what he felt to be the fatal encroachments of the slave-power, while at the same time he studied every legitimate means of compromise and harmony.
It was the love of the Union, and not merely personal motives, which made him disappointed when the nomination for the presidency went to an insignificant Illinois lawyer instead of to himself.
It was the love of the Union which made him accept the position of secretary under the said lawyer, with the feeling that as the real head of the Cabinet and of the government he could accomplish almost as much as in the presidential chair. And it was in the same spirit of patriotism that he fought desperately against what he believed the disastrous plan of relieving Sumter, keeping up a semi-diplomatic intercourse with the Confederate commissioners, and deceiving them, in fact, if not in intention, because he had first deceived himself.
It was still the love of the Union, as well as the love of personal leadership, which prompted the secretary to submit to his chief those extraordinary ‘Thoughts for the President’s Consideration,’ which show how the wisest of men may be misled by a too high estimate of his own importance. I know how to run the government, I can run it, and I will run it — if you wish me to, said this document in effect. The President’s mild reply that he did not wish it began the gradual adjustment of relations between the two. But Seward’s love of the Union was as present as ever in his loyal acceptance of the supremacy of the natural ruler whom destiny had set over him.
The growth of confidence and affection between Lincoln and Seward is delightful to study. To be sure, it was not in Seward’s nature to recognize a superior, and to the end he retained the delusion of the importance of his influence, a delusion which Lincoln appreciated and gently encouraged. To be sure, there is shrewd insight in Welles’s remark that if Lincoln had written one of Seward’s ill-judged letters, ‘he would not have hesitated a moment to retrace his steps and override it; but that is the difference between Abraham Lincoln and William H. Seward.’ We must not ask too much of humanity.
Yet Welles records elsewhere Seward’s admirable confession, after his views as to Sumter had been rejected, that ‘old as he was, he had learned a lesson from this affair, and that was, he had better attend to his own business and confine his labors to his own department.’ He did not learn the lesson. Who of us ever does? As long as the war lasted, he showed more or less disposition to advise about the affairs of others. But he did this, not as a meddlesome busybody, though Welles often thought so, but from an intense and passionate zeal for the triumph of the cause, just as similar zeal, mingled perchance with a little natural delight in the exercise of power, led to his apparently harsh treatment of the political prisoners who came within the jurisdiction of the State Department.
The same enthusiastic devotion to the Union that manifested itself in domestic affairs, showed in Seward’s conduct of his special department of foreign relations. At first, indeed, it does not appear that this enthusiasm was always guided by discretion. The sense of power in controlling the intercourse of the country with the great nations of the world produced a sort of intoxication which appeared in words and deeds not wholly appropriate. The picture drawn by Russell, at the very beginning of the war, is as unfavorable as it is vivid: ‘A subtle, quick man, rejoicing in power, giwen to perorate, bursting with the importance of state mysteries and with the dignity of directing the foreign policy of the greatest country — as all Americans think — in the world.’ Seward himself denied having uttered, even jocosely, the threat quoted by the Duke of Newcastle, that he would soon be secretary of state and it would then be his duty to insult England. But no one can question the authenticity of the account, given by Lord Lyons, the English ambassador, of a scene at his own table, when, finding that Seward ‘was getting more and more violent and noisy, and saying things which it would be more convenient for me not to have heard, I took a natural opportunity, as host, to speak to some of the ladies in the room.’
But as time went on, this effervescence — after all rather superficial — quieted, and the Secretary applied his keen intellect and his vast industry more and more skillfully to the service of his country. His conduct of the Trent affair, involving the return to England of the Confederate commissioners who had been captured by Captain Wilkes, though perhaps rather on the level of the clever advocate than of the great statesman, was deft, patriotic, and eminently successful. And his letters and instructions to ministers abroad, while sometimes verbose and not always free from errors of judgment, were framed on broad and definite lines of policy and were unquestionably of very great value in preserving the friendships and averting the enmities which were both so closely connected with the preservation of the Union. There is certainly much to justify Bigelow’s remark that of all the departments of government during the war, the Department of State was the only one ‘the conduct of which was never seriously assailed by Congress, by the press, or by the public.’ And this was wholly the result of Seward’s management.
