« PreviousContinue »
WILLIAM H. SEWARD (1801-1872)
THE WAR-TIME SECRETARY OF STATE
N that fatal April day in 1865, when Lincoln fell victim to the
bullet of an assassin, William H. Seward, his Secretary of
State, then on a bed of sickness, narrowly escaped a similar fate, he being stabbed in several places, and only saved from death by the courage
of the old soldier who acted as his nurse. The assassins were shrewd in selecting Seward for one of their intended victims, since in his special field of duty he was almost as important a figure in the government as Lincoln himself. Five years before, when Lincoln was first nominated for the Presidency, Seward was really the most prominent man in the party—too prominent, as it appeared, to receive the nomination in the face of the enemies he had made. Deeply disappointed as he undoubtedly was, he did not permit his private feeling to conflict with his public duty, but did his utmost to check the schemes of the conspirators in Buchanan's cabinet, and smooth the way for the new President. Chosen as Secretary of State by Lincoln, he doubtless accepted the office with the idea that he would be “the power behind the throne,” and exert a controlling influence over the inexperienced Westerner. Disappointed in this again, he fell gracefully into his true vocation, that of a faithful counsellor of the President. In his sphere of duty no man could have been more efficient and his skillful handling of the Trent affair and the French occuption of Mexico, saved the country from dangerous foreign complications at a time when it needed all its energies at home. The war ended, Seward, who remained Secretary of State under Johnson, quickly cleared Mexico of the French invaders. Another great service he did and one for which he was then severely criticised, was the purchase of Alaska, whose actual value he was one of the first to perceive.
WILLIAM H. SEWARD
While in the Senate he took an advanced position among the opponents to slavery, a position which he firmly held throughout the troublous times that followed, despite all criticism and abuse. During this period his oratory made him a power in the Senate, while the views expressed by him formed a declaration of principles upon which all sections of anti-slavery men could agree. As regards his powers, a marked example of them was shown in 1846, when he defended a negro murderer against whom a bitter popular feeling existed, greatly endangering his popularity by his persistence in this charitable action, though he much enhanced his reputation by his treatment of this case. Mr. Gladstone said to Charles Sumner, “Mr. Seward's argument in the Freeman case is the greatest forensic effort in the English language.” He would not even except Erskine in this opinion, which was certainly a highly flattering one, coming from such a source.
AMERICA'S TRUE GREATNESS [As an example of Seward's oratory we offer the following selection, taken from one of his addresses, which is of much interest as showing his elevated conception of the mission of the United States, and of the perils which threatened the development of this mission. It was by working at the bottom, not at the top, by training the young in the exercise of public virtue, that the great Republic was to be saved and its mission accomplished.]
At present we behold only the rising of our sun of empire,-only the fair seeds and beginnings of a great nation. Whether that glowing orb shall attain to a meridian height, or fall suddenly from its glorious sphere; whether those prolific seeds shall mature into autumnal ripeness, or shall perish, yielding no harvest, depends on God's will and providence. But God's will and providence operate not by casualty or caprice, but by fixed and revealed laws. If we would secure the greatness set before us, we must find the way which those laws indicate, and keep within it. That way is new and all untried. We departed early, we departed at the beginning, from the beaten track of national ambition. Our lot was cast in an age of revolution—a revolution which was to bring all mankind from a state of servitude to the exercise of self government ; from under the tyranny of physical force to the gentle sway of opinion ; from under subjection to matter to dominion over nature.
It was ours to lead the way, to take up the cross of republicanism and bear it before the nations, to fight its earliest battles, to enjoy its earliest triumphs, to illustrate its purifying and elevating virtues, and by our courage and resolution, our moderation and our magnanimity, to cheer
WILLIAM H. SEWARD
and sustain its future followers through the baptism of blood and the martyrdom of fire. A mission so noble and benevolent demands a generous and self-denying enthusiasm. Our greatness is to be won by beneficence without ambition. We are in danger of losing that holy seal. We are surrounded by temptations. Our dwellings become palaces, and our villages are transformed, as if by magic, into great cities. Fugitives from famine, and oppression, and the sword crowd our shores, and proclaim to us that we alone are free, and great, and happy. Our empire enlarges. The continent and its islands seem ready to fall within our grasp, and more than even fabulous wealth opens under our feet. No public virtue can withstand, none ever encountered, such seductions as these. Our own virtue and moderation must be renewed and fortified, under circumstances so new and peculiar.
