HRC's Choice: Seward or Chase?

05/16/2008 05:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

William H. Seward or Salmon P. Chase?

This -- in addition to being the most arcane, nerdy question I've ever typed -- is the crucial choice Senator Clinton now faces. Seward and Chase shared the indignity of losing their party's nomination to a relatively inexperienced opponent. That opponent, a guy from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, nonetheless won the presidency and invited both Seward and Chase to join his cabinet.

Both accepted.

Seward shined.

Chase, as best as I can tell, proved to be kind of a schmuck about the whole thing.

Now before my use of Ph.D.-level jargon like "schmuck" and "as best as I can tell" dazzles you into thinking I am some sort of history scholar, I do have a confession. Until a couple of days ago, all I knew about Seward was "Seward's Folly," his craaaaaaaaaazy 1867 decision to buy Alaska from Russia for all of $7.2 million. As for Salmon Chase, I'd literally never heard of him. Now I know lots. Right down to the trivia.

Like his uncle's name.


Philander Chase.

NOTE TO PREGNANT READERS: Philander -- like Salmon, frankly -- is a name that deserves a resurgence. It could start with your unborn son.

NOTE TO NON-PREGNANT READERS: Out of respect for your time, I now will get to the actual point of this post.

I've just devoured an amazing book, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I read it because of Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan cited the book in a column called "Obama-Clinton, a hate-filled dream ticket."

Since I'm repulsed by the "dream ticket" gimmick, I read Sullivan especially skeptically. So my alarms blared when Sullivan invoked Goodwin's book as a kind of Honest Abe Seal of Approval for an Obama-Clinton ticket. I'd heard a tiny bit about the book before and was pretty sure that Lincoln hadn't given any of his rivals the VP slot. I confirmed this by reading a summary of the book online.

I felt good and smug -- a trait I despise in myself and try to smack down whenever I notice it. As penance, I resolved to read the book, trusting that Goodwin had written something at least mildly interesting and re-opening my mind to the possibility Sullivan might have a legitimate point. As it turns out, he doesn't.

But I'm willing to forgive that since he led me to Team of Rivals. Let me tell you something I may be the last person in America to realize: Lincoln rocks. (I won't try to say something more subtle or insightful about Lincoln in this post. For now, just know that he rocks. I'll be reading more about him and expect to do more posts about what his leadership can teach us. At this preliminary stage, I can report that Lincoln offers lessons about everything from Iraq to sending e-mail that you won't live to regret.)

For now, let's get back to William Seward and Salmon Chase and why they're relevant to Senator Clinton at this wrenching moment. The first reason Seward and Chase matter is because they feel Clinton's pain. And we should, too. Sometimes we need the distance of history to remind ourselves of something I learned covering politics as a reporter: losing a bid for public office can be cataclysmically painful.

Goodwin, writing in 2005 before the words had any Clintonian significance, describes an "aura of inevitability" surrounding Seward's quest to become the Republican nominee in 1860. Drawn by that aura, thousands thronged his Auburn, NY estate to celebrate the certain news that their hometown guy had been picked. But instead came the convention's inexplicable result: Lincoln, a third-tier candidate, would be the nominee.

Goodwin describes the aftershocks for the "angry, hurt, and humiliated" front-runner:

Though Seward had pledged his support to the Republican ticket in a public letter, he was so dejected in the aftermath of his defeat that he considered resigning immediately from the Senate. Without the onerous demands of the congressional session, he would remain in Auburn, surrounded by his loving family and consoling friends. "When I went out to market this morning," he told one friend, "I had the rare experience of a man walking about town, after he is dead, and hearing what people would say of him. I confess I was unprepared for so much real grief, as I heard expressed at every corner."

