Seward's Folly, Lincoln's Wisdom?
If you think that politics today is corrupt and Machiavellian, then consider this anecdote about President Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State William H. Seward in "The Foreign Policy of Abraham Lincoln" (2010) from the pen of Harvey Sicherman, writing in an E-Note for the Foreign Policy Research Institute:
April 1, 1861, must rank as one of the most amazing April Fool's Days in our history. For on that day, Seward did two things. He wrote a letter to Lincoln, saying that it was clear that despite the crisis there was no policy direction in the Cabinet. So Seward proposed that while Lincoln remain President, he should announce that, henceforth, the conduct of affairs would be controlled by the undersigned, Mr. Seward. Now on that same day, Lincoln had authorized the preparation of an expedition in New York to reinforce Fort Sumter. There was another fort, Fort Pickens in Florida, that was also in danger, but Fort Sumter was in much worse shape. Seward thought it was a very bad idea to reinforce Sumter, lest this provoke a war. Consequently, he promptly had orders written out in the name of the Secretary of War and the President of the United States indicating that the expedition should go to Fort Pickens. He slipped the papers among others that were full of appointments, and taking advantage of Lincoln’s busy schedule, insisted that all had to be signed immediately, which Lincoln did, unaware of their contents. Apprised by the secretary of the navy of the change, Lincoln later countermanded the order.Any ordinary individual confronted by such insubordination would have fired Seward or fallen prey to his machinations, but Lincoln was extraordinary. No one knew that at the time, of course . . . not even Lincoln, though he perhaps had an inkling since he believed that knew how to handle the 'team of rivals' that made up his cabinet:
Now, just imagine all of this happening on the same day, and yet Lincoln did not fire Seward! Instead, he wrote a letter to him saying in effect that yes, it was true that there should be one person in charge of giving the lead and, as Lincoln put it, "I suppose that person is me." He thanked Seward for his advice and signed off. Nor did he chastise Seward for the substitution of the papers. Judging that Seward's dismissal at that point would have been catastrophic for his political situation, he did something else, defended him to the Cabinet while taking the blame because he'd been careless in examining his papers. This saved Seward's honor and cemented their relationship. And it would not be the last time that Lincoln would defend him. Confronted with the kind of insubordination that must have boiled his blood, Lincoln subordinated his emotions to his principle of unity.
The so-called "team" so unnerved one of Lincoln's confidants that he said to Lincoln, "They will eat you!" To which Lincoln replied, "No, they will eat each other."Such a remark expresses not just self-confidence but also extraordinarily intelligent insight, and Lincoln would need this sort of intelligence for at least two reasons, both grounded in his ignorance:
As for Lincoln, there is no evidence that he had virtually any thoughts on foreign policy at all before he became president.Even in the 1860s, ignorance of international affairs was a detriment for an American president, but Lincoln was lucky in that the Europeans were unlucky . . . as you can discover by reading Sicherman's entire article. And this gives me some hope for America these days.
. . .
Unfortunately, although Seward and Lincoln were both trained as lawyers, their knowledge of international law was defective.
Not that I wish any bad luck on the rest of the world, for I am, after all, living out here in the 'rest' of the world.