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Lincoln's Personal Life
Nathaniel Wright Stephenson
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President And Premier
The brilliant Secretary, who so promptly began to influence the President had very sure
foundations for that influence. He was inured to the role of great man; he had a rich
experience of public life; while Lincoln, painfully conscious of his inexperience, was
perhaps the humblest-minded ruler that ever took the helm of a ship of state in perilous
times. Furthermore, Seward had some priceless qualities which, for Lincoln, were still to
seek. First of all, he had audacity--personally, artistically, politically. Seward's
instantaneous gift to Lincoln was by way of throwing wide the door of his gathering
literary audacity. There is every reason to think that Seward's personal audacity went to
Lincoln's heart at once. To be sure, he was not yet capable of going along with it. The
basal contrast of the first month of his administration lies between the President's caution
and the boldness of the Secretary. Nevertheless, to a sensitive mind, seeking guidance,
surrounded by less original types of politicians, the splendid fearlessness of Seward,
whether wise or foolish, must have rung like a trumpet peal soaring over the heads of a
crowd whose teeth were chattering. While the rest of the Cabinet pressed their ears to the
ground, Seward thought out a policy, made a forecast of the future, and offered to stake
his head on the correctness of his reasoning. This may have been rashness; it may have
been folly; but, intellectually at least, it was valor. Among Lincoln's other advisers, valor
at that moment was lacking. Contrast, however, was not the sole, nor the surest basis of
Seward's appeal to Lincoln. Their characters had a common factor. For all their
immeasurable difference in externals, both at bottom were void of malice. It was this
characteristic above all others that gave them spiritually common ground. In Seward, this
quality had been under fire for a long while. The political furies of "that iron time" had
failed to rouse echoes in his serene and smiling soul. Therefore, many men who accepted
him as leader because, indeed, they could not do without him--because none other in their
camp had his genius for management, for the glorification of political intrigue--these
same men followed him doubtfully, with bad grace, willing to shift to some other leader
whenever he might arise. The clue to their distrust was Seward's amusement at the
furious. Could a man who laughed when you preached on the beauty of the hewing of
Agag, could such a man be sincere? And that Seward in some respects was not sincere,
history generally admits. He loved to poke fun at his opponents by appearing to sneer at
himself, by ridiculing the idea that he was ever serious. His scale of political values was
different from that of most of his followers. Nineteen times out of twenty, he would treat
what they termed "principles" as mere political counters, as legitimate subjects of
bargain. If by any deal he could trade off any or all of these nineteen in order to secure
the twentieth, which for him was the only vital one, he never scrupled to do so. Against a
lurid background of political ferocity, this amused, ironic figure came to be rated by the
extremists, both in his own and in the enemy camp as Mephistopheles.
No quality could have endeared him more certainly to Lincoln than the very one which
the bigots misunderstood. From his earliest youth Lincoln had been governed by this
same quality. With his non-censorious mind, which accepted so much of life as he found
it, which was forever stripping principles of their accretions, what could be more
inevitable than his warming to the one great man at Washington who like him held that
such a point of view was the only rational one. Seward's ironic peacefulness in the midst
of the storm gained in luster because all about him raged a tempest of ferocity, mitigated,
at least so far as the distracted President could see, only by self- interest or pacifism.