Where shall we seek the influence adequate to a task so arduous as this ? Shall we invoke the press and the pulpit? They only reflect the actual condition of the public morals, and cannot change them. Shall we resort to the executive authority? The time has passed when it could compose and modify the political elements around it. Shall we go to the Senate? Conspiracies, seditions, and corruptions in all free countries have begun there. Where, then, shall we go to find an agency that can uphold and renovate declining public virtue? Where should we go but there where all republican virtue begins and must end; where the Promethean fire is ever to be rekindled until it shall finally expire; where motives are formed and passions disciplined ? To the domestic fireside and humbler school, where the American citizen is trained. Instruct him there that it will not be enough that he can claim for his country Lacedæmonian heroism, but that more than Spartan valor and more than Roman magnificence is required of her. Go, then, ye laborers in a noble cause ; gather the young Catholic and the young Protestant alike into the nursery of freedom, and teach them there that, although religion has many and different shrines on which may be made the offering of a “broken spirit which God will not despise, yet that their country has appointed only one altar and one sacrifice for all her sons, and that ambition and avarice must be slain on that altar, for it is consecrated to humanity.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS (1817-1895)
THE SLAVE-BORN ORATOR
MONG those who spoke for the rights of man and the freedom
of the slave in the period“ before the war,” there is one to
whom we must accord peculiar credit; Frederick Douglass, a member of the race whose cause he advocated, born a slave himself, yet escaping from his bonds, becoming self-educated, and developing a gift for oratory that gave him a high standing in the ranks of the opponents of human slavery. He stood alone, the first and foremost American orator of his race, a fact which in itself gave him marked prominence. Yet it was not solely as a prodigy that he won reputation, for he had true power in oratory; being a man of intellect and feeling, with fine powers of expression and much self-control. His lectures against the slave system, begun about 1841, attracted wide attention, and on his visit to England in 1845 his earnest and fluent eloquence drew large audiences. He edited a newspaper, The North Star, at Rochester, New York, and after 1870 held several positions under the government, the last being that of Minister to Haiti, in 1889-1891.
FREE SPEECH IN BOSTON [In 1841, when Douglass delivered at Music Hall, Boston, the speech whose closing portions we give, free-speech in certain directions was a nondescript in that famous centre of intellect and reform. Men were free to speak, if they accorded in views with the multitude, but addresses in favor of slavery abolition were tabooed, and those who indulged in them did so at imminent peril. The anti-slavery doctrine, which was to grow so immensely in the two following decades, was still in its infancy, and Boston itself was a strong seat of the pro-slavery element. In the following words Douglass scores it for its lack of liberal sentiment.]
Boston is a great city-and Music Hall has a fame almost as extensive as that of Boston. Nowhere more than here have the principles of
human freedom been expounded. But for the circumstances already mentioned, it would seem almost presumption for me to say anything here about these principles. And yet, even here, in Boston, the moral atmosphere is dark and heavy. The principles of human liberty, even if correctly apprehended, find but limited support in this hour of trial. The world moves slowly, and Boston is much like the world. We thought the principle of free speech was an accomplished fact. Here, if nowhere else, we thought the right of the people to assemble and to express their opinion was secure. Dr. Channing had defended the right, Mr. Garrison had practically asserted the right, and Theodore Parker had maintained it with steadiness and fidelity to the last.
But here we are to-day contending for what we thought was gained years ago. The mortifying and disgraceful fact stares us in the face, that though Faneuil Hall and Bunker Hill Monument stand, freedom of speech is struck down. No lengthy detail of facts is needed. They are already notorious; far more so than will be wished ten years hence . .
No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government. Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one's thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers founded in injustice and wrong are sure to tremble if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence. Slavery cannot tolerate free speech. Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South. They will have none of it there, for they have the power. But shall it be so here?
Even here in Boston, and among the friends of freedom, we hear two voices ; one denouncing the mob that broke up our meeting on Monday as a base and cowardly outrage ; and another deprecating and regretting the holding of such a meeting, by such men, at such a time. We are told that the meeting was ill-timed, and the parties to it unwise.
Why, what is the matter with us ? Are we going to palliate and excuse a palpable and flagrant outrage on the right of speech, by implying that only a particular description of persons should exercise that right? Are we, at such a time, when a great principle has been struck down, to quench the moral indignation which the deed excites by casting reflections upon those on whose persons the outrage has been committed ? After all the arguments for liberty to which Boston has listened for more than a quarter of a century, has she yet to learn that the time to assert a right is