Perhaps the two concrete achievements that best illustrate Seward’s diplomatic success are the expulsion of the French from Mexico and the acquisition of Alaska. In regard to Mexico how admirable, in a statesman accused of undue bluster, is the letter to Bigelow making clear the necessity of tact and conciliation while our own struggle lasted. ‘I regret that you think my course toward the French government is too conciliatory and courteous. . . . We have compromised nothing, surrendered nothing, and I do not propose to surrender anything. But why should we gasconnade about Mexico when we are in a struggle for our own life?’ Then, when the war was over, it was made perfectly evident to France that there was no place for her in Mexico any longer; yet this also was done with entire consideration and courtesy.
The Mexican affair was negative. The purchase of Alaska was a piece of constructive statesmanship, broadly conceived and energetically carried out. Who will say, after the developments of the last twenty years, that it was not as felicitous as it was enterprising?
Also, the Alaskan purchase, important as it was, was only a detail in Seward’s conception of the needs, the possibilities, and the future development of America. From his earliest activity in politics, he looked forward, far forward, and refused to be limited by the petty efforts of the passing hour. It was this sense of the vast meaning of American democracy that made him utterly incredulous of secession as a practical issue and forever insistent on the mighty, cumulative march of progress. Canada must be ours, Mexico must be ours. In thirty years, he said, Mexico City will be the capital of the United States. Railroads? Of course we must have railroads! Canals? Of course we must have canals! Commerce? Of course we must have commerce! Every day we must be busy thinking and planning to do our part toward the vast consummation which the Creator has planned for these great, growing democratic states.
So, as he was a cheerful person to have in the house, he was also a cheerful person to have in the country. When others were downcast and despairing, he was hopeful; and while no doubt such confidence might lead to delusion and deception and undeception, there were plenty to look at the dark side and provide for it, without him. He did not think the war would come; he did not think it would last; he was sure it could have but one result, if it did last; and he was inclined to believe that it was a natural stage of development which might not impossibly have beneficial consequences.
Nor was his optimism wholly of the comfortable sort which has no anxiety about the misfortunes of others, but is doubly solicitous about its own. When Bigelow warned him, early in the war, of the danger of assassination, which was so near being fatal to him at the time when it annihilated Lincoln, his buoyant answer was, ‘Assassination is not an American practice or habit, and one so vicious and desperate cannot be engrafted into our political system. This conviction has steadily gained strength since the Civil War began. Every day’s experience confirms it.’
Also, the cheerfulness was not a mere matter of temperament, not the smooth and quiet utterance of a spirit always tranquil and content. One most remarkable passage, written to his daughter, in August, 1862, after McClellan’s misfortunes, shows him deeply oppressed by the burden of others’ depression and complaint. ‘My table groans, and my heart sinks, under the weight of complaints that I can put to no practicable use. If I should let a shade of this popular despondency fall upon a dispatch, or even rest upon my own countenance, there would be black despair throughout the whole country.’ Perhaps the illumination of the whole country did not so absolutely depend upon the light of his countenance as he believed, but much of it did. In any case, so believing, he made an admirably and nobly patriotic effort, and the ringing, resounding assurance that echoes through all his foreign correspondence was of the very highest value to his cause.
It was not only in ardent patriotic activity that Seward differed from the common type of politician, to which the first part of our study might seem to assimilate him. In financial matters he was absolutely honest. This may not have been true of all his associates and supporters. With his easy-going light-heartedness, he accepted the political methods common in his day, especially among men like Weed, and regarded the lobbyist and the officeseeker with far too much good nature. But he boasted, and justly boasted, that so far from making anything out of politics himself, directly or indirectly, he had always spent well beyond his official salary.
Nor was this made easy by any unlimited supply of private means. On the contrary, he was often in financial trouble, and he neither liked nor understood the shrewd and frugal management which is so helpful to the maintenance of honesty in high places. On one occasion, at the height of his career, he writes, ‘All excesses leave a train of penalties behind them. Those Rathbone notes fall due about this time. I am ashamed to confess that as to one of them, I don’t know when or where, any more than I know how, it is to be paid.’ A statesman in such a position as that is driving very near to a dangerous abyss. Too many fall in. Seward did not.
