Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Introducing the William Henry Seward Award

Last night, in the wee small hours of the morning, I finished reading Team of Rivals. The book, by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, chronicles the Abraham Lincoln administration, and specifically Lincoln's relationship with William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates, onetime rivals for the Republican presidential nomination whom Lincoln ended up naming to his Cabinet.

It is a remarkable read, and I urge everyone to read it. Having learned how Lincoln's America was able to prevail through the Civil War, I have more faith than ever that our generation will survive the perils facing us at present. People forget just how many obstacles this country has overcome in the past.

So, yeah, read the book. But this post is about something more than just a quickie book review.

Goodwin goes into rich detail of the lives of Lincoln, Seward, Chase and Bates - to varying degrees. Bates gets the least attention, though he was indeed a mountain of a man. Chase gets a good deal of coverage but he was, while a good man and a true abolitionist at heart, so ambitious that it served almost as a detriment, and reading about him can be tiresome at times. Lincoln, as our 16th president and arguably one of the greatest minds in the history of man, is an absolute pleasure to read about. I learned much about him that I had not known before, though I came into the book already familiar with his esteemed place in history.

The real discovery in the book, therefore, was William Henry Seward, who served as Governor and Senator from New York and eventually as Lincoln's Secretary of State. Seward was an uncommonly brilliant, wise and warm-hearted man, and a patriot in every sense of the word. When 1860 opened, he was by far the largest figure in the Republican Party, and was seen by virtually every observer as the "inevitable" presidential nominee of the party and, quite likely, the next president. But Lincoln stunned him at the Republican convention in Chicago, snatching the nomination away and, with it, the presidency. Seward, who had worked his entire life to be president, was humiliated.

But in a (dare I say) Hillary Clinton-like fashion, Seward got over it. He campaigned all over the country for Lincoln and was the first Cabinet officer appointed to the new administration. While initially assuming that he would be the "power behind the throne" of the president, Seward soon realized that Lincoln, genius that he was, needed to sit on no one's shoulders but his own. While other ex-rivals like Chase never allowed themselves to appreciate Lincoln's greatness, Seward did. He and Lincoln became great friends, and Lincoln ended up trusting Seward more than any of the other men in the Cabinet. By the time Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Seward was already predicting that his name would be revered throughout history, on par with men like Washington and Jefferson, if not above them entirely.

My fondness for Seward grew with each page I turned, and I found myself in utter awe and appreciation of his selflessness, intelligence, good humor and supreme sense of loyalty and duty. I realized that he was the ultimate unsung hero. Without his advice and friendship, Lincoln may not have been able to get through his presidency, and the fate of the country may have been very different. Seward might not be on a coin, no state capital is named after him and most Americans don't know him by name, but all Americans owe him a tremendous amount of gratitude for his service to this nation.

It is in his honor that I dedicate this latest Danifesto Award, the William Henry Seward Award, in recognition of the unsung heroes that I come across as I go about my days. I will update this as frequently as is required. I encourage anyone who would like to feel free to nominate a candidate to receive this award. They can be living or dead, real-life or make-believe, male or female, rich or poor, anything. This is the space where we recognize unsung heroes whom history has largely neglected. Oh, Seward's got a statue in Madison Square Park in NYC, sure, and a museum and lots of other things. But, in my mind, he was on an intellectual par with perhaps even Lincoln himself. He certainly loved this country just as much.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, it is with that spirit of gratitude that I dedicate this award to the most unsung hero of them all, William Henry Seward.

1 comment:

Vincent said...

In his conclusion to defending Freeman:
"When I shall have the paid the debt of nature, my remains will rest here in your midst with those of my kindred and neighbors. It is very possible they may be unhonored, neglected, spurned!, but perhaps in years hence when the passion and excitement which now agitate this community shall have passed, some wondering stranger, some lone exile, some Indian, some Negro may erect over them a humble stone and thereon this epitaph "He was faithful"

You just made his words a little truer and it still amazes that back in the 1800s Seward had so much hope for the morality of man that he believed oneday all men would be treated equal even if it was not in his lifetime.