December 18, 2012
If the Chicago Tribune had it right, William H. Seward was the prince of darkness.
In 1862, when Seward was Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state and the Civil War seemed as likely as not to permanently destroy the federal union, the “world’s greatest newspaper” knew whom to blame. Seward, the Tribune said, was “Lincoln’s evil genius. He has been president de facto, and has kept a sponge saturated with chloroform to Uncle Abe’s nose all the while, except one or two brief spells.” The Boston Commonwealth was about as delicate in its assessment of Seward: “he has a right to be idiotic, undoubtedly, but he has no right to carry his idiocy into the conduct of affairs, and mislead men and nations about ‘ending the war in sixty days.’ “
This demonic imbecile, as some editors would have it, is the subject of Walter Stahr’s comprehensive and engaging biography, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man. Stahr has a somewhat different take than the Tribune’s Joseph Medill. While Stahr acknowledges that Seward was overly optimistic about prospects for the federal government to prevail over the seceding states, and while he acknowledges that Seward sometimes turned to political chicanery and downright dishonesty, he also regards Seward as second in importance during the Civil War era only to Lincoln himself.
Seward, a former governor of New York and United States Senator, was by Stahr’s account, very close to Lincoln personally, which probably contributed to the rancor directed at Seward from others in the government who wanted the president’s attention. Their relationship was interesting in a way that is analogous to the relationship between Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton in the sense that Seward was Lincoln’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Seward’s presidential ambitions, which were advanced by fits and starts by the political instigator Thurlow Weed of New York, are well documented in this book. But, as Stahr makes clear, Seward’s disappointment at losing the nomination to Lincoln did not prevent him from agreeing to serve with Lincoln at one of the most difficult periods in the nation’s history nor from serving him loyally.
As important an office as secretary of state is now, it was even more so in the 19th century, because its reach wasn’t confined to foreign affairs. It wasn’t uncommon for the secretary of state to be referred to as “the premier.” At first, Seward’s view of the office might have exceeded even the reality; he seems to have thought at first that he would make and execute policy and Lincoln provide the face of the administration. Lincoln soon made it clear who was in charge, and he and Seward worked well together from then on.
Seward’s service in Lincoln’s administration nearly cost him his life on the night that Lincoln himself was murdered by John Wilkes Booth. One of Booth’s accomplices, Lewis Payne, forced his way into the house where Seward was lying in bed, recovering from injuries he had sustained in a serious carriage accident. Payne, who was a wild man, tore through the place, cutting anyone who tried to stop him, and he attacked Seward, slashing his face. Payne fled the house — he eventually hanged for his crime — and Seward survived.
After the double trauma of Lincoln’s death and Seward’s own ordeal, it would have been understandable if Seward had withdrawn from public life. Seward wasn’t cut of ordinary cloth, however, and he agreed to remain at his post in the administration of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Johnson was an outstanding American in many respects—he was the only southern member to remain in his U.S. Senate seat after secession, and he gave up the relative safety of the capital and took his life in his hands when Lincoln asked him to serve as military governor of Tennessee — but he was not suited for the role that was thrust on him by Booth.
Stahr explores the question of why Seward stayed on during the troubled years of Johnson’s tenure. He infers, for one thing, that Seward agreed with Johnson’s idea that the southern states should be quickly restored to their place in the Union without the tests that the Republican majority in Congress, and especially the “radical” wing of the party, wanted to impose. Stahr also writes that Seward believed that if Congress succeeded in removing Johnson on impeachment charges that were politically motivated it would upset the balance of power in the federal government for decades to come.
I mentioned Seward to a co-worker today, and she said, “of the folly?” She was referring to the purchase of Alaska, which Seward completed during Johnson’s administration. Stahr writes that much of the press supported the purchase of “Russian American” at first, and although the term “folly” was tossed about later, prompted in part by Seward’s further ambitions for expansion, the epithet was never widely used.
Alaska was only one of Seward’s achievements. He was a skillful diplomat who was equipped to play the dangerous game that kept Britain and France from recognizing the Confederate States of America. Although he may have underestimated the threat of secession and the prospects for a protracted war, he was at Lincoln’s side every step of the way—playing a direct role, for instance, in the suspension of habeas corpus and the incarceration of suspected spies without trial. He was not an abolitionist—and in that respect he disagreed with his outspoken wife, Frances— but Seward was passionate about preventing the spread of slavery into the western territories. He believed that black Americans should be educated. He did not support fugitive slave laws and even illegally sheltered runaway slaves in his home in Auburn, N.Y.