And as he was no politician in money matters, so he was perfectly ready to stand up against popular enthusiasm, and to sacrifice personal advantage, when duty or humanity seemed to demand it. The most striking instance of this in his legal practice is his defense of the Negro murderer, Freeman, when the whole community was howling for his punishment. Seward took the case, in defiance of public opinion, and demonstrated so completely that the wretch was irresponsible that the jury was obliged to acquit him.
In public life, also, Seward did not hesitate a moment to support an unpopular cause. When the Catholics were a comparatively small minority and were in disfavor, he, as Governor of New York, recommended ‘the establishment of schools in which they may be instructed by teachers speaking the same language and professing the same faith.’ He was a consistent and energetic advocate of unlimited immigration, and his readiness to help the ignorant and the oppressed, even when such action seemed contrary to the party outcries of the hour, was sufficiently marked to elicit from Charles Francis Adams, in his enthusiastic eulogy, the declaration that ‘Very few public men in our history can be cited who have shown so much indifference, in running directly counter to the popular passions when highly excited, as he did.’
Enemies of Seward, and some of his warm friends, have pointed out that in all these instances of apparent sacrifice there was, or might have been, some clever perception of future political advantage. But it is difficult to find any such selfish motive in the broad and patriotic attitude which he adopted after his loss of the presidential nomination in 1860. There was no sulking, no repining; just a steady resolve to make the best of it and, above all, to go on serving the country. Even finer is the complete abandonment, from that time, of all ambition for the presidency. Other supporters of Lincoln hoped and schemed to succeed him. Seward was the loyal, earnest Secretary of State, and that only; or, if he aspired to be more, it was that he might make the Lincoln government more efficient and more successful.
It is by this time very evident that Seward was a complex personage. Mr. Rhodes confesses himself puzzled by some of these apparent inconsistencies. He says of one case, ‘Whether the course of Seward was dictated by a noble independence of party trammels, or whether he was trimming to catch the moderate element among the Republicans and Democrats at the North, it seems impossible to decide.’ Mr. Bancroft, in his admirable biography, one of the very best dealing with the Civil War, is driven to the conception of two distinct Sewards, living, àla Jekyll and Hyde, in the same body: one the admirer and imitator of such ideal statesmen as John Quincy Adams; the other the close associate, and, if not the tool, at least the confederate, of astute politicians like Thurlow Weed.
There is, I think, a theory, which, although we should not emphasize it too much, will help us to reconcile all these inconsistencies. Let us admit at once that Seward’s temperament was not that of a great statesman. His career requires too much apology. When you have explained away half of him, what is left may have distinct claims to greatness. But put him beside a really big man, with square shoulders, a square head, and a square heart, and he shrivels. Why, his face is incompatible with greatness. All the portraits of him but one, that I have seen, give an impression of wizened inadequacy. And even that one suggests a soul not fitted for executive success.
No, Seward’s temperament was essentially that of an artist. We need not force the argument too far; this key will unlock for us a great many of the secrets of his brilliant and complicated career. It is curious how much that is puzzling slips into its true place in the light of this explanation, curious how often Seward himself directly or indirectly indicates this clue to the vagaries of his thought. It was the artist in him that quivered at the coming of crocuses and tulips and longed to spend hours watching the roses in luxuriant bloom. It was the artist, above all, that summed up his own instincts in the following comment: ‘Few people are capable of an artistic conception about anything. Of the multitudes whose daily occupation is with our dinner, how few ever attain to a proper notion of how to cook it.’
To prepare the great concoction of American history according to an artistic recipe, and to be head chef in the process, — that was the instinctive longing of William H. Seward. And this is as true of his old age in Reconstruction days as it is of his buoyant youth, when he first sported with the passions of anti-masonry.
