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February 17, 2008 12:16 am




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."

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.

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.

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