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For Corresponding Secretary.
For Members at Large of the Council.
Dr. Green having been elected to two offices, Mr. Melville M. Bigelow was, on motion of Mr. Livermore, elected an additional member of the Council, in order that that body should be composed of thirteen individual members.
Mr. ALBERT B. HART called attention to the fact that Mr. Charles C. Smith had declined a re-election as Treasurer after a faithful service of thirty years in that office, and spoke of the great obligation of the Society to Mr. Smith for his devotion to its interests and for his promotion of those interests in many ways. On motion of Mr. Hart, soconded by Mr. William R. Thayer, the President was requested to prepare a minute, to be presented at the next meeting, expressive of the indebtedness of the Society to Mr. Smith, and its gratitude toward him.
Hon. John D. LONG read the following paper, which elicited interesting recollections and remarks from the PRESIDENT, and Messrs. MELVILLE M. BIGELOW, WILLIAM R. THAYER, WILLIAM W. GOODWIN, HENRY W. HAYNES, and A. B. HART.
ON A REFERENCE TO W. H. SEWARD IN CARL Schurz's
REMINISCENCES. I suppose nothing is more generally recognized, not by the large body of the unthinking, but by those who have given the matter consideration, than the worthlessness of the details of much historical or biographical statement — especially so far as these are applied to the estimate of personal character and motive. It is not within human ability to state the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, except in cases so exceptionally rare, and limited to such an immediate and circumscribed circle that they only prove the rule. It is for this reason that the law, which in its system is the highest mark of common sense, excludes hearsay testimony and also oral evidence when written can be had; that it hears both sides and abhors an ex parte statement; and that till recent years it excluded the testimony of any witness having an interest, however small, in the issue in hand, and now permits this only on the ground, which is a very shaky one, that court and jury can make proper discount for human bias and selfishness. For this reason also the law requires that every witness be subject to the most searching cross-examination, without which I doubt whether, under her searching questioning, any member even of this eminent body is believed by his wife or whether he accepts any statement made by a member of his own family. And even with all these safeguards the verdict verum dictum — of a legal tribunal often belies its name and does not always tell the truth.
And yet the moment we pass out of the court of law and enter the unrestricted public domain of free and unquestioned speech, we accept what we hear said or read written, often as if it were gospel truth. Every day every public man is likely to find a statement about himself in the daily newspaper, nothing more it may be than where he missed a railroad train or ate his lunch, and of course he invariably finds it incorrect. And yet the same man accepts any newspaper item about other people as something to be relied on. And these items become, to some extent, the staple of biography and history, and to a still greater extent the coloring of the pictures of the men whose history or biography is told.
Nobody to-day knows what were the facts about the attitude of Fitz-John Porter toward his commander-in-chief, General Pope, and in the nebulous mass of statement and gossip and interested assertion in which the truth is now left, it never can be ascertained. Who was right about the Confederate charge at Gettysburg, Lee or Longstreet ? Nobody will ever know, just as nobody will ever know the truth about Judas Iscariot. The narratives of Herodotus or Livy or Cæsar furnish no trustworthy evidence on which the motive or conduct of Greek or Persian, Roman or Gaul, can be justly judged. Cicero's word is only that of a partisan advocate. Even our Mr. Rhodes, a very truth-seeker and the fairest-intentioned of recent historians, writes like a lawyer arguing for a defendant when he discusses his old neighbor Garfield's connection with the Credit Mobilier investigation. Cromwell and Napoleon are each any number of creatures, devils or gods, according to the angle at which this or that critic has happened to adjust the camera in which he took their photographs.
No man can clarify his writing so entirely from his own mental phases that they will not tinge the stream of his statement. There has never yet therefore been such a statement so limpid that the eye could see through it, as through a glass absolutely transparent, to the pebbles of fact at the bottom, revealing them unrefracted and in their exact dimensions, proportions, and relations. So much is always the phraseology affected by the personality of the writer with reference, not only to the verbal form but to the subject matter treatment, that we say it is “ his style.” Read a page without giving the name of the author, and the scholarly listener will say at once, Why, that is Macaulay, Carlisle, or John C. Ropes, or Charles Francis Adams, or, peradventure, Theodore Roosevelt.
Then, too, there is always the fatal desire to be interesting, -a desire which sometimes snatches at gossip just as bias snatches at a straw.