Seward was a complicated character who stuck to high moral and ethical standards much of the time, but was capable of chicanery, deceit, and maybe even bribery if it would advance what he thought was a worthy purpose.
A world traveler, he was one of Washington’s leading hosts, known for his engaging manner, and yet with his omnipresent cigar and well-worn clothes he appeared to all the world as something akin to an unmade bed. Henry Adams, who admired Seward, described him as “the old fellow with his big nose and his wire hair and grizzled eyebrows and miserable dress” who nevertheless was “rolling out his grand, broad ideas that would inspire a cow with statesmanship if she understood our language.”
October 13, 2012
Some colleagues and I were traveling to Caldwell College recently, and just before we turned off Bloomfield Avenue onto the campus, I pointed out a cottage across the street. “That’s the birthplace of Grover Cleveland,” I said. Someone in the car might have grunted — I’m not sure — but otherwise there was no reaction.
How could this be? Cleveland was the only president born in New Jersey and one of only two who died here. But we get to count him twice, because he was both the 22nd and 24th presidents. And nobody cares?
OK, he wasn’t Mr. Glamor — no Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, or either of the Roosevelts. In fact, he was part of that lineup of boring personalities from Rutherford B. Hayes to William McKinley. Even his non-consecutive terms aren’t enough to make his name a household word, or even vaguely familiar.
Well, my colleagues might disregard Cleveland, but he gets a lot of attention in Kenneth C. Davis’s new book, Don’t Know Much about the American Presidents. Davis reports that Cleveland was only four years old when his family moved to New York and that he didn’t return to New Jersey until after he had retired from the presidency.
Cleveland, a former mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, was president during a period of violent labor strife in both of his terms and near economic calamity in his second. It the era of robber barons, rampant corruption in business and politics. The United States was still on the gold standard at that time and nearly ran out of reserves before Cleveland struck a deal in which J.P. Morgan, the Rothschilds and other financial interests bought American bonds, in several sales, to replenish the gold and stabilize what was then largely a free-market economy.
Davis gives final grades to most of the presidents he writes about, sparing those who died too soon after taking office and Barack Obama, who hasn’t yet served a whole term. Cleveland gets a B, not because he was a visionary or an inspiring leader, but because he was scrupulously honest and because he was the first president since the ill-starred Andrew Johnson to stand up to Congress and restore at least some of the prestige and power the presidency had lost after the murder of Abraham Lincoln.
Davis provides some context for his discussions of the 44 presidential administrations with an opening section on how the presidency, more or less as we know it, was created. He points out that the title “president of the United States in Congress assembled” was conferred on 14 men — including John Hancock, who held the title twice — before the election of George Washington as the more succinctly named “president of the United States.” The first of these was Peyton Randolph of Virginia, who presided over the Continental Congress in 1774. Davis explains that the failures of the Articles of Confederation made it clear to many American leaders that the government needed a strong executive presence, but determining what that executive should consist of was problematic. There was no model to base it on, and many Americans were wary of a strong executive because they feared abuse of power and the possibility of the kind of hereditary succession they had left behind in Great Britain. Indeed, he writes, one of the reasons Washington was a favorite to take on the newly fashioned presidency was that he had no heirs. Davis follows his presidential profiles with a section in which he discusses what the office has become and what should be done with it.
With its compact chapters and its career highlights and timelines, this book provides a means of scanning the whole sweep of American history from the adoption of the Constitution of 1787 to the present. The book also reminds us of the wide range of personalities who have occupied the presidency during that period, from the brooding and self-sacrificing Lincoln, whose murder plunged even some of his bitterest enemies into despair, to the handsome but hapless Franklin Pierce, whose spineless failure to deal with the crisis that led to the Civil War left him in such disrepute that he was the only former president whose death was not officially mourned.
President Barack Obama’s foray into New Jersey and New York yesterday certainly was inspired at least in part by the Congressional elections coming up in November. The president obviously was trying to bolster his own party — which clearly is in political trouble along with Obama himself — and he was trying to undermine the Republican Party by accusing it of obstructionism with respect to such things as unemployment benefits. This kind of politicking is routine for modern presidents, although one has to wonder what effect it has in the 21st century, when the public is supersaturated with political messages.
Obama probably wasn’t conscious of it, but when he set off from Washington yesterday, he was emulating what, for him, was an unlikely model — namely, Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of these United States.
