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Upstart from Illinois lacks experience

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Date published: 2/17/2008


I picture a supporter of William Seward, the senator from New York and odds-on favorite to the win the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, sputtering in exasperation at the upstart from Illinois who suddenly appeared to be taking the nomination away from his candidate. "Who is this guy?" "What has he done?" "He is a talker, not a doer." In the run-up to the Chicago convention in May 1860, Seward had seemed inevitable--but then came this speech-making interloper, gathering up delegates.

Seward would be ready to be president from Day One, this supporter might say, implying that the Illinois fellow would not be ready on Day One.

"What experience does he have?" the Seward supporter might have asked. How paltry, compared to Seward, were the qualifications of his Illinois opponent: Seward had more than 35 years of experience--as lawyer for fugitive slaves, governor of New York, senator from New York, leader first of the Whigs and then of the Republicans nationally. This novice who challenged him had never held any high office, nor done any great deed, headed any department or passed any national legislation. He had never been in command of anything except a straggling company of volunteers in the state militia when he was 23--a group who, it was reported, when he issued his first command told him to go to hell. He had served six years in the Illinois state legislature. His only service in national government had been one short and unimpressive term as a congressman 11 years earlier. He had not been the "executive" of anything more than a two-man law firm; he had never in his life fired anyone. He had emerged on the national scene just by making speeches.

The New York senator's supporter might grant, with a touch of condescension, that the Illinois threat delivered a good speech. But although that address at Cooper Union might be "beautifully expressed and passionately felt," it was not action. "Words are not actions. What we have to do is to translate talk into reality."

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William Lee Miller is the author of the forthcoming "President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman." He is the scholar in ethics and institutions at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.