Cum Laude

The Cum Laude Society is the high school equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa:  an elite academic honor society.  Here at Exeter, about twenty percent of each year’s graduating class is honored with Cum Laude membership.  An even smaller group, about five percent of each year’s senior class, is honored with early membership in Cum Laude.  Many years ago I had the honor to be part of that small group and last night, October 28, 2012, I had the honor of speaking with this year’s early Cum Laude members.  This is what I said:

When I was asked to speak with you this evening, I started thinking about how best to advise you.  Then I learned that I was supposed to speak with you about Seward.  I have decided to do a bit of both, to use the life of Seward to give you some advice.

1.  Prepare to Deal with Disappointment.  I realize that it is odd, speaking to this group on this night, to mention disappointment.  You are bright and diligent and you have bright futures.  But, speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that you will, at some point, face disappointment.  At first glance it does not look like Seward had to deal with much defeat:  he was governor of New York for four years, senator for twelve years, then secretary of state for eight years.

When you look more closely, however, Seward suffered some serious setbacks.  Perhaps the most dramatic was 1860.  As the year started, Seward was the odds-on favorite for the Republican presidential nomination.  In keeping with the custom, Seward did not attend the Chicago convention himself; he was at his home in Auburn, a small city in upstate New York.  On the morning set for nomination, Seward received a telegram from friends in Chicago:  “All right.  Everything indicates your nomination today sure.”  A few hours later, he received another telegram, reporting that on the first ballot he had received 172 votes, only sixty short of the number he needed for nomination.  Seward told his friend John Austin, who was with him in his garden, that it was “as favorable as could be expected for the second ballot.”

About fifteen minutes later, another friend, Theodore Dimon, came running from the telegraph office.  As he approached he shouted out:  “Oh God, it is all gone! gone! gone!  Abraham Lincoln has received the nomination!”  Austin looked from Dimon to Seward.  “A deadly paleness overspread his countenance for an instant, succeeded instantly by a flush, and then all was calm as a summer morning.”  Austin’s diary recorded that Seward started “conversing in regard to the particulars of the ballot, and was the most composed of the three or four who were present.”

One of the first things Seward did, after learning the news, was to write his best friend, Thurlow Weed, his floor manager in Chicago.  Weed and Seward had been friends for thirty years at this point, since Seward first entered politics in the New York state senate, and Weed visited his room every night in Albany.  Weed had managed Seward’s campaigns for governor, and for senate, and his campaign for president.

Now that campaign had, unexpectedly, disastrously, failed.  Seward wrote his friend that “you have my unbounded gratitude for this last, as for the whole life of efforts in my behalf.  I wish that I was sure that your sense of disappointment is as light as my own.”  It should be, Seward wrote, for “I know not what has been left undone that could have been done or done that ought to be regretted.”

Two days later, yet another friend, Henry Raymond, editor of the New York Times, traveling from Chicago back to New York City, stopped for a day in Auburn.  Raymond reported in the Times that Seward would serve out his term in the Senate—it was supposed to end in early 1861—but that aside from this he was done with public life.  In particular, Raymond wrote, “it is not likely that he will feel called upon, or that his friends will expect him, to take any active personal part in the pending canvass.”

When he returned to Washington, and to his place in the Senate,  Seward was greeted by various friends, including Jefferson Davis, who “came to me with frank, open, sympathizing words.”  Seward dined that night with his friend Charles Francis Adams, who pressed upon Seward the points he had made a few days earlier in a letter.  “Your services to the cause are more necessary than they ever were, and your own reputation will gain more of permanency from the becoming manner with which you meet this disappointment than it would from all the brilliancy of the highest success.”

Adams new about dealing with disappointment.  Both his father, John Quincy Adams, and his grandfather, John Adams, had suffered bitter defeats in their re-election campaigns.  The first president Adams retired to his farm and did (many would say) very little with the rest of his life; the second president Adams returned to Washington, to the House of Representatives, where he achieved (many would say) more than he did as president.

Seward realized that his friend Adams was right; it was his duty to do what he could to get Lincoln elected.  Remember that, under the customs of the day, Lincoln could not campaign for himself; he needed his friends, such as Seward.  Remember also that this was going to be a very close election; the Republicans were not going to get any votes in the South, so to prevail they would need to carry almost every state in the North.  There were no polls in those days, but indications were that Douglas would win in several northern states, throwing the election into the House of Representatives.

Once he decided to campaign, Seward threw himself into it wholeheartedly.  He spoke in almost every northern state:  Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa.  His words reached not only his audiences, often tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands through the newspapers.  He did more than any other man to secure the election of Lincoln.

So:  prepare to deal with disappointment because “your own reputation will gain more of permanency from the becoming manner with which you meet this disappointment than it would from all the brilliancy of the highest success.”

2.  Make and Keep Your Friends.  I hope you heard the repeated reference to Seward’s friends.  Like all politicians Seward had some merely political friends:  people for whom he did political favors in return for favors from them.  But he also had real true friends, such as Thurlow Weed.