He was an artist in words. He was not a great man of letters and never could have been. He was too diffuse, in fact thought more about the words than about the ideas they carried with them. But from his college days, when he wrote a thesis entitled, ‘Virtue is the best of all the vices,’ he had the real literary man’s love for the jingle and clatter and sparkle and resonance of those dainty and dangerous instruments which were given us to conceal our thoughts. All his speeches are entertaining reading, and that is a great deal to say of a dead speech. After going through fifteen volumes of Sumner’s orations, till you hate the name of oratory, you can take up any speech of Seward’s and be really diverted. There is plenty of verbiage, plenty of platitude. But he knows it just as well as you do, and does not in the least care, — in fact serves it out on purpose. And you enjoy cunning periods like the following, because you feel how exceedingly he enjoys them: ‘ If I fall here, let no kinsman or friend remove my dust to a more hospitable grave. Let it be buried under the pavements of the Avenue, and let the chariot wheels of those who have destroyed the liberties of my country rattle over my bones until a more heroic and worthy generation shall recall that country to life, liberty, and independence.’ Now, is n’t that fun?
He was an artist in political management and this explains many things he did and many things he did not do. It has been denied as well as asserted that he called politics ‘a harmless game for power,’ but much in his attitude suggests the phrase. While he would have abhorred the morals whether political, or general, of Talleyrand and Metternich, there are indications that he admired their tact, their patience, their self-control, and their indifference. It was the artist who remarked naïvely, ‘I am disgusted with politics, yet how long will I remain so?’ It was the artist who modeled the little incident about Benjamin and the cigar, above referred to, on a similar occurrence between Van Buren and Clay. It was the artist who recounted, as vividly as a scene on the stage, the conversation between himself, Weed, and Whittlesey, which resulted in Seward’s nomination for governor. It was the artist, finally, who luxuriated in Sterne, the most thoroughly artificial of literary men, and could cite him as follows: ‘Sterne is the only philosopher who resolves for me what I feel to be my art of living. “ We get forward in the world,” says he, “ not so much by doing services as by receiving them.” ’ He might have found even more application in another bit of Shandyism, when Sterne shows his compassionate tenderness by feeding the starved ass, but also murmurs, with his subtle selfanalysis, ‘At this moment that I am telling it, my heart smites me, that there was more of pleasantry in the conceit of seeing how an ass would eat a macaroon, — than of benevolence in giving him one, which presided in the act.’ All his life Seward felt that whimsical curiosity to see how the constituent ass would munch the political macaroon.
This sense of detachment, of watching the game, of amusement in the antics of the puppets and their insignificance, including his own, is everpresent and most characteristic. Mr. Bancroft justly points out that Seward on himself is always delightful. It is for this reason, — because he surveyed himself as one among the other asses and laughed at his own contortions with that macaroon. He is annoyed with himself, ashamed of himself, surprised at himself, but always as if he were somebody else. He told Bigelow that ‘He had been astonished to find how much he had done since he had been in public life, how well some things had been done which he had entirely forgotten.’ It was the same detachment which led him to laugh at the outrageous treatment of Motley in 1867 and to say calmly to Bigelow that he had to sacrifice Motley to save himself.
This detached, remote attitude is that of the humorist, and Seward was a humorist. He himself denied that Lincoln was, and in a sense justly. Lincoln, he said, was a grave and serious man who told his stories only to make a point. He might have said, further, that to the Lincoln of the war, as to the Shakespeare of the tragic period, comedy was merely a relief in the terrible tragedy of life. To Seward there was no tragedy of life. The most strenuous effort, the most ardent hope was all a part of the game, and even suffering, more particularly that of others, was insignificant compared with eternity. Therefore, in his speech and in his thought there was always the light and dainty play of humorous fancy, as when he ends a letter to Weed, summing up all his semi-serious woes and difficulties, ‘With love to Harriet, I am ever your unfortunate friend who has faith in everybody and enjoys the confidence of nobody.’
Also, he was capable of keen wit. To a lady who was begging for military information he said, ‘Madam, if I did not know, I would tell you.’ When Piatt had made him known to the guard at the War Department — Stanton’s War Department — and asked in turn to be passed in himself, in the name of common politeness, Seward remarked, ‘Young man, the politeness of this department is not common.’