Team of Rivals is, among other things, the story of how Seward rallied back. He campaigned for Lincoln, served devotedly as secretary of state through the calamity of the Civil War, became one of the president's dearest friends, and proved so indispensable and loyal to the Union cause that he was targeted in what was meant to be a synchronized triple assassination of Lincoln, Seward, and Vice President Andrew Johnson. On the night Lincoln was shot, another would-be assassin put Seward's son in a coma and slashed the secretary of state's face so savagely that the doctor who saved his life said he'd "looked like an exsanguinated corpse."

The Salmon Chase we meet on the pages of Goodwin's book could never quite do what Seward did, could never truly shake off the pain of losing to Lincoln in 1860. He campaigned for Lincoln. He served ably in the wartime cabinet. But as the 1864 election approached, Treasury Secretary Chase was engaged in a stealth campaign to take his boss's place as the Republican nominee. It failed. Lincoln kept him on anyway. But when Chase persisted in his pattern of behavior, sending Lincoln what was essentially his fourth tantrum-fueled, attention-seeking resignation letter in as many years, the president shocked him by accepting the resignation.

Godwin quotes what Lincoln is said to have told a confidante afterward:

"I will tell you," Lincoln said, "how it is with Chase. It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to fall into a bad habit. Chase has fallen into two bad habits....He thinks he has become indispensable to the country. He also thinks he ought to be President; he has no doubt whatever about that." These two unfortunate tendencies, Lincoln explained, had made Chase "irritable, uncomfortable, so that he is never perfectly happy unless he is thoroughly miserable."

Senator Clinton can choose to be Chase, who made his third and fourth failed runs for the presidency in 1868 and 1872. Or she can be Seward.

Lincoln, with his extraordinary gift for gauging the emotions and motives of powerful men, may have realized that even Seward wasn't fully ready to be Seward in 1860. Whatever Lincoln's rationale, all of us -- Senator Obama, Senator Clinton, their supporters, and the rest of America -- should note that Lincoln did not pick any of the men he'd beaten to serve as vice president.

There is, put simply, no Honest Abe Seal of Approval for an Obama-Clinton ticket. But there is, in Seward, a precedent for how Senator Clinton might perform a sort of alchemy on her disappointment, on her certainty that she'd make the better commander-in-chief. She can start, as Seward started, by hitting the trail in vigorous support of the victorious rival. Here, in Goodwin's words, is what greeted the defeated candidate when he put his party ahead of his grief and his bitterness.

Fifty thousand people gathered to hear Seward speak in Detroit, and the fervor only increased as his tour moved west. Thousands waited past midnight for the arrival of his train in Kalamazoo, and when he disembarked, crowds followed him along the streets to the place where he would sleep that night. The next day, thousands more assembled on the village green to enjoy a brilliant "procession of young men and women on horseback, all well mounted, children with banners, men with carts and wagons," that preceded the formal speeches. Still craving more, the crowd followed the entourage back to the train station, where Seward appeared at the train window to speak again.

Goodwin writes of an admirer on the campaign trail who told Seward, "you are doing more for Lincoln's election than any hundred men in the United States."

Seward's reply: "Well, I ought to."


UPDATE (5/17/08):

Rather than simply revise this post and pretend (absurdly) to be infallible, it feels more honest and accountable to use this space to call attention to a detail I got wrong.

In Lincoln's era, the same convention delegates who picked the presidential nominee also picked the vice presidential nominee. So parsing Lincoln's choice of VP is pointless because Lincoln didn't pick his own VP.

It remains true that there's no Honest Abe Seal of Approval for an Obama-Clinton ticket. But it's also true, I now realize, that there's no obvious Seal of Disapproval.

Meanwhile, in trying to track down accurate details, I found this...

It's a digitized copy of the proceedings of the Republicans' 1860 convention. Very cool that such a thing even exists on the web. It shows us, among other things, that the delegates did NOT nominate Seward or Chase for the vice presidency. The tally of the first vice presidential ballot (see page 128 of the PDF) also suggests that the states which backed Lincoln most strongly did not get their first choice for VP.

Please post a comment if you think I have any other details wrong. If any more corrections or updates are needed, I'll post them here.

I apologize for this error. Thanks for reading.