William H. Seward by Elbert Hubbard

Story type: Essay

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 war, with every consequence of honor or dishonor, of life or death.

—Speech in the United States Senate, 1860

When I was a freshman at the Little Red Schoolhouse, the last exercise in the afternoon was spelling. The larger pupils stood in a line that ran down one aisle and curled clear around the stove. Well do I remember one Winter when the biggest boy in the school stood at the tail-end of the class most of the time, while at the head of the line, or always very near it, was a freckled, check-aproned girl, who once at a spellin’-bee had defeated even the teacher. This girl was ten years older than myself, and I was then too small to spell with this first grade, but I watched the daily fight of wrestling with such big words as “un-in-ten-tion-al-ly” and “mis-un-der-stand-ing,” and longed for a day when I, too, should take part and possibly stand next to this fine, smart girl, who often smiled at me approvingly. And I planned how I would hold her hand as we would stand there in line and mentally dare the master to come on with his dictionary. We two would be the smartest scholars of the school and always help each other in our “sums.”

Yet when time had pushed me into the line, she of the check apron was not there, and even if she had been I should not have dared to hold her hand.

But I must not digress–the particular thing I wish to explain is that one day at recess the best scholar was in tears, and I went to her and asked what was the matter, and she told me that some of the big girls had openly declared that she–my fine, freckled girl, the check-aproned, the invincible–held her place at the head of the school only through favoritism.

I burned with rage and resentment and proposed fight; then I burst out crying and together we mingled our tears.

All this was long ago. Since then I have been in many climes, and met many men, and read history a bit–I hope not without profit. And this I have learned: that the person who stands at the head of his class (be he country lad or presidential candidate) is always the target for calumny and the unkindness of contemporaries who can neither appreciate nor understand.

Not long ago I spent several days at Auburn, New York, so named by some pioneer who, when the Nineteenth Century was very young, journeyed thitherward with a copy of Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village” in his pack.

Auburn is a flourishing city of thirty thousand inhabitants. It has beautiful wide streets, lined with elms that in places form an archway. There are churches to spare and schools galore and handsome residences. Then there are electric cars and electric lights and dynamos, with which men electricute other men in the wink of an eye. I saw the “fin-de-siecle” guillotine and sat in the chair, and the jubilant patentee told me that it was the quickest scheme for extinguishing life ever invented–patented Anno Christi Eighteen Hundred Ninety-five. Verily we live in the age of the Push-Button! And as I sat there I heard a laugh that was a quaver, and the sound of a stout cane emphasizing a jest struck against the stone floor.

“We didn’t have such things when I was a boy!” came the tremulous voice.

And then the newcomer explained to me that he was eighty-seven years old last May, and that he well remembered a time when a plain oaken gallows and a strong rope were good enough for Auburn–“provided Bill Seward didn’t get the fellow free,” added my new-found friend.

Then the old man explained that he used to be a guard on the walls, and now he had a grandson who occupied the same office, and in answer to my question said he knew Seward as though he were a brother. “Bill, he was the luckiest man ever in Auburn–he married rich and tumbled over bags of money if he just walked on the street. He believed in neither God nor devil and had a pompous way o’ makin’ folks think he knew all about everything. To make folks think you know is just as well as to know, I s’pose!” and the old man laughed and struck his cane on the echoing floor of the cell.

The sound and the place and the company gave me a creepy feeling, and I excused myself and made my way out past armed guards, through doorways where iron bars clicked and snapped, and steel bolts that held in a thousand men shot back to let me out, out into a freer air and a better atmosphere. And as I passed through the last overhanging arch where a one-armed guard wearing a G.A.R. badge turned a needlessly big key, there came unbeckoned across my inward sight a vision of a check-aproned girl in tears, sobbing with head on desk. And I said to myself: “Yes, yes! country girl or statesman, you shall drink the bitter potion that is the penalty of success–drink it to the very dregs. If you would escape moral and physical assassination, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing–court obscurity, for only in oblivion does safety lie.”

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All mud sticks, but no mud is immortal, and that senile fling at the name of Seward is the last flickering, dying word of detraction that can be heard in the town that was his home for full half a century, or in the land he served so well. And yet it was in Auburn that mob spirit once found a voice; and when Seward was Lincoln’s most helpful adviser, and his sons were at the front serving the country’s cause, cries of “Burn his house! Burn his house!” came to the distracted ears of wife and daughter.

But all that has gone now. In fact, denial that calumny was ever offered to the name of Seward springs quickly to the lips of Auburn men, as they point with pride to that beautiful old home where he lived, and where now his son resides; and then they lead you, with a reverence that nearly uncovers, to the stately bronze standing on the spot that was once his garden–now a park belonging to the people.

