al_zorra (al_zorra) wrote,

History To Warm the Bones In the Cold and Gloom

The Weather They Sayers tell us though we're cold and dark now, very soon it shall be colder and darker, and maybe snowflakes. And I'm sick, which is not helping. That I spent 3 hours walking around with a friend in the wind and the cold yesterday probably did this to me. But I was enjoying being with her so much and walking around, I didn't even notice.  Last night I couldn't sleep for chills and sneezing and coughing, and my skin feeling too small. Thus it is great that el V's away because he wouldn't be able to sleep either, with all my tossing, turning, coughing, sneezing etc. Hopefully by tomorrow night when he gets back the worst of the symptoms will have abated.

In the meantime I've been reading in William Henry Seward's life and papers. There's an additional benefit to digging into Seward, which is learning more about the intricacies of New York state politics.  Seward was a politician from his very early 20's so this covers a lot of decades, including those decades of one odd political party after another sprouting to then disappear: Anti-Masons, Know Nothings -- o there were so many, and for every one of them,  New York state threw up voters who liked them.  Then, as now, New York state was a crazy quilt of competing regions with their own interests and objectives.  So yes, Seward, with the never-to-be-underestimated tutelage and sponsorship of Thurlow Weed, who, unlike Seward, was born impoverished and really did rise by his own efforts to dominate the New York political system.


Seward's other fascination is how he grows politically and socially throughout his career.  This is what strikes me about so many of the figures from what we can loosely call the North, who began taking our national center stage in the later 1840's and in 1850. They evolve. 


Francis Adeline Miller Seward
Her father, Judge Elijah Miller, gave Seward permission to marry his daughter on the condition they live with him and his wife in their Auburn, New York mansion, amply staffed with servants

They are generally very close to their wives. They constantly talk to their wives and, when separated, write to their wives. The content of their conversations and letters go far beyond domestic matters.  They discuss deeply with their wives politics, issues, ways and means.  Often it is their wives' influence that convince these men who are very effective at creating political careers for themselves* that slavery is even more a moral issue than a political one of representation in the House and Senate and control of the White House. Many of them, like Seward, are not only anti-slavery, but they are early supporters of women's rights and particularly the right of women to vote.


You do not see any of this among southern politicians, even those whose wives are politically ambitious on behalf of their husbands, and very loyal, like Varina Davis. Jefferson Davis, though he wrote to her, their matters of discussion were almost entirely domestic.  In other matters, there was no discussion at all. Jefferson Davis would would announce he was going to be away for a year in service of his career, and she was to take care of the plantation -- under the supervision of his brother. Then they would fight about it all year because Varina hated him being away and she and her brother-in-law were rivals for Jefferson's attention.** Sometimes Jefferson would just stop writing to her, or she to him, or both to each other.  The early years of their marriage were rocky, followed by other, shorter rocky periods -- and became so again for a while, late in life when Sarah Ellis Dorsey, a wealthy, and beautiful widow became his patron, willing him outright her Biloxi plantation, Beauvoir -- much to the disquiet of her relatives.



I've also been reading William Dalrymple's latest book, Return Of A King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839 - 42 (2013).  It's a cognitive exercise to wrench one's mind from the 1840's of the United States to the 1840's of the British Empire in India, Afghanistan and surrounding region. -- when the Great Game gets going, at least according to Peter Hopkirk.  Others have come around to thinking in terms of "the Great Game" is more useful to fiction than it is to historians.  Dalrymple isn't much interested in the concept as a concept.  He's interested in the failure of the East India Company and how it pulled British military and political failures in the region along with its own financial and administrative failures. This one does not have the snap and sizzle, the page-turning impetus, as his previous books, 



particularly his splendid The White Mughals (2002).


When I finish with Seward I'm going to move on to a biography of Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time (1997) who is a less likable figure than Seward.  However, the biography's author is the great Robert Remini, who owns the Jacksonian era.  As the scope of what he knows is so vast by the time he got around to writing separate works on John Q. Adams, Webster and Clay, he is relaxed and sometime is very funny  -- on purpose, so I'm looking forward to that. 


These are what help me forget how very very very very rotten I feel.


*   Seward served variously as Senator in the New York legislature, Governor of New York, United States Senator from New York, and United States Secretary of State.


** The Polks (Tennessee and Mississippi) are an exception. They were a very close couple, who equally loved slavery and despised slaves, and were united in their ambition to get rich via slavery.  But they had no children, and maybe never even had sex due to an operation for urinary stones Polk suffered when very young, that seems to have left him both sterile and impotent -- or so his biographers seem to mostly agree.

Tags: nyc, politika, u.s. history, women
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