Seward as Speechwriter

What follows is an email I sent to Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for the second George Bush, reacting to a line in an article in today’s Washington Post.

Dear Mr. Gerson:

I enjoyed your article in this morning’s Washington Post and I agree with your main point:  presidents and candidates should use speechwriters.  Perhaps this is because I am also a former speechwriter, although on a far lower level:  I was speechwriter for several years for SEC Chairman Richard Breeden.

I write, as the author of a forthcoming biography of Seward, to quarrel with your comment about Seward’s role in Lincoln’s first inaugural address.  You state that:  “William Seward contributed to Lincoln’s first inaugural, though it was Lincoln’s edits that gave the speech its music.”

When Seward first saw Lincoln’s draft address, the critical sentence read:  “All the power at my disposal will be used to reclaim the public property and places which have fallen; to hold, occupy and possess these, and all other property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties on imports; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion of any state.”  At this time, dozens of federal forts, custom houses, and post offices were in rebel hands.  Lincoln, in this sentence, threatened to use “all the power at my disposal” to recapture all these places.

Seward objected strenuously.  He warned Lincoln that, if he gave the inaugural in this form, he would drive the border states into the arms of the seceded states.  Lincoln did not accept Seward’s specific wording for this sentence, but he did make a critical change; he eliminated the threat to attack and recapture the forts already in rebel hands, saying only that he would hold the few forts still in federal hands.

Lincoln’s printed draft address concluded as follows:  “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.  The government will not assail you, unless you first assail it.  You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.  You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect and defend” it.  You can forbear the assault upon it; I can not shrink from the defense of it.  With you, and not with me, is the solemn question, ‘Shall it be peace, or a sword?’”

This section of Lincoln’s draft has a music:  a martial music.  The repeated use of italics, at least for me, is harsh.  The last word in the draft is “sword.”  Most southerners, reading this paragraph, would assume that Lincoln viewed Civil War as inevitable, and merely wanted to try to assign blame for the war upon the South.

Again, Seward objected.  He insisted that the speech needed to end with “some words of affection,” some words of “calm and cheerful confidence.”  Seward provided Lincoln with two draft conclusions; the one in his own handwriting read:

“I close.  We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren.  Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly they must not, I am sure they will not be broken.  The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.”

This has a music too, a far softer and more inviting music.  Lincoln improved upon Seward’s draft, but in my view Lincoln’s improvements to Seward’s draft were far less important than Seward’s improvements to Lincoln’s draft.

Ask yourself:  what would have been the result if Lincoln had given the speech in the form in which he handed it to Seward?  Lincoln would have strengthened secession sentiment in the border states, perhaps lost another state even before the events at Fort Sumter.

Or think about this question:  what would have been the result if Lincoln had used Seward’s conclusion rather than his own revised conclusion?  Not much would really have changed; Lincoln’s speech would be less famous than it is today, but his affection for and faith in the Union would have been clear for his immediate audience.

In short I think, in this case at least, you give too little credit to the speechwriter.