Time marks wondrous changes; and the city where William Lloyd Garrison lived in “a rat-hole,” as reported by Boston’s Mayor, now honors Commonwealth Avenue with his statue. And so the sons of Seward’s enemies have devoted willing dollars to preserving “that classic face and spindling form” in deathless bronze.

And they do well, for Seward’s name and fame are Auburn’s glory.

* * * * *

I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that all the worry of the world is quite useless. And on no subject affecting mortals is there so much worry as on that of (no, not love!) parents’ ambitions for their children. When the dimpled darling toddles and lisps and chatters, the satisfaction he gives is unalloyed; for he is so small and insignificant, his demands so imperious, that the entire household dance attendance on the wee tyrant, and count it joy. But by and by the things at which we used to laugh become presumptuous, and that which was once funny is now perverse. And the more practical a man is, the larger his stock of Connecticut commonsense, the greater his disillusionment as his children grow to manhood. When he beholds dawdling inanity and dowdy vanity growing lush as jimson, where yesterday, with strained prophetic vision, he saw budding excellence and worth, his soul is wrung by a worry that knows no peace. The matter is so poignantly personal that he dare not share it with another in confessional, and so he hugs his grief to his heart, and tries to hide it even from himself.

And thus does many a mother scrub the kitchen-floor on her knees, rather than face the irony of maternity and ask the assistance of the seventeen-year-old pert chit with bangs, who strums a mandolin in the little front parlor, gay with its paper flowers, six plush-covered chairs and a “company” sofa.

The late Commodore Vanderbilt is reported to have said, “I have over a dozen sons, and not one is worth a damn.” I fear me that every father with sons grown to manhood has at some time voiced the same sentiment, curtailed, possibly, only as to numbers, and softened by another expletive, which does not mitigate the anguish of his cry, as he sees the dreams he had for his baby boys fade away into a mist of agonizing tears.

And is all this worry the penalty that Nature exacts for dreaming dreams that can not in their very nature come true? Jean Jacques Rousseau, who wrote so beautifully on child-study, avoided the risk of failure by putting his children into an asylum; several “Communities” since have set apart certain women to be mothers to all, and bring up and care for the young, and strangely, with no apparent loss to the children; and Bellamy prophesies a day when the worries of parenthood will all be transferred to a “committee.”

But the worry is futile and senseless, being born often of a blindness that will not wait. Man has not only “Seven Ages,” but many more, and he must pass through this one before the next arrives. The Commodore certainly possessed what is called horse-sense, and if his conceptions of character had been clearer, he might have realized that in more ways than one the abilities of his sons were going to be greater than his own. His eldest son was, nevertheless, banished to a Long Island farm on a pension, “because he could not be trusted to do business.” The same son once modestly asked the Commodore if he would allow him to have the compost that had been for a year accumulating outside the Fifth Avenue barns. “Just one load, and no more,” said pater. William thereupon took twenty teams and as many men, and transferred the entire pile to a barge moored in the river. It was a barge-load. And when pater saw what had been done, he said, “The boy is not so big a fool as I thought.” The boy was forty-five ere death put him in possession of the gold that the father no longer had use for, there being no pockets in a shroud, and he then showed that as a financier he could have given his father points, for in a few years he doubled the millions and drove horses faster without a break than his father had ever ridden.

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Seward’s father was a doctor, justice of the peace, merchant, and the general first citizen of the village of Florida, Orange County, New York. And he had no more confidence in his boy William than Vanderbilt had in his. He educated him only because the lad was not strong enough to work, and it seems to have been the firm belief that the boy would come to no good end. In order to discipline him, the father put the youngster in college on such a scanty allowance that the lad was obliged to run away and go to teaching school in order to be free from financial humiliation. Here was the best possible proof that the young man had the germs of excellence in him; but the father took it as a proof of depravity, and sent warning letters to the young school-teacher’s friends threatening them “not to harbor the scapegrace.”

The years went by and the parental distrust slackened very little. The boy was slim and slender and his hair was tow-colored and his head too big for his body. He had gotten a goodly smattering of education some way and was intent on being a lawyer. He seemed to know that if he was to succeed he must get well away from the parent nest, and out of the reach of daily advice.

His desire was to go “Out West,” and the particular objective point was Auburn, New York.

The father gave him fifty dollars as a starter, with the final word, “I expect you’ll be back all too soon.”

And so young Seward started away, with high hopes and a firm determination that he would agreeably disappoint his parents by not going back.

He reached Albany by steamboat, and embarked on a sumptuous canal packet that bore a waving banner on which were the words woven in gold, “Westward Ho!”

