Jefferson Davis and William Seward in their old age.
William H. Seward: Republican Whig
The 1850s was decade seething with unrest; a volcano just waiting to erupt. The Whigs had always been a cobbled-together party of various factions and sections and philosophies. By the 1850s, it was imploding, scooping those factions and sections and philosophies into the new Republican party. Only this time, it would have stronger leadership.
Arguably the best known and most respected Whig-turned-Republican was William Seward (1801-72), a New Yorker who had been in the public eye and on the national scene for more than a decade.
He was not only a leader, but one with a solid resume: Legislator, Governor, NY Senator, and shortlisted for high office. He was perceived a moderate in a sea of extremes. Always strongly against slavery, he was pragmatic like Abraham Lincoln, and had straddled the middle ground. Having a cool disposition, he was seldom governed by personal passion; rather by the expediencies that could (hopefully) bring fractious parties together. Nevertheless, it was Seward who coined the phrase “irrepressible conflict,” to describe a war that he was certain would come.
Jefferson Davis: Southern Democrat
The Democratic Party had been a political powerhouse since the time of Thomas Jefferson, who was president the year Jefferson Davis (1808-89) was born, and for whom he was named. A Democrat all his life, Davis was a strong believer in States’ Rights, but fell far short of supporting “secession.” In short, he was perceived to be a moderate.
But with his West Point military education and service, his thriving Mississippi plantation, and four years as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, he was easily elected to the U.S. Senate in 1856. He arguably had the best resume of all the Democrats, and was unquestionably the political leader of the “Southern” Democrats. His mellifluous speaking voice was powerful, but always a softer voice of moderation, usually toning down the rabble-rousing “fire eaters” who came from other parts of the dissatisfied South.
Naturally Davis and Seward were acquainted, albeit political adversaries. They respected each other, but they were hardly “friends.”
Seward Befriends Davis
Jefferson Davis, well into his forties, had come late to fatherhood. His first wife had died more than twenty-five years earlier; Varina, his second wife, did not conceive until they had been married for seven years. In January, 1857 she was expecting their third child. Advised that this birth would be difficult, the doctors instructed them to summon the midwife at the earliest onset of labor.
Washington, DC was hit by a powerful snowstorm that crippled the city when Mrs. Davis began labor. Mrs. Margaretta Hetzel, her midwife, lived several blocks from the Davis house, and in the raging blizzard, could not manage the distance on foot. Senator Seward lived on the same block as the midwife, and while each knew the other by sight, they were only superficially acquainted.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Hetzel knew that Senator Seward had a horse and carriage, and knocked at his door. She explained the urgency of the situation and asked to borrow his horse and carriage. Seward refused. Instead, he insisted on driving her to the Davis house himself, which he did.
Senator Davis was deeply touched by this personal kindness, particularly since as expected, it was a very difficult birth, and Varina Davis was ill for several weeks afterwards.
Seward Continues the Friendship
A year later, Jefferson Davis became seriously ill himself with a chronic and dangerous ocular infection that is believed to have begun many year’s earlier, from a case of malaria. His physicians called it “ulcerations of the cornea” and/or “abscesses of the eye.” It made him painfully ill, and eventually blinded his left eye. Concerned that the eye might rupture, he was heavily bandaged and unable to attend Senate sessions for several weeks.
Perhaps hoping to find some common philosophical and political ground in the growing rift between North and South in 1858, or perhaps needing a balanced “sounding board,” or perhaps because he sincerely had come to like the generally remote Mississippian, Seward began visiting the Davis house after the Senate sessions to update his colleague on what had been happening, and what had been under discussion. There was a growing bond emerging between the two men perched at the top of opposite poles.
One can only wonder if and how that surprising “friendship” might have played out under different circumstances. Suppose William Seward had won the Republican nomination in 1860. He was, after all, the front runner. Suppose Jefferson Davis had not been elected President of the Confederacy. Could the two of them, acting in tandem, have been instrumental in ameliorating that “irrepressible conflict”? We shall never know.
The United States Secretary of State and the Confederate President
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States, and appointed William Seward as his Secretary of State. Jefferson Davis had already been elected temporary (and later permanent) President of the Confederate States of America.
In his new position, Davis overcame his deep regret at the rift in the country and became secession’s great champion. Despite chronic ill health, he lived to be 81, living more than fifteen years longer than Seward. After the Civil War, his fortunes plummeted on many fronts; there was no way he could repay Seward’s kindnesses.
But during the four years of Civil War, and the quarter century that he lived afterwards, Jefferson Davis never once said an unkind word about William Seward, nor would he permit anyone to criticize him in his presence. It was the least, and perhaps the only thing he could do.
Chadwick, Bruce – 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson, Robert E Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War they Failed to See – Sourcebooks, 2011
Ross, Ishbel – First Lady of the South – Harper, 1958