With the humor and the detachment went also the vanity of at least a certain type of artist. It need hardly be said that this is not the highest type. Seward did not represent the highest type. The defect obviously springs from not surveying one’s self with quite the same complete detachment that one bestows upon the rest of the world. Whatever the cause, a certain vanity, at times vexatious, is undeniable in Seward. ‘He had a canine appetite for praise,’ says Bigelow, quoting Jefferson on Lafayette. And the astute Lord Lyons comments patronizingly, ‘He has, besides, so much more vanity, personal and national, than tact, that he seldom makes a favorable impression at first. When one comes really to know him, one is surprised to find much to esteem and even to like in him.’
This vanity showed both in candid statement of the Secretary’s own undeniable merits and in a certain amount of delusion as to merits and abilities which he did not possess. It accounts for his being ‘intoxicated with power,’ as a good observer expresses it, for his long-cherished belief that he could run and was running the whole government of Lincoln, for many remarks and observations almost equal to the following: ‘Only the soothing words which I have spoken have saved us and carried us along so far.’ It is, perhaps, most delightfully manifested in the amplified reminiscence of a well-known saying of Cæsar: ‘I always held on to my country home at Auburn, because, come what might, there I could always be sure of ranking with the first. I would not live in New York City because there one becomes cheap. You are lost in the crowd. By keeping outside of the city I was always a lion in the city. I patronized instead of being patronized.’
As this quotation shows, such vanity as Seward’s — or Cicero’s — is not at all incompatible with keen self-analysis. Indeed the two naturally occur together. It is precisely because one is so sensible of one’s own defects that one does not wish others to see them. Such vanity is even consonant with a fine humility. Above all, it often accompanies a quite admirable candor, as suggested by the remark of one of Meilhac and Halévy’s characters, who was accused of coquetry because he looked in the glass. ‘Oh, no, it is n’t coquetry at all. It is just simply that it gives me great pleasure to look at myself.’
Finally, the most attractive and most serviceable element of the artist in Seward was the imaginative outlook, which I have indicated earlier in this study. Others about him were more or less opportunists, absorbed in the immediate political necessity of the hour. From his earliest manhood he looked far ahead into the immense regions of American possibility and guided his course steadily by what he saw there. He was not a profound thinker in any respect. In religion he moved always in the vague limbo in which many of us nowadays pass our spiritual lives. In philosophy and art he seldom went beyond conventionalities. His force in these lines is well shown in Mr. Bancroft’s excellent observation that ‘he had a philosophical theory for everything he wished to believe.’ But he had the seer’s enthusiasm and the seer’s hope. The present, the result actually achieved, however great, was never enough for him. A new desire, a new effort, a new ideal, perpetually spurred him onward; and in this nervous restlessness he was thoroughly American and of immense service to America.
You could not fatigue him. You could not disgust him. Hear with what a clamorous appeal he stirs the sloth of his fellows in the dead atmosphere of routine legislation. ‘I see rising before me hundreds of thousands, millions, even tens of millions, of my countrymen, receiving their fortunes and fates, as they are being shaped by the actions of the Congress of the United States, in this hour of languor, at the close of a weary day, near the end of a protracted and tedious session.’ One phrase sums up as well as any this splendid, energetic, triumphant, imaginative optimism, which is perhaps Seward’s greatest merit and surest claim to the affection of posterity. ‘The improvability of our race is unlimited.’ When the immediate prospect looks blackest and most hopeless, it is well to stimulate our courage with that watchword, which one statesman at least believed in: ‘The improvability of our race is unlimited.’
Without insisting too strongly, I believe that this explanation of the artistic temperament is the best clue to all the spiritual problems affecting Seward. The point is interesting because it differentiates him from almost all his political contemporaries, who were workers, doers, practical men, too busy with the immediate battle about them to get out of it and survey it as a spectacle merely.
In any case, he was a many-sided, many-colored, many-featured, most fascinating spirit, whom I part from with the greatest regret. Yet I confess that, after all, what comes closest to me in regard to him is Lincoln’s rolling over in his berth and murmuring sleepily, —
‘Seward, you go out and repeat some of your poetry to the people.’