Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

11.3 Dig that Hair: Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles


Gideon Welles, hair icon

Gideon Welles, hair icon

Facial hair was evidently the thing in Civil War America.  Part of Abraham Lincoln’s iconic image was the close-cropped beard that framed his face.  Robert E. Lee sported a full beard and mustache.  Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George McClellan had beards.  And who could forget General Ambrose Burnside’s imposing sideburns?  The were enough to scare the Confederacy into submission.  (They were so fierce, in fact, that the term “sideburns” actually derives from Burnside’s name.)

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ locks were no exception.  A big, bushy white beard with a curly, girly mop: he certainly set a standard for interesting hair trends in the 19th Century.

It’s not exactly the coif you would conjure for a Secretary of the Navy, is it?  It’s a bit extreme, even for the 1800s.  Given this, it’s not surprising that Welles came to this military jurisdiction largely via a career in law, journalism and politics in Connecticut.  After founding the Hartford Times in 1826, he served in the Connecticut state legislature from 1827-1835.  A Jacksonian Democrat for most of his life, Welles shifted to the Republican party as a means of protest because of his anti-slavery views.  When he was picked by Lincoln for the Cabinet post in 1861, he had just started another newspaper in Connecticut, the Republican-leaning Hartford Evening Press, and had served as a staunch political supporter of Lincoln’s.

However misguided his hair choices may have been, the misguidedness did not spill over into his role as head of the Navy.  He found the state of the Navy department in shambles when he first assumed office, especially after the departure of Southern naval leaders to join the Confederate cause.  In 1861, the Navy had 76 ships and 7600 sailors.  By 1865, it had nearly ten times that number.  Grudgingly (because he disagreed with the decision) he used this manpower to blockade Southern ports as part of the Anaconda Plan, which ultimately helped win the war–the South was financially strangled by their inability to sell cotton or to import goods and weapons.  For this success, Lincoln dubbed Welles his “Neptune.”

Despite quite vocal disagreements with other members of the Cabinet during throughout his tenure there, Welles remained in the Naval Secretary position through Andrew Johnson’s administration, and left office in 1869.  Largely due to his disagreement with Johnson about Reconstruction policies, he reverted to his membership in the Democratic Party.  Upon leaving Washington, he returned home to Connecticut to edit his newspapers and write.  His biography, Lincoln and Seward, was published in 1877.  He died of strep throat a year later.

But however changeable his life may have been, one thing in Gideon Welles’ life remained constant: his hair.  No doubt he would have won any hair-related throwdowns among the Team of Rivals (although he did have some competition in Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, as we will see tomorrow.)  Lincoln wouldn’t have a chance.

11.2 What’s in a Name? Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase


Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury was named after a fish.

Well, I don’t know that for sure.  Maybe “Salmon” is a family name.  Or maybe the Chase clan had a little Irish in them, and were familiar with the Celtic legend of the “salmon of wisdom” and decided to make one of their young sons its namesake.  Or maybe they were inspired by the story of Sacagawea, and named the wee baby Chase after her birthplace, Salmon, Idaho.  Or maybe they just loved their Omega 3s.

There is also the outside possibility that they considered “Salmon” in its definition as the Anglo-Saxon derivation of “son of Solomon,” and being a religious family, named him accordingly.  After all, King Solomon was rich, married and/or bedded lots of Biblical era chicks, and had some of the most interesting verses in the Bible dedicated to him–the Song of Songs.  (Been to a Catholic wedding in the U.S. in the past few years?  Ever heard a reading that includes  “my love is like a gazelle or a young stag…”–the one that isn’t 1 Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind”?  Yup, that’s the Song of Songs.)

Believe it or not, any of the above could be true, because Salmon Chase was born in New Hampshire, and you never know what folks from New Hampshire are capable of.  All of that “live free or die” craziness.  (That’s why Massachusetts folks flock there to do their tax-free shopping on the weekends, and then high-tail it home afterwards to wrap themselves in the comfort of a regular income tax.)  And there were other precedents of wacky naming practices in the Chase family; for instance, the uncle who helped to raise young Salmon, an Episcopal bishop, was named Philander Chase.  Philander.  He was a bishop.  The Chase women must have had a pretty interesting sense of humor.)

But what’s in a name, right?  (After all, we just elected a man with one of the most ethnically unusual names in modern political history.)

Chase, like Secretary of State William Seward, was also much more qualified for the office of President than Lincoln.  He had served as U.S. Senator from Ohio for a term from 1849-1855 before assuming the governorship of Ohio from 1856-1860; at which time he sought the Republican Party’s nomination for President.  By then, Chase had developed quite a name for himself not only as a voice against slavery, but also as an abolitionist.  He was even more famous than Seward for his defense of fugitive slaves; in fact, he took one of his cases all the way to the Supreme Court, in the famous Jones v. Van Zandt.  (The case involved a Kentucky slaveowner–Jones–who sued abolitionist/Underground Railroad conductor Van Zandt for monetary damages after Van Zandt was caught helping several of Jones’s slaves escape.  Chase represented the abolitionist, and lost in a unanimous 9-0 decision.)


