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Wednesday
Jan232013

This Week's Trivia--A Dishevled Diplomat Abroad

Here's a real toughie, but plenty of clues will be provided because this is intended more as a mini-book review than a question.

Although James Monroe and John Quincy Adams certainly traveled abroad prior to their service as Secretary of State, which American Secretary of State goes down in history as the first to travel leave American soil in that capacity?  If you get that--and multiple choices will be offered--don't rest on your laurels.  Which President was he serving under, and where did he travel?

A--Henry Clay under John Quincy Adams

B--Daniel Webster under John Tyler

C--Hamilton Fish under Ulysses Grant

D--William Seward under Andrew Johnson

or

E--John Hay under William McKinley

Here are some hints.

The man in question was described by Charles Francis Adams Jr. (JQ's grandson) as "small, rusty, dressed in a coat and trousers apparently made twenty years ago and by a bad tailor at that."

"He was a famous host gathering diplomats, soldiers, politicians, actors, and their wives around his Washington table for fine food and wine.  But he was also very private, rarely revealing his inner views...no one could tell which was the mask and which the features."

Civil War general George McClellan said of him, "I can't ell you how disgusted I am becoming with these wretched politicians--they are the most despicable set of men and I think Seward is the meanest of them--a meddling officious, incompetent little puppy--he has done more to bring all this misery upon the country and is one of the least competent to get us out of the scrape."

If you still haven't guessed, here's a clue that will certainly give it away--although he spent four years as New York Governor and 12 years as senator from that state--he is probably most remembered for his role in the creation of another state, Alaska.

The answer and all quotes here are from an excellent new biography, perhaps the best biography I've read in years.  The words flow off the page; the man and his era come alive in equal proportions; there's so much new information you will love the book.  To name the book is to answer the question.

The author is Walter Stahr.  The book is Seward, Lincoln's Indispensable Man.  The answer, of course, is William Henry Seward who negotiated from Russia the sale of Alaska for a paltry $7.2 million (the $200,000 may have been used by a Russian diplomat to buy votes to get the transaction through Congress--remember that while the Senate ratifies treaties, the House...at least back then...had to appropriate monies).   Of yes, the place he visited was St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, then controlled by Denmark, in quest of a Caribbean port for the U.S.  Here's the passage from page 455 of Stahr's book (it's 450 pages, but they fly by):

"It was indeed the first time that an American secretary7 of state had traveled outside the United States on official business, a minor distinction which Seward was perhaps not aware."

Seward may also have been the inspiration for John F. Kennedy's "ask not" quote.  During the midst of the Civil War, Seward (quite the orator), stated, "Ask not whether the enemy is near or whether he is far off.  Ask only is there still an enemy in arms against the United States--a domestic and a foreign one--array yourselves to meet the enemy."

If there's any such thing as consensus, Seward and JQ Adams were probably the two greatest secretaries of state (until Hillary of course).  He deserves much of the credit for keeping European counties from intervening in the Civil War on the side of the South (the Trent affair). 

Oh yes, if anyone tells you Seward was born in Florida, don't argue.  He was in fact born in Florida, a New York town about 60 miles north of New York City.

Seward
 

It’s a great book!

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