By Dorothy Wickenden from The New Yorker
Senator William H. Seward’s enemies in Congress called him a villain and a traitor, but they rarely missed his parties. Invitations to his soirées—which took place several times a week in the eighteen-fifties, during Washington’s winter social season—were more coveted than those to the White House. Seward was an impresario of dinner diplomacy. He thought entertaining was indispensable to his political success, and, as of 1854, to the future of the new Republican Party. In those days of polarized politics, it was Republicans who espoused the rights of Black men, and reactionary Democrats who indignantly defended white male supremacy.
One of Seward’s regular guests was the Democratic senator Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, who described slavery in the United States as “a moral, a social, and a political blessing.” After Seward reminded colleagues that the enslaved were human beings, Davis branded him the country’s most insidious “sapper and miner” of the Constitution. Black people, he said, “are not fit to govern themselves.” Seward, who prided himself on his persuasive powers, thought little of Davis’s attacks. He serenely assumed that if politicians got along outside Congress they were more likely to overcome ideological differences.
He loosened up senators and representatives, Supreme Court Justices, prominent journalists, and foreign diplomats with rich meals and good wine, followed by after-dinner brandy and cigars. His wife, Frances A. Seward, spent much of her time in Washington drawing up guest lists and menus and shopping for provisions. She dressed formally in the morning for visiting and receiving visitors, and more so each evening, especially when Henry, as she called her husband, entertained: braided chignon, breath-constricting corset reinforced with light steel, and wide hoopskirt overlaid with a heavy gown. She glided through the rooms of Henry’s residence, exchanging pleasantries as women flicked their fans at men and appraised one another’s silks.