The two men met when they were both young:  Seward’s carriage broke an axle and Weed stepped out of the crowd of onlookers to help.  They really got to know one another in Albany, in the early 1830s, when Seward was a young legislator and Weed was a young newspaper editor.  Seward wrote home to his wife that “Weed is very much with me, and I enjoy his warmth of feeling.  A politician skilful in design and persevering in execution, whose exciting principle is personal friendship or opposition, and not self-interest—that is just Thurlow Weed.”

Seward and Weed were often together:  in Albany, New York City, and Washington.  But they were also often apart:  one or the other of them would be out on the campaign trail, or Seward would be traveling for his legal work, or Weed would be traveling for pleasure.  This is great from a historian’s perspective, because it allows one to listen in on their conversations in a way one cannot for periods when the two were face to face.  They wrote one another hundreds of letters; indeed one could write a decent life of Seward just in the form of an annotated set of these letters.

Some of Seward’s best letters are to Weed.  In late 1842, for example, after four years as governor, during which he had worked closely with his friend, Seward wrote Weed that “my public career is honorably closed, and I am yet young enough, if a reasoanble age is alloted to me, to repair all the waste of private fortune it has cost.  Gratitude to God and gratitude and affection towards my friends, and most of all to you, my first and most efficient and most devoted friend, oppresses me, until tears like such as woman sheds flow whenever I am alone.”  Seward was puzzled as to why Weed and others had helped him so generously.  “I am a mystery to myself.  What am I?  What is there belongs to me that has entitled me or secured to me, without a claim, such friendship and affection?”

Seward was also, in the end, a friend of Abraham Lincoln.  I say “in the end” because at first, when Lincoln became president and Seward secretary of state, there was more than a little tension.  It was not only that Lincoln had stolen the nomination that Seward believed was rightfully his; it was also that Seward believed that Lincoln did not know much about Washington, much about administration; and that Lincoln believed Seward did not know his proper place.

Within a few weeks, however, as they started to spend more time together, as Seward started to prove his worth as secretary and adviser, the two men became friends.  Lincoln would often stop by Seward’s house or office, or Seward would stop by the White House.  Seward would share with Lincoln a draft letter to an American minister abroad, ask for his comments; Lincoln would ask Seward for advice on an Army issue.  They were such good friends they could tell jokes about one another:  Seward once remarked to a visitor that Lincoln neither drank nor smoked, and wondered how a man could become president without any vices.

There were limits on their friendship; there always are when one is a friend of a president.  Moreover, as I wrote on page 367, Lincoln and Seward “did not know one another for that long—only from the time of Lincoln’s arrival in Washington in 1861—so they did not have the long history that leads to the warmest friendships.”  My editor at Simon & Schuster did not like that last bit, about how long history leads to the warmest friendships.  I left it as is, largely as a tribute to my Exeter friends, who are and I believe always will be my best friends.  “The long history that leads to the warmest friendships”—I hope that you will have the same.

3.  Keep Exploring.  In 1869, after eight long years as secretary of state, Seward retired to Auburn.  But he did not stay put:  oh no.  Within a few weeks he was off, traveling on the new transcontinental railroad to California.  He explored the western states and territories fully:  California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.  From California they went to Mexico, where they spent the entire winter, returning to Auburn in the spring.

Almost as soon as he was home, Seward started organizing an even longer trip, with a larger group of friends, including Hanson Risley and his two daughters Olive and Hattie.  A word about Olive.  After Seward’s wife died in 1866, and his daughter died in 1867, Seward started to pay attention to Olive Risley, who was more than forty years younger.  The newspapers thought that the two would be married:  one described Seward as an “amiable, sportive, frisky, foxy, and infatuating man,” just the sort to attract a young girl who was “ambitious and the daughter of a politician.”  I do not think, however, that their relationship was really romantic:  Seward missed his daughter, and Olive was sort of a surrogate daughter, someone with whom he could talk and travel.

In any case, Seward and the Risleys and others started out, but by the time Seward reached Peking, the party had dwindled to four:  Seward and the two girls and a servant.  They could not go on in this way; it would just be too improper.  Seward solved the problem in an unusual way:  he adopted Olive as his daughter and changed his will so that she would inherit part of his estate.  With this paperwork done, the four of them continued:  to Southeast Asia, to India, to the Middle East.

Seward was not in great health; he had some kind of progressive paralysis of his hands and arms, so that he was dependent upon Olive to write up his notes of their travels.  But even though he needed a servant’s help to cut his food or raise his glass, he would “talk away with a zest, and after dinner smoke his cigar, which he hardly ever took from his mouth on account of the difficulty of getting at it with his hand.”

When he reached Auburn, after more than a year away, Seward gave a little speech to his neighbors, reminding them that most of them had advised against this travels.  He realized, however, that “at my age, and in my condition of health, rest was rust, and nothing remained, to prevent rust, but to keep in motion.”

Now, you will I hope understand that I am not urging you all to travel around the world.  But the larger point is that you should keep exploring:  whether in the literal sense, through travel, or in other ways, through reading, through learning new skills, through starting second careers.  Nothing remains, to prevent rust, but to keep in motion.