In short, statements of historical facts are to be taken with a grain of salt, too many with the largest dose, and the personages of history are in too large part the misty figures of exaggeration or depreciation or gossip. We indulge in the pleasing fallacy, which we so often hear expressed, that true history can only be written after a lapse of years. Really that is only another way of saying that a century or two will swallow into oblivion most of the fables, and that those which are toughest and therefore survive will be adopted as the truth.
But I was not intending to enlarge on this familiar line. My purpose is rather to refer to an instance of its working which occurred to me, not as a special admirer of Mr. Seward, but as a reader of contemporaneous magazine literature. I refer to that chapter in Carl Schurz's autobiographical reminiscences in which he refers to Mr. Seward. Very handsomely Schurz, narrating that Mr. Seward objected to giving Schurz the mission to Spain notwithstanding the latter's splendid services during the Lincoln electoral campaign, says that Mr. Seward was right in his view in this respect, and that on good diplomatic grounds it was not wise to send to one European court a man who had just escaped from the penalties of insurgency and rebellion against another. But, on the other hand, and upon the same page, rather pettishly and unfairly I think, Mr. Schurz repeats at length and makes it forever a reflection upon Mr. Seward, an undoubtedly unjust fling, charging the latter not only with self-conceit, but with petulant contempt of President Lincoln. It seems that Lincoln insisted upon Schurz's appointment, and the statement of Schurz to which I refer is as follows:
“When Mr. Lincoln took so peremptory a stand, Mr. Seward at last yielded, but not with good grace. Indeed the matter gave him occasion for a singular display of temper. One day Mr. Potter, accompanied by another Republican member of Congress from Wisconsin (where Mr. Schurz was then living), discussed the subject with Mr. Seward in his office at the State Department, and incidentally [note the word “incidentally," when of course the evident object of their interview was to press this candidacy] remarked that the failure to bestow such a distinction upon me would be a severe disappointment to a good many people. [It is interesting to note here that Mr. Schurz falls into the usual self-complacency of saying other people and not himself. The best of us when looking for an office always use the formula that it is our “friends” who insist on our candidacy and who will be unhappy if it is unsuccessful.] At this Mr. Seward jumped up from his chair, paced the floor excitedly, and exclaimed, “Disappointment! You speak to me of disappointment! To me who was justly entitled to the Republican nomination for the presidency and who had to stand aside and see it given to a little Illinois lawyer! You speak to me of disappointment!'”
In the first place is the improbability that Mr. Seward, who was not a fool, who had just come into Lincoln's Cabinet, and who knew that his success there must largely depend upon his good relation with his chief, would, in the presence of two Western members of Congress, make a stinging personal attack on Lincoln, knowing that it would be repeated to Schurz and to everybody else, after the manner of men who all dearly love to circulate an ill-natured remark.
In the next place the thing is hearsay, and hearsay in the third degree. Schurz reports what he heard Potter say that Potter had heard Seward say. It is not pretended that any one of the parties wrote then and there what he heard. It is an attempt some time afterwards to put in writing what had been oral badinage and sword play between an office-seeker and an office-distributer. Indeed I think it does not appear to have ever been put in writing prior to the writing of Mr. Schurz's Reminiscences, -almost half a century later. Then, too, the truth of a conversation is not more in its words than in the manner and tone and facial expression and gesticulation of the speaker. The word “indeed " can be pronounced in four or five different ways, like the Japanese “yen,” so as to convey four or five meanings, some of them exactly contrary one to another. It can mean assent; it can mean dissent.
Such testimony would not be taken in the lowest court of law in the pettiest case or to determine a question of property to the extent of a dollar and a half, and yet it will go into future history to affect and impair the character and reputation for all time of a distinguished American statesman.
Then, too, Seward's words are put into the oratio directa form, which is always suspicious. He is quoted verbatim, word for word. But it is rare that any one man can, with exactness, state even the substance of the statement of another or reproduce the gesture, look, and manner which accompanied it and are a part of it.
Still more true it is that no man can repeat the exact words of another, spoken only once and in hasty conversation, and not listened to with a view of memorizing them, if they exceed a dozen words. For instance, no person here listening to me can now, after a lapse of the five or six minutes since I began, repeat verbatim the first fortyfive words I spoke in opening this paper, even if at that time he attempted to memorize them. Or even the last forty-five words I have just uttered. I say forty-five words, because that is the number in the quotation from Mr. Schurz to which I am referring. I do not believe that any one here can repeat the forty-five words of that quotation, although I have just called special attention to them and all of you probably recently read them in the magazine.
The language imputed to Seward, even if correct, as of course it is not, is under the circumstances more consistent