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Presidential princes WHAT EXPERIENCE DOES THIS UPSTART FROM ILLINOIS HAVE? WILL HE BE READY FROM 'DAY ONE'? page 2
Upstart from Illinois lacks experience

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Date published: 2/17/2008

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Sen. Seward had a long record of transforming talk into action and feeling into reality, and of taking incoming fire from slavery's defenders. A Seward supporter might argue that the presidency was no place for on-the-job training and he might say, "Nominating that Illinois fellow would be a roll of the dice." Or comment about the phenomenon of his novice competitor: "Give me a break; the whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I have ever seen."

Fairy tale or not, the Illinois upstart defeated Seward on the third ballot in the Republican convention. He won in part exactly because he had not been around as long as the New York senator. Without Seward's ample supply of enemies, he was able to cast himself as the alternative. And he skillfully parlayed second choices.

But a loftier reason than convention maneuvering explains why he won. It was the reason he was prominent enough even to be considered, and it was why some delegates voted for him: In his speeches he articulated, with unique clarity and eloquence, the moral requirement of the times. The quality of a candidate's speeches can reveal a great deal--especially those of a writing candidate. And especially when there is a giant issue--more than the daily round of policy shaping the nation's direction.

"Day One" came, and faced with imminent peril not only to Fort Sumter but also to the nation's very existence, Seward's rival demonstrated in full the clarity of moral purpose that his speeches had promised.

It was certainly not a mistake for the Republicans in 1860 to nominate, in spite of his alleged lack of "experience," the eloquent speaker from Illinois.


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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.