Johnson, who was Obama’s philosophical opposite in many ways, was the first president to conduct a campaign trip of that kind, but he did it to a fare-thee-well and with disastrous results that affected governance in the United States for decades. The short version of the story is that Johnson — a Democrat who had been elected vice president on a fusion ticket with the Republican Abraham Lincoln — abruptly succeeded to the presidency just as the Civil War was ending. He and the Republican majority in Congress were at odds over management of the defeated Confederate states and the former slaves and their disagreements degraded into an ugly struggle. There is no telling how Lincoln, with all of his political acumen, would have fared if he had survived to work things out with Congress on his own, but his death elevated the blunt and stubborn Johnson to the presidency under circumstances that he did not have the temperament to handle.
In an effort to uphold Democratic candidates for Congress and attract support from moderate Republicans, Johnson embarked in the summer of 1866 on an unprecedented 18-day grand tour — a “swing around the circle,” as he called it — that took him to 22 cities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky, with brief stops in other spots. He traveled with a large and glittering entourage that included such Cabinet members as Secretary of State William Seward, and military officers including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and Admiral David Farragut.
The trip went well as long as Johnson was in the friendly East, but things deteriorated when he reached Cleveland and started to encounter hostile audiences and exchanged insults with them as though he were still stumping for a legislative seat back in Tennessee. He opened himself to criticism and ridicule and did more damage than good for his objectives. The Republicans swept the Congressional elections, gaining a majority large enough to take control of the process of Reconstruction with no fear of presidential interference. In addition, as relations between Johnson and Congress became even worse, the House of Representatives impeached the president and included in the charges against him the intemperate speeches he made during the campaign tour. The legislative momentum was so great that the presidency was reduced in power and importance until the end of the 19th century.
Johnson was an admirable American in many respects, but at the end of the Civil War he was the Wrong Man at the Wrong Time, if ever there was one. He was acquitted of the impeachment charges, which were absurd on the face of it, and he eventually was reelected to the Senate — the same one that had tried him — where he was greeted with flowers and applause. We Americans are nothing if not forgiving. And although his campaign trip was a failure, it is a testament to his grit and self-confidence that he attempted it at all.
January 8, 2010
The relationship between baseball and presidents of the United States has been well documented; in fact, there is a room devoted to the subject at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The earliest association seems to be with Abraham Lincoln and it is most graphically represented by this Currier & Ives political cartoon, published in 1860, after Lincoln had outlasted three opponents to win the presidency. Lincoln is saying, “Gentleman, if ever you should take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have a good bat to strike a fair ball and make a clean score and a home run.”
How close Lincoln was to the game seems to be a matter of debate, but it is documented that his successor, Andrew Johnson, was the first president to witness an intra-city game and the first president to invite a baseball team into the White House. Among his papers are several honorary membership cards in baseball organizations.
Another president who had a particular connection to baseball was Dwight Eisenhower, who loved the game and said more than once that he would have liked to have played professionally. There is a lingering discussion about whether he did, in fact, once play semi-pro ball under an assumed name — something that would have fouled the amateur status under which he played football at West Point. A number of prominent witnesses said that Eisenhower had admitted to this in later life, but Eisenhower never publicly owned up to it.
Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor has looked into the subject of presidents and football — specifically, which president was the best player. The candidates are Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.
Even after one gets over the image of Nixon playing football, the answer isn’t as obvious as it may seem.
If you can’t guess, you can read about it at THIS LINK.
August 9, 2009
The Times of London, on its web site, presents its candidates for the ten most historically inaccurate movies. The bad news is that all but two were made before 1999, which — if one were to take this seriously — would suggest a fearsome and precipitous trend.
The earlier of the two monstrosities that were made before ’99 was “Amadeus,” the 1984 hatchet job on Antonio Salieri in which Tom Hulce played Mozart. The second was “Braveheart,” which I understand is a significantly inaccurate account of the life of a 13th century Scottish hero, Sir William Wallace. I don’t know anything about Wallace, which is to the point: If I had overlooked the fact that Mel Gibson starred in this film and had gone to see it, I might have accepted the account as roughly correct.
Why The Times focused its attention mostly on the past decade I am not aware; maybe it reflects the level of confidence the editors have in their audience. Of course, inaccurate historical films have a proud history that extends back to decades before “Amadeus” appeared. Virtually every film based on the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, for example, tries to outdo the original writers — even one of my favorites of that genre, Franco Zefferilli’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” made for television in 1977. Zef famously took pains to place the events of the gospels in their proper historical context, but he couldn’t restrain the tinkering hand. Like all dramatists, he had to portray poor Mary Magdalene, played by Anne Bancroft, as a prostitute — indeed, show her in a scene with one of her clients — even though there is no support for that idea. In Zefferelli’s tale, Barabbas — encouraged by a well-meaning Judas Iscariot — personally invites Jesus to support an armed rebellion against the Roman occupation of Palestine.
