William Seward, Harriet Tubman, and the Twenty

William Seward is in the news these days. He was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860 and had the most first ballot votes, but was surpassed in later voting by Abraham Lincoln.

This saga is cited as precedent (and there is much other) for denying the nomination to a candidate who comes to the convention with the most delegates. As I have noted, though, there were no primaries in Seward’s day — his was a case of live by the backroom, die by the backroom.

Seward should be in the news for another reason — his close relationship with Harriet Tubman. The two were neighbors and friends in Auburn, New York. In fact, Seward sold Tubman the land on which she built her house, which sheltered blacks who had escaped slavery while they settled into life in upstate New York. (We visited both houses in 1998; to my great disappointment, Seward’s was closed but we got a tour of Tubman’s).

Seward’s friendship with Tubman was not an accident. He was vehemently anti-slavery, probably the foremost opponent of that hateful institution in the Senate. Indeed, the ill-will he engendered in that capacity was probably a major reason why he couldn’t get his delegate count to the required level at the 1860 Republican convention.

Seward became Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Two other convention rivals, Simon Cameron and Salmon Chase, were rewarded with the top job at the War Department and the Treasury Department, respectively.

Cameron proved to be incompetent and corrupt. Chase was highly competent, but difficult to deal with.

Seward did a great job at State, successfully navigating America through the many diplomatic difficulties and crises associated with the Civil War. In addition, he became Lincoln’s close confidante.

Ironically, given his stature as an anti-slavery man, Seward wanted to proceed more cautiously than Lincoln in dealing with the South on the eve of the Civil War. Perhaps this was because Seward was older than Lincoln and had long been an “insider,” to use the modern epithet.

Once the shooting started, though, Seward was all in with Lincoln.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the same plot that resulted in Lincoln’s assassination nearly produced Seward’s. The same night Lincoln was shot, the Secretary of State was attacked in his bed, where he was recovering from injuries sustained in an accident. Seward was stabbed multiple times, but a soldier who was guarding and nursing him saved his life.

Seward stayed on as Secretary of State for Andrew Johnson and was generally supportive of the new president’s soft approach to dealing with the South, decisions that don’t exactly cover Seward with glory. However, it was as Johnson’s Secretary of State that Seward pulled of the purchase of Alaska, known at the time as “Seward’s Folly.”

It should be apparent from this thumbnail sketch that Seward’s contributions to U.S. history far exceed Tubman’s. I would argue that they approach Andrew Jackson’s, and without the horrible warts.

Does this mean that Seward, not Tubman, should be on the Twenty? It does not.

No rule requires that places on our currency be awarded based solely on historical significance. The Underground Railroad isn’t close to being among America’s most consequential achievements, but it’s one of our proudest. Tubman isn’t among our most consequential figures, but she’s one of our most extraordinary and courageous.

Her courage wasn’t just manifested by the Underground Railroad. According her biographer Kate Clifford Larson, Tubman “became the first woman to lead an armed military raid when she guided Col. James Montgomery and his 2nd South Carolina black regiment up the Comabahee River, routing Confederate outposts, liberating more than 700 slaves, and destroying stockpiles of cotton, food, and weapons.”

Accordingly, I look forward to seeing Tubman’s image on the Twenty. I like to think Seward too would be happy for his friend.

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