And he has slyly told us how, as he stepped aboard that “inland palace,” he bethought him of having written a thesis, three years before, proving that De Witt Clinton’s chimera of joining the Hudson and Lake Erie was an idea both fictile and fibrous. But the inland palace carried him safely and surely. He reached Auburn, and instead of writing home for more money, returned that which he had borrowed. The father, who was a pretty good man in every way, quite beyond the average in intellect, lived to see his son in the United States Senate.

And the moral for parents is: Don’t worry about your children. You were young once, even if you have forgotten the fact. Boys will be boys and girls will be girls–but not forever. Have patience, and remember that this present brood is not the first generation that has been brought forth. There have been others, and each has been very much like the one that passed before. The sentiment of “Pippa Passes” holds: “God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world.”

* * * * *

In Eighteen Hundred Thirty-four, Seward was the Whig candidate for Governor of New York. He was defeated by W.L. Marcy. Four years later he was again a candidate against Marcy and defeated him by ten thousand majority.

Seward was then thirty-six years of age, and was counted one of the very first among the lawyers of the State, and in accepting the office of Governor he made decided financial sacrifices.

Seward was a man of positive ideas, and, although not arbitrary in manner, yet had a silken strength of will that made great rents in the mesh of other men’s desires. Before a court, his quiet but firm persistence along a certain line often dictated the verdict. The faculty of grasping a point firmly and securely was his in a marked measure. And any man who can quietly override the wishes and ambitions of other men is first well feared, and then thoroughly hated.

One of Seward’s first efforts on becoming Governor was to insure a common-school education among the children of every class, and especially among the foreign population of large cities. To this end he advocated a distribution of public funds among all schools established with that object; and if he were alive today it is quite needless to say he would not belong to the A.P.A. nor to any other secret society. He knew too much of all religions to have complete faith in any, yet his appreciation of the fact that the Catholics minister to the needs of a class that no other denomination reaches or can control was outspoken and plain. This, with his connection with the Anti-Masonic Party, brought upon his name a stigma that was at last to defeat him for the Presidency. Seward’s clear insight into practical things, backed by the quiet working energy of his nature, brought about many changes, and the changes he effected and the reforms he inaugurated must ever rank his name high among statesmen.

By his influence the law’s delay in the courts of chancery was curtailed, and this prepared the way for radical changes in the Constitution. He inaugurated the geological survey that led to making “Potsdam outcrop” classic, and “Medina sandstone” a product that is so known wherever a man goes forth in the fields of earth carrying a geologist’s hammer.

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Largely through his efforts, a safe and general banking system was brought about; and the establishment of a lunatic asylum was one of the best items to his credit during that first term as Governor. But there was one philological change that proved too great even for his generalship. The word “lunacy,” as we know, comes from “luna,” the belief in the good old days being that the moon exercised a profound influence on the wits of sundry people. I’m told that the idea still holds good in certain quarters, and that if the wind is east and the moon shows a horn on which you can hang a flatiron, certain persons are looked upon askance and the children cautioned to avoid them.

Seward said that insane people were simply those who were mentally ill, and that “Hospital” was the proper term. But the classicists retorted, “Nay, nay, William Henry, you have had your way in many things and here we will now have ours.” It has taken us full a century officially to make the change, and the plain folks from the hills still refuse to ratify it, and will for many a lustrum.

It was during Seward’s administration that the “debtors’ prison” was done away with, and it was, too, through his earnest recommendation that the last trace of law for slaveholding was wiped from the statute-books of the State of New York.

The question of slavery was taken up most exhaustively in what was known as the “Virginia Controversy.” This interesting correspondence can be seen in a stout volume in most public libraries. It is a series of letters that passed between Governor Seward of New York and the Governor of Virginia, as to the requisition of two persons in New York charged by the Governor of Virginia with abducting slaves. Seward made the patent point, and backed it up with a forest of reasons in politest English, that the accused persons being charged with abducting slaves, and there being no such thing as slaves known in New York, no person in New York could be apprehended for stealing slaves–for slaves were things that had no existence.

Then did the Governor of Virginia admit that slaves could not be abducted in New York; but he proceeded to explain in lusty tomes that slavery legally existed in Virginia, and that if slaves were abducted in Virginia, the criminal nature of the act could not be shaken off because the accused changed his geographical base. Seward was a prince of logicians: the subtleties of reasoning and the smoke of rhetoric were to his fancy, and although there is not a visible smile in the whole “Virginia Controversy,” I can not but think that his sleeves were puffed with laughter as he searched the universe for reasons to satisfy the haughty First Families of Virginia. And all the while, please note that he held the alleged abductors safe and secure ‘gainst harm’s way.

