The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
»Remainder of Term and Life

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Harper's Weekly, March 20
, 1869, page 178

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HarpWeek Commentary:
  Editor George William Curtis had supported fellow-New Yorker and antislavery advocate William H. Seward for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860. Yet in the eyes of Curtis, Seward’s strong support of Johnson’s position on Reconstruction was an indelible stain on the Secretary of State’s record.

Among the memorable events of this political season is the retirement of Mr. Seward from the public scene upon which for so long a time he has been so conspicuous an actor. On the last day of his official life the clerks in the Department of State addressed him a letter, expressing their regard and admiration, and in his reply Mr. Seward said:

"Gentlemen, it would be as idle as it would be presumptuous for us to undertake to fix a standard for the popular appreciation of our own services. That will be the task of history, which delights in contemplating studiously the vicissitudes of nations; and that task can only be performed when we shall have ceased to be. Let us, therefore, be content for the present with claiming for ourselves and conceding to each other the humble pretension that whatever may be the errors which history may at any time detect, these errors have been in all cases errors of judgment, and not of motive or purpose."

This is what every man would fain have said in his own case, and what indeed may so often be truly said, of the most calamitous errors that have ever been committed.

Doubtless it is impossible in the present heats of party difference properly to estimate Mr. Seward’s character and career. And yet it is significant and suggestive that those whose faith in him twenty years ago was deepest and strongest have long been wholly alienated, and those who, in the full flush of young enthusiasm, regarded him as men only once regard a political chief, have long since looked upon him in amazement and sorrow. The history of these times must answer the question why it was that a statesman who, in 1860, was the acknowledged leader of a great and victorious party which then came into power, in 1869, when that party was more firmly fixed in popular confidence than ever, while during the intervening time its policy, founded upon its original principles, had constantly prevailed, was wholly without the sympathy or respect of the party or of any other.

It is not the case of Edmund Burke, for when he parted with his old associates he became at once the acknowledged chief and superb advocate of the great anti-revolutionary party of Europe. Besides, as Coleridge wisely says, and as Mr. Morley has recently admirably shown, Burke’s principles were always the same, however the practical inferences from them at various times may have differed. Will it, then, be urged by the future historian that Mr. Seward’s principles always remained the same, and that he separated from his party only upon the question of method or of policy? Is his political sagacity to be vindicated by placing him with Mr. Dixon and Mr. Doolittle and Mr. Andrew Johnson? Is posterity to be taught that the man who said at Rochester that there was an irrepressible conflict between liberty and slavery, and who should have known what his words politically implied, seriously believed, when slavery had been abolished by civil war leaving millions of freedmen among subdued rebel masters, that justice and honor and peace demanded that every right and every chance of those freedmen should be left to the mercy of those masters: Will history represent this as the principle of Mr. Seward or only as his policy?

To a contemporary it seems as if the sad and severe Clio must depict Mr. Seward as a man who had become the representative of a cause in which he had no moral convictions. His sagacity and his humanity seem to have shown him that the conditions of this country were fatally hostile to slavery, and that a political party founded, like the Democratic, upon the necessities of slavery, and directed by great slave lords, must presently fall before the combined conscience and industry of free laborers. But it was the view of a shrewd politician rather than of a statesman or a moralist. This also explains his familiar intimacy with Mr. Weed; and it is certainly doubtful whether either of these gentlemen saw that the moral element was the real strength of their party. Mr. Seward was both an optimist and a doctrinaire, but he lacked the moral earnestness and conviction that could alone explain the actual situation. He honestly thought, doubtless, that the slave lords of the Democracy would fight the battle out under the forms of law, and tranquilly submit to inevitable destruction. Had Mr. Seward, as the representative of enlarging liberty, been as vitally in earnest as David and Mason and the rest were, as the representatives of increasing slavery, he would not have talked airily about a settlement in sixty days, nor have written to our ministers abroad that they were not to suffer the question of slavery to be mentioned in discussions of the rebellion. The champion of liberty in America, when it was taken by the throat by Slavery, repelled the sympathy of every European friend it had.

The same want of moral conviction or of that quality which is indispensable to a statesman, the perception of the strict relation between morality and the public welfare, drew Mr. Seward into the support of the most stupid, arbitrary, and unjust policy of Andrew Johnson. Other motives may have influenced his action, motives that no one who has ever been a friend of Mr. Seward’s will suggest. And, indeed, in the complexity of motives of human conduct the honorable and the unworthy are strangely mingled. It is enough for us to find a satisfactory explanation of a career at once illustrious and lamentable without involving personal honor.

The future student of our history who follows this political life of forty years, will not forget amidst his grief and consternation at the close, that he who cheered by telegraph the ribald slanders of a furious President upon spotless and honorable citizens - who declared that the man who said he didn’t care whether slavery was voted up or down, would live in grateful remembrance with Abraham Lincoln, and who exultingly prophesied in his own State the defeat by forty thousand majority of those whom he had politically taught, and who had helped to save the country to liberty and mankind - was the same man who had bravely proclaimed the higher law - who had exposed in calm and terrible detail the ghastly despotism of slavery - and who, crossing the frontier, had planted before the very citadel of slavery upon its own domain the standard of equal liberty. Had Mr. Seward been what the young men of fifteen and twenty years ago believed him to be, his fame would have been as sweet and sure as any in our history.

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Home At Last (cartoon)
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November 6, 1869, page 707

"Poor Andy" (cartoon)
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Mr. Seward
March 20, 1869, page 178

The Whirligig Of Time (cartoon)
February 20, 1875, page 164

Death of Andrew Johnson
August 14, 1875, page 655

The Late Andrew Johnson (illus)
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