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A sense of the whole

Published on 21 October 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

150 years ago the issue of slavery tore the US apart. The Union survived thanks to military power, but also the efforts of Pres. Abraham Lincoln and others, prominent among them William H. Seward, the Secretary of State, to seek a political solution beyond necessary military victory. A biography of Seward has just appeared (Walter Stahr https://amzn.to/Vhp7Jn ), which may be read with greater profit than a whole heap of tweets, retweets, and vacuous eMails. For those with little attention span, here a review https://nyr.kr/QJmApx) of the book.
The portrait of Seward that emerges from the book’s pages is that of a great compromiser, who always found some “degree of constructive freedom” where others only sensed impossibilities or “red lines”. This side-stepping or going over red lines in search of compromise is the sign of a great diplomat – and one utterly contrary to the view of “diplomat as agent”. For the compliant agent would have stuck to the red line drawn from on high. Diplomacy is all about exploring the land beyond the red line.
That Seward managed to invent “impossible” compromises was not so much a matter of temperament (though his sunny disposition certainly helped) as his deep sense for the whole – the conviction that the world was not divided in “friends” to be rewarded and “foes” to be smitten, but that beyond partisanship one had to work for the common weal. He was able see both sides of an issue, and sense a common way forward that took the “other’s” point of view of board – betraying his mandate for a higher cause. It comes to no surprise he was called “hypocrite” by those who could not fathom or understand his deeper vision. In acting so he betrayed his calling as a lawyer, who is to argue a case, but let others be the judge. In Isaiah Berlin’s words (see my 180) he never failed to pay “the other” due “recognition” – call it reconciliation – which is the basis of every compromise.
Here one anecdote to show Seward’s skills. In his draft Inaugural Address Lincoln intended to close on a bellicose tone: “You can forbear the assault upon [the government], I can not shrink from the defense of it. With you, and not with me, is the solemn question of ‘Shall it be peace, or a sword?’ ” Seward urged Lincoln to conclude, instead, with “some words of affection,” of “calm and cheerful confidence.” Excising Lincoln’s last lines, he substituted his own:
Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.
Lincoln took the sentiment, stripped it of its orotundity, and produced one of the most stirring political statements in American history:
Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

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