In this correspondence he placed himself on record as an Abolitionist of the Abolitionists; and the name of Seward became listed then and there for vengeance–or immortality. The subject had been forced upon him, and he then expressed the sentiment that he continued to voice until Eighteen Hundred Sixty-five, that America could not exist half-free and half-slave. It must be a land of slaveholders and slaves, or a land of free-men–he was fully and irrevocably committed to the cause.

In Eighteen Hundred Forty, he was re-elected Governor. The second administration was marked, as was the first, by a vigorous policy of pushing forward public improvements.

At the close of his second term Seward found his personal affairs in rather an unsettled condition, the expenses of official position having exceeded his income. He had had a goodly taste of the ingratitude of republics, and philosopher though he was, he was yet too young to know that his experience in well-doing was not unique, a fact he came to comprehend full well, in later years. And so he did that very human thing–declared his intention of retiring permanently from public life.

Once back at Auburn, clients flocked to him, and he took his pick of business. And yet we find that public affairs were in his mind. Vexed questions of State policy were brought to him to decide, and journeys were made to Ohio and Michigan in the interests of men charged with slave-stealing. There was little money in such practise and small honors, but his heart was in the work.

In Eighteen Hundred Forty-four, Seward entered with much zest into the canvass in behalf of Henry Clay for President, as he thought Clay’s election would surely lead the way to general emancipation.

In Eighteen Hundred Forty-eight, he supported General Taylor with equal energy. When Taylor was elected, there proved to be a great deal of opposition to him among the members from the South, in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The administration felt the need of being backed by strong men in the Senate–men who could think on their feet, and carry a point when necessary against the opposition that sought to confuse and embarrass the friends of the administration with tireless windmill elocution.

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From Washington came the urgent request that Seward should be sent to the United States Senate. In Eighteen Hundred Forty-nine, he was chosen senator and from the first became the trusted leader of the administration party.

The year after Seward’s election to the Senate, President Taylor died and Vice-President Fillmore (who had the happiness to live in the village of East Aurora, New York) succeeded to the office, but Seward still remained leader of the Anti-Slavery Party.

Seward’s second term as United States Senator closed in Eighteen Hundred Sixty-one. In Eighteen Hundred Fifty-five, when his first term expired, there was a very strenuous effort made against his re-election. His strong and continued anti-slavery position had caused him to be thoroughly hated both North and South. He was spoken of as “a seditious agitator and a dangerous man.”

But in spite of opposition he was again sent back to Washington. Small, slim, gentle, modest and low-voiced, he was pointed out in Pennsylvania Avenue as “one who reads much and sees quite through the deeds of men.”

Men who are well traduced and hotly denounced are usually pretty good quality. No better encomium is needed than the detraction of some people. And men who are well hated also have friends who love them well. Thus does the law of compensation ever live.

In Eighteen Hundred Fifty-six, there was a goodly little demonstration in favor of Seward for President, but the idea of running such a radical for the chief office of the people was quickly downed; and Seward himself knew the temper of the times too well to take the matter very seriously.

But the years between Eighteen Hundred Fifty-six and Eighteen Hundred Sixty were years of agitation and earnest thought, and the idea that slavery was merely a local question was getting both depolarized and dehorned. The non-slaveholding North was rubbing its sleepy eyes, and asking, Who is this man Seward, anyway? The belief was growing that Seward, Garrison, Sumner and Phillips were something more than self-seeking agitators, and many declared them true patriots. In every town and city, in every Northern State, political clubs sprang into being and their battle-cry was “Seward!” It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Seward would be the next President. When the convention met, the first ballot showed one hundred seventy-three votes for Seward and one hundred two for Lincoln, the rest, scattering. But Seward’s friends had marshaled their entire strength–all the rest was opposition–while Lincoln was an unknown quantity.

When the news went forth that Lincoln was nominated, Seward received the tidings in his library at Auburn; and the myth-makers have told us that he cried aloud, and that the carved lions on his gateposts shed salty tears. But Seward knew the opposition to his name, and was of too stern a moral fiber to fix his heart upon the result of a wire-pulling convention. The motto of his life had been: Be prepared for the unexpected. It may be that the lions on the gateposts shed tears, and it is possible there was weeping in the Seward household–but not by Seward.

He entered upon a hearty and vigorous campaign in support of Lincoln–making a tour through the West and being greeted everywhere with an enthusiasm that rivaled that shown for the candidate.

Seward said to his wife, when the news came that Lincoln was nominated: “He will be elected, but he will have to face the greatest difficulties and carry the greatest burdens that ever a man has been called to bear. He will need me, but look you, my dear, I will not serve under him. I must be at the head or nowhere.”

