Saturday, October 13, 2012

Politician and statesman

Seward, Lincoln's Indispensable Man, Walter Stahr

Half-way through a review of this book in The New Yorker, I went looking for a copy.  William Henry Seward was the most prominent and influential Republican in the United States in the 1850s, a former governor and now a senator from New York, and many expected him to easily win the nomination and then the presidency in 1860.  In a stunning upset, the national convention in Chicago nominated Abraham Lincoln instead, an Illinois lawyer still unknown to many Americans.  Seward overcame his natural chagrin and disappointment, and he went on to campaign vigorously for Lincoln, helping to ensure his election.  He accepted an appointment to the new president's cabinet as Secretary of State, where he would play a crucial role throughout the Civil War and into the administration of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson.

Seward's role in the Civil War and Reconstruction is second only to Lincoln's, and he has a conspicuous part in most histories of the war and in Lincoln biographies.  I learned something of his life from Doris Kearns Goodwin's account of Lincoln's fractured and fractious cabinet, Team of Rivals, but there he is part of a group portrait.  Seward of course had a prominent place in Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, about Anglo-American relations in the Civil War, and also in the diaries of George Templeton Strong, a fellow New Yorker who considered "Billy Seward" the consummate politician (if not always the most honest).  I thought it would be interesting to focus on this brilliant if divisive figure, and to see the events of the antebellum period, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through his life and work.

Walter Stahr has written a marvelous biography that brings this complicated character to life, one I fully expect to see on the prize lists next year.  This is an account not just of the man but also of his times, the years between his birth in 1801, in the early days of the Republic, and his death in 1872.  Seward was born in a small town 60 miles from New York City.  His parents owned slaves, which came as a surprise to me - a good reminder of America's complicated racial history.  The slaves were apparently not treated harshly, and the children even attended the village school.  Stahr does not mention what happened to the slaves; did the family free them before 1827, when by law most slaves in the state were emancipated?  Seward was never an abolitionist, unlike his wife Frances, though he thought slavery wrong and their house was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  He believed that each state must deal with slavery in its own way, as New York had done, but throughout his political life he staunchly opposed the expansion of slavery into the unsettled areas of the United States.  Their differences over slavery complicated the Sewards' marriage, as did Frances' health.  She spent much of their married life at their home in Auburn, while his career took him away from home for months at a time.

Seward was one of five children, the middle child, and the only one to attend college.  After graduation, he became a lawyer, developing an expertise in patent law that brought him cases across the United States, and convinced him of the importance of American industry.  But his real vocation would be politics.  He first joined the anti-Mason party in New York, which gathered strength in the 1820s (I had no idea this was such a force in American politics).  There he met Thurlow Weed, who would become his manager, his confidant, and some said his devil's familiar and his bagman.  Stahr suggests that in the rough and tumble of 19th century politics, Weed did the dirty work, including bribery at times, giving Seward deniability and at least nominally clean hands.  With Weed's help, Seward was first elected to the state senate, and then to the governorship of New York when he was only 37.

It is no exaggeration to say that Seward's four years as governor shaped his political future, in ways that he could not have anticipated.  Believing he was of Irish descent, though this was apparently family lore rather than fact, Seward welcomed immigrants to the United States, seeing them as crucial to the country's future growth and development.  He opposed attempts to deny voting rights to immigrants.  Even more controversially, he also supported separate schools for Catholics, many of them Irish immigrants, when public schools were dominated by Protestants who tried to evangelize the Catholic children.  This brought him into conflict with the nativist movement, whose strong anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fervor coalesced into the American Party.  One reason that Seward lost the 1860 presidential nomination was lingering resentment, years later, over his pro-immigrant policies, which he continued in the U.S. Senate and as Secretary of State.

