Stahr‘s extensively researched biography is also a sweeping history of the years before and after the Civil War. It could not be otherwise. William Henry Seward helped shape, not only those tumultuous years, but also our own time.
Seward’s interest in politics began during his college years and gave direction to his ambition. He became a lawyer, but found it a dull career and ran for the New York state Senate.
State Senator Seward opposed efforts by the Democrat majority to whitewash President Andrew Jackson’s dismantling of the Second Bank of the United States. Seward argued that Jackson has acted “unwisely, illegally, and indeed unconstitutionally.” He said that Jackson was behaving “not like a president, limited by federal statutes, but instead as if he were dictator or emperor.”
Governor Seward championed universal public education and literacy. He condemned immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudice despite the contrary views of many within his own party. Seward also legitimized concerns about slavery and the treatment of former slaves. The later two positions would work against him when he later sought nomination for the presidency.
As a U.S. Senator, Seward opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which led to the formation of the Republican Party and Seward’s dominant position within it. Seward’s speech in opposition to the bill was widely distributed and quoted in newspapers. After the bill passed, he argued that freedom and slavery are irreconcilable. ”’Freedom would triumph,’ he predicted, ‘in a constitutional way, without any violent shock to society, or to any one of its great interests.’”
Although he is often called an abolitionist, he was not one: he did not share the intense moral outrage of the abolitionists, nor did he advocate an immediate end to slavery. Rather, Seward believed that slavery should gradually disappear through the actions of slaveholders and southern state legislatures, a more practical approach than those of either northern abolitionists or the southern extremists. He also believed, right up to the eve of the Civil War, that there would be no war over slavery. He was wrong in that belief, and wrong in his prediction that slavery would end peacefully, but he nevertheless deserves credit for building a national consensus in favor of limiting and ending slavery.
As the candidate most firmly on the record about Kansas, he thought he had a good chance to secure the Republican nomination for president in 1856. He was wrong. John Fremont got the nomination largely because Seward’s political mentor, the controversial Thurlow Weed, withdrew his support. Weed “did not think anybody could be elected, and that it was better that Fremont should be sacrificed than Seward.” Ever the astute political maven, Weed’s assessment was correct. By October of 1856, it was clear that Democrat James Buchanan would be president.
Seward was temporarily angered by what he perceived as Weed’s betrayal, but he was not discouraged. He knew he was favored to win the Republican nomination for president in 1860. However, John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry changed the political landscape. Seward’s enemies claimed his anti-slavery speeches instigated the attack. Stahr lists the reasons the nomination went to Lincoln. More important for obtaining Seward’s measure is his behavior afterword. Seward publicly endorsed Lincoln and campaigned vigorously for him.
Seward traveled thousands of miles and gave dozens of speeches. He campaigned for Lincoln in fifteen different states and territories, and Lincoln carried them all except Missouri.
Stahr’s admiration for his subject is evident, but his book is no hagiography. Seward presents the biographer with a kaleidoscope of character traits, all of them colorful, but not all laudable. Seward was often duplicitous in behalf of the men and the causes he championed (according to his many enemies), or flexible (as his friends preferred to say). On occasion, his conviviality and bonhomie masked a manipulative cunning. Stahr does not shy from discussing Seward’s less admirable traits. In Chapter 9 he discusses Seward’s behavior during the four months of secession winter.
Henry Adams, who observed Seward at firsthand, and who coined the term ‘secession winter,’ praised him to the skies. The senator was cheerful where everyone else was in despair; cool and steady when everyone else was panic struck; clear sighted where other men were blind.” He avoided “harsh contact with all men, and steer(ed) with a firm and steady grasp between his friends who were ready to denounce him and his enemies who were eager to destroy him.
Adams did not note, but he should have, that Seward was also at times during that winter arrogant, boastful, evasive, inconsistent, even dishonest. He talked about compromise with the moderates and depreciated compromise with the hard-liners.
Seward believed that if the Border States could be persuaded to stay in the Union, the secessionists would realize the futility of their cause and the union would be preserved. But despite his best efforts the secessionists prevail and, in the words of historian William J. Cooper, We Have The War Upon Us. (reviewed here). In Cooper’s assessment, “if anyone emerges a hero from these cataclysmic months it is Seward, consummate politician, statesman and patriot who risked reputation and position to try to hold the Union together.”
It was that determination that prompted Seward to accept, albeit somewhat reluctantly, the post of secretary of state in Lincoln’s Cabinet. For this reviewer, the relationship between Lincoln and Seward is the most fascinating part of this very absorbing book. The beginning of their relationship was not auspicious. Seward wrote a memo to Lincoln in which he arrogantly suggested that he, Seward, should run the country. Lincoln responded in person, politely but firmly pointing out that he was president.
Lincoln’s forbearance reveals his greatness and magnanimity. He did not allow Seward’s lapse of judgment to stand in the way of a productive working relationship or the deep friendship that grew out of their association. Lincoln enjoyed Seward’s seemingly endless supply of entertaining stories and his irreverent sense of humor. Characteristics the two men shared along with determination to preserve the union.
As for Seward, he soon amended his original derisive view of Lincoln. As described by Charles Francis Adams Jr. …
He thought Lincoln a clown, a clod, and planned to steer him by indirection, subtle maneuvering, astute wriggling and plotting, crooked paths. He would be Prime Minister; he would seize the reins from a nerveless President; and keep Lincoln separated from other Cabinet officers.
It did not take long for Seward to acknowledge his error. Describing Lincoln he said: “Executive skill and vigor are rare qualities. The President is the best of us.”
Seward was the indispensable man of the Lincoln administration: the man who managed to keep the European nations out of the American Civil War; the man who avoided war with Britain during the Trent crisis; the man who advised Lincoln on every aspect of foreign and domestics policy; the man who somehow kept his sense of humor and hope through the darkest days.
That reality was not lost on John Wilkes. It was why the assassin and his colleagues set out to kill them both.
Fortunately for Seward and the nation, he survived and continued as secretary of state under Lincoln’s controversial successor, President Andrew Johnson. Unlike Lincoln, the bull-headed and intellectually limited Johnson ignored much of Seward’s advice, to his own and the nation’s detriment. Johnson’s legacy is that he is remembered as America’s worst president, at least until now.
Stahr calls Seward America’s greatest secretary of state, after John Quincy Adams, author of the Monroe Doctrine. Seward not only arranged to buy Alaska for $7.2m in gold, he also began planning for the acquisition of Hawaii and the construction of the Panama Canal. It is worth noting, as Stahr does that, “men whom he trained or influenced, such as John Hay, would complete the process.”
A catalog of Seward’s contributions would also have to include federal support for a transatlantic telegraph cable; early advocacy of the “speediest possible construction” of a transcontinental railroad; acquisition of dozens of islands in the Caribbean and Pacific; among them Johnson and Midway, important military bases in WWII.
Stahr’s challenge in writing Seward’s biography was not a paucity of information but a surfeit of it. Footnotes consume 10 pages at the end of the book, not counting the index and acknowledgements. And Stahr goes beyond the public Seward to the private one: his life with his much loved children and his ailing, abolitionist wife, a friend to the radical abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner.
This book belongs in the library of anyone seriously interested in American history in general, and the Civil War period in particular. Walter Stahr is both an astute biographer and a gifted writer. It’s a cliché to say that he makes history come alive, but it is the truth.