And as long ago as 1942, the year I was born, Van Heflin starred in the mercifully long-forgotten “Tennessee Johnson,” which purported to be a biography of Andrew Johnson, 17th president of these United States and a particular obsession of mine. The film had a pretty good cast, including Ruth Hussey, Lionel Barrymore, and Noah Beery, but the title itself set the tone for the movie as history: Nobody ever called the man “Tennessee Johnson.” The climactic scene in which Johnson goes to the floor of the Senate to defend himself against charges of impeachment was wholly fabricated. In fact, Johnson’s counsel — recalling how he came to be impeached in the first place — would not hear of him appearing at the trial for fear of what he might say. Sort of the Joe Biden of his day, in that respect.
At any rate, decide for yourself on the The Times’ choices, available at this link:
July 22, 2009
When Andrew Johnson was governor of Tennessee in the middle of the 19th century, he was warned that if he kept a certain speaking engagement, he would be shot. Those were times of — how you say — partisan excitement. Johnson kept the date, produced a pistol and announced that he understood assassination was part of the program and that good order dictated that it be first on the agenda. He waited. Nothing happened. He went ahead with his speech. Whatever his shortcomings, Johnson apparently wasn’t afraid of assassins.
Now Sarah Palin is governor of Alaska and she has agreed to speak — after she leaves office — before the Simi Valley Republican Women’s Club at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. Considering the timing and the audience and the venue, this might have been the first volley in Palin’s new career — whatever that may be. But it won’t do for that purpose because — of all things — the press won’t be admitted. No one is saying who made that decision. Maybe it was the club. Of course, why wouldn’t a political club celebrating an anniversary of its charter with an event at one of the presidential libraries want to exclude news coverage? The arrangements were made too far in advance for this to have anything to do with the latest ethics issue swirling around the governor — the report by a special investigator that Palin used her position to improperly receive gifts from a political fund, ostensibly to help pay her legal bills from previous ethics complaints. So it must just be that the Republican Women of Simi Valley are shy, not that the governor doesn’t want to face the assassins …. uhhh, the press.
The investigator, by the way, made a sensible recommendation, which was that public officials who are the subjects of ethics complaints that eventually are dismissed should not have to pay for their own defense. That’s the position that Palin is in, and it isn’t just.
May 3, 2009
I’m taking a break from the usual blogging today to put the WordPress system to the test. I have noticed what I think are odd results in the list of terms that readers ostensibly searched in order to reach my journal. By now I have dozens of entries in this blog, but the readers who come in through search terms seem to have an inordinate fixation with Hope Davis, Farrah Fawcett, and Andrew Johnson – the latter having been the 17th president of these United States.
Now, I think the world of Hope Davis as an actress, I sympathize with Farrah Fawcett for her health problems, and I have a perhaps inexplicable fascination with Andrew Johnson. However, I have referred to Hope Davis and Farrah Fawcett only once each in this journal, and I may have referred to Andrew Johnson twice or, at the most, three times. And yet those terms show up every day on the report, and the journal entry that mentioned Hope Davis – it consisted of my comments on one of her movies – has become my “all-time leader.”
So I have deliberately referred to all three of those personalities in this little rant to see if this entry, too, causes activity in the report on search terms.
More about this when the results are in.
April 14, 2009
One thing is certain: The president, no matter who he is or what he does, can’t win.
The Christian Science Monitor, for one, was reporting today that the First Man, if that’s the counterpart to the First Lady, is getting flack for accepting Bo, the dog, as a gift from Edward F. Kennedy after promising before the November election that the White House dog would be adopted from a shelter. This chatter is going on at the same time that folks are, on the one hand, giving the president credit for approving the use of lethal force against the pirates holding an American sea captain and, on the other hand, predicting that the same decision will result in escalated violence against Americans and American interests.
With regard to the pet, the 44th president of these United States might have been better off emulating the 17th. Andrew Johnson discovered a family of mice that appeared in the Oval Office each evening. Instead of having them eradicated, he started leaving them bits of food. He got along better with those mice than he did with the Republicans in Congress, who would have lynched him if they thought they could get away with it.