Lincoln knew Seward, and Seward didn’t knew Lincoln. And so after the Convention Lincoln journeyed down East. It took two days to go from Chicago to Buffalo, and there were no sleeping-cars; and then Lincoln went on from Buffalo to Auburn–another day’s journey. Lincoln wore his habitual duster and the tall hat, a little the worse for wear. He telegraphed Seward he was coming, and, of course, Seward met him at the station in Auburn. Lincoln got off the car alone, unattended, carrying his carpetbag, homemade, with the initials “A.L.” embroidered on the side by the fair hands of Fannie Anna Rebecca Todd.

Seward and his two sons–William and Frederick–met the coming President, and the boys laughed at the dusty, uncouth, sad and awkward individual, six feet five, who disembarked.

The carriage was waiting, but Lincoln refused to ride, saying, “Boys, let’s walk,” and so they walked up the hill, in through past the stone gateposts where the lions stood that shed tears. Seward ran ahead into the house and said to his wife: “Look you, my dear, we have misjudged this man. Do not laugh. He is the greatest man in the world!”

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Three months later, Seward met Lincoln by appointment in Chicago; and from that time on, to the day of Lincoln’s death, Seward served his chief with hands and feet, with eyes and ears, and with brain and soul. When Lincoln was elected, his wisdom was at once manifest in securing Seward as Secretary of State. The record of those troublous times and the masterly way in which Seward served his country are too vivid in the minds of men to need reviewing here, but the regard of Lincoln for this man, who so well complemented his own needs, is worthy of our remembrance. Seward was the only member of Lincoln’s first Cabinet who stood by him straight through and entered the second.

Early in April, Eighteen Hundred Sixty-five, Seward met with a serious accident by being thrown from his carriage and dashed against the curbstone. One arm and both jaws were fractured, and besides he was badly bruised in other parts of his body. On April Thirteenth, Lincoln returned from his trip to Richmond, where he had had an interview with Grant. That evening he walked over from the White House to Seward’s residence. The stricken man was totally unable to converse, but Lincoln, sitting on the edge of the bed and holding the old man’s thin hands, told in solemn, serious monotone of the ending of the war; of what he had seen and heard; of the plans he had made for sending soldiers home and providing for an army whipped and vanquished, and of what was best to do to bind up a nation’s wounds.

Five years before, these men had stood before the world as rivals. Then they joined hands as friends, and during the four years of strife and blood had met each day and advised and counseled concerning every great detail. Their opinions often differed widely, but there was always frank expression and, in the main, their fears and doubts and hopes had all been one.

But now at last the smoke had cleared away, and they had won. The victory had been too dearly bought for proud boast or vain exultation, but victory still it was.

And as the strong and homely Lincoln told the tale the stricken man could answer back only by pressure of a hand.

At last the presence of the nurse told Lincoln it was time to go; in grave jest he half-apologized for his long stay, and told of a man in Sangamon County who used to say there is no medicine like good news. And rumor has it that he then stooped and kissed the sick man’s cheek. And then he went his way.

The next night at the same hour a man entered the Seward home, saying that he had been sent with messages by the doctor. Being refused admittance to the sick-chamber, he drew a pistol and endeavored to shoot Seward’s son who guarded the door; but being foiled in this he crushed the young man’s skull with the heavy weapon, and springing over his body dashed at the emaciated figure of Seward with uplifted dagger. A dozen times he struck at the face and throat and breast of the almost dying man, and then thinking he had done his work made rapidly away.

At the same time, linked by Fate in a sort of poetic justice, with the thought that if one deserved death so did the other, Hate had with surer aim sent an assassin’s bullet home–and Lincoln died.

Weeks passed and the strong vitality that had served Seward in such good stead did not forsake him. Men of his stamp are hard to kill.

On a beautiful May-day, Seward, so reduced that a woman carried him, was taken out on the veranda of his house and watched that solid mass of glittering steel and faded blue that moved through Pennsylvania Avenue in triumphal march. Sherman with head uncovered rode down to Seward’s home, saluted, and then back to join his goodly company, and many others of lesser note did the same.

Health and strength came slowly back, and happy was the day when he was carried to the office of Secretary of State and, propped in his chair, again began his work. Another President had come, but meet it was that the Secretary of State should still hold his place.

Seward lived full eleven years after that, seemingly dragging with unquenched spirit that slashed and broken form. But the glint did not fade from his eye, nor did the proud head lose its poise.

He died in his office among his books and papers, sane and sensible up to the very moment when his spirit took its flight.

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