Chase's image adorns the $10,000 bill

Chase's image adorns the $10,000 bill, discontinued since 1945

As Secretary of the Treasury, Chase wielded a fair amount of power during the Civil War era.  He oversaw the war coffers, which were incredibly stretched during that time, leading him to create government bonds to finance it.  He also instituted the national banking system, as well as introduced the first national paper currency to the U.S. (prior to this, paper currency was non-standard and issued by individual states.)  Not surprisingly, the ever-ambitious Chase, who also had to design the paper currency once it was created, put his own image on the notes.  (Maybe they should have called him humility.)  Constantly attempting to gain leverage over Lincoln, Chase threatened to/attempted to resign from his Cabinet post 3 times; on each occasion Lincoln, in an effort to appease Chase, asked him to stay so there might be stability in government leadership during wartime.

In 1865, Chase’s 4th resignation was accepted by Lincoln.  (Which apparently took Chase by surprise.)  In order to appease high-ranked Chase supporters in the Republican party (as well as, perhaps, to keep Chase from challenging him for reelection), Lincoln nominated Chase for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1864.  He held the post from 1864 until his death in 1873; ever convinced of his own readiness for high political office, however, Chase did pursue the potential for a Democratic nomination for President in 1868, but it didn’t come to fruition.  As Chief Justice, he presided over Andrew Johnson’s impeachment proceedings, and appointed the first African-American lawyer to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

Although Chase has largely been forgotten in modern America, his legacy lives on in a few interesting ways.  First, although it has no relation to the man himself, Chase Manhattan Bank was named for him.  Also, his was the first and only image to appear on the $10,000 bill, the last of which was printed in 1945.  (Making him one of the elite club of non-Presidents to grace the face of U.S. paper money–others include Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.)

11.1 Secretary of State William Seward, the Hillary Clinton of His Time


The Hillary Clinton of his day, William Seward

The Hillary Clinton of his day, William Seward

It could be said that William Seward should have been our 16th President of the United States, instead of Abraham Lincoln.

It could also be said that he was the Hillary Clinton of his day;  here’s why.

Seward, a prominent member of the Whig party before it dissolved, and one of the stars of the Republican Party when it was first formed in 1854, was actually the popular frontrunner for his party’s nomination in 1860 (sound familiar?)  But on the advice of his friend and political advisor Thurlow Weed, overly confident about his future, and cautious about making any controversial statements before the nomination process, Seward left the country for an 8 month tour of Europe instead.  He returned shortly before the vote to find that a relative (and very underestimated) newcomer to the national political scene, Abraham Lincoln, had been campaigning vigorously during his absence, lining up support within the party’s leadership.  Despite the fact that he had been a heavy favorite for the Republican title, Seward lost the nomination.

Seward had many more credentials for the Presidency than Lincoln.  In 1860, he was a second term Senator from the state of New York, and had also served two 2-year terms as Governor of the state.  Known for his fierce resistance to slavery, he opposed the Compromise of 1850 (which defined certain territories such as California and Texas as being either “free” states or slavery states), as well as the Fugitive Slave Law, which required citizens of free states to return runaway slaves to their owners.

A lawyer by profession, Seward defended a number of fugitive slaves in court to gain them safe haven in free states.  In the 1846, he also gained fame for his defense of two prominent murder suspects in New York.  The first, a white man, was accused of killing a cellmate in prison; the second, a black man, was accused of breaking into a home and killing 4 people there.  Seward, well aware that both defendants suffered from mental illness and abuse, was one of the first lawyers in the country to employ the insanity defense.  Not surprisingly, he was a firm believer in prison reform and in better care standards for the insane.

When he lost his party’s nomination in 1860, he fell in with the party line and became a supporter of Lincoln, going so far as to campaign for his rival (again, the echoes of Clinton are clear.)  Once Lincoln was elected, he appointed Seward as his Secretary of State, in which Seward served from 1861-1869 (he continued in the role after Lincoln’s assassination and during Andrew Johnson’s Presidency.)

The office that Clinton is inheriting is, of course, in some ways vastly more complex than the one that Seward did.  There were not the pervasive external threats–in the form of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism–to American security in Seward’s time that there are now.  However, Seward’s challenges were formidable;  we were embroiled in a costly and vicious Civil War that required delicate diplomacy with countries such as Great Britain, who had a separate relationship with Confederate leaders.  Seward’s legacy also includes his dedication to westward expansion–he was keen on extending the United States’ sphere of influence into the Pacific, and it was under his leadership in 1867 that the United States purchased the vast wilderness that was the Alaska territory (afterwards known as “Sewards Folly.”  And just think:  they didn’t even know about Sarah Palin yet.)

Many people may have forgotten that the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Seward was also targeted.  John Wilkes Booth’s associate Lewis Powell broke into Seward’s home on that tragic night (April 14, 1865), where he attacked two of Seward’s sons before stabbing Seward multiple times in the face and neck.  Seward survived, but his wife died two months later from shock; a year later, Seward’s daughter died of tuberculosis.

He spent his years after office traveling the world, and died at his home in Auburn, New York in 1872.  His last message to his children was reported to have been “love one another,” fitting words for a man who had seen the ravages of war tear his country apart.

It’s also a fitting message for our new Secretary of State, as she begins her very critical work around the world.

Author’s Comment: Congratulations, President Obama
January 20, 2009, 9:55 pm
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225px-official_portrait_of_barack_obamaThe dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

 Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862  (Message to Congress)


Congratulations, Mr. President.  After months of waiting, it’s finally time to begin.

Author’s Comment: Scratch That, Blame Britain Instead
January 19, 2009, 5:15 pm
Filed under: Author's comments

about_britain_big111You know, I was thinking about it, and Ireland wouldn’t have nearly as complicated a history if it wasn’t for Britain.  Britain–well, England at the time–was like an historical Ike to Ireland’s Tina Turner.  

Yeah.  That bad.

So please forgive me, my British family and friends, J.K. Rowling, Richard Armitage, Jane Austen, Judi Dench, Cadbury’s chocolate, Maggie Smith, Stephen Fry, Underground lady who says “mind the gap,” David Tennant, James May, MiniCooper, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Shakespeare, guy who invented the Dyson vacuum cleaner (oh, Dyson, I guess), Gordon Ramsay, Ricky Gervais, Coldplay, JRR Tolkien, and the legions of other British people and institutions I love and admire.  I think Britain has to take the hit on this one.

So Britain:  you screwed up.  Maybe it’s time for a little payback.  You ruled Ireland with an Iron Fist for a few centuries, and messed them up pretty good–how about we send you a certain unemployed leader called George W. Bush to take the helm for a while?  Let’s say, 8 years?  And then we’ll call it quits.  I think that’s payback enough.

He may want to wear a crown, but you won’t have to change your Constitutional Monarchy for that–just let him wear it.  And you will have to endure his attempt to mock an English accent (you can always get him a West Country dialect coach.)

Oh, and if you want to keep him quiet, just try to find some brush for him to clear.  He likes clearing brush.

Author’s Comment: Blame Ireland
January 19, 2009, 5:00 pm
Filed under: Author's comments

200px-ireland-capitalsOK, folks.  So my post for today will most likely come…very late tomorrow.  Because I have this paper due within the next 24 hours on the rise of print culture in Ireland, and it’s long, and I am trying to sprint to the finish so I can at least enjoy some of the inauguration festivities on television.

So blame Ireland.  If it didn’t have such a complicated history, I would be done with the paper by now.  And you would have been enjoying the brilliance of my post while sipping a very nice Pinot Noir,  nibbling a homemade chocolate chip cookie from your Obama Inaugural Commemorative plate, and savoring this brief shining moment of national optimism before we get flushed down the economic toilet.

Week 11: Lincoln’s Team of Rivals


Lincoln and his Team of Rivals

Lincoln and his Team of Rivals

In celebration of the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States, I’ll be doing two weeks of back-to-back political posts profiling both of the “teams of rivals” we’ve heard so much about for months now.  First, this week, I’ll be looking at the rivals on President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet–their personal and political backgrounds, the roles they served in, and their contributions to the country.  Think of it as the equivalent of Lincolnish “CliffsNotes” (to steal a term from Stephen Colbert) for those of you who haven’t read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals yet (which I highly recommend, by the way.)  These were a fascinating group of people brought together by an extraordinary President at an extraordinary time, and their stories are well worth revisiting.

And next week, we’ll take a look at some of the rivals on Obama’s cabinet–particularly those who are lesser known–and explore their backgrounds and some of the challenges they face in the coming weeks and months (not least, for some of them, simply getting through the confirmation process.)

So, after several weeks of fooling around with claymation characters, movie clips, and pooping logs over the holidays, entertaining visions of my fictional selves during the New Year, and taking a week off while my husband introduced you to the cosmos last week, I’m back where I’m most comfortable–my political stomping grounds.  That’s right, folks, it’s time for a little bit of gravitas, blogga-style.  (That means I talk about serious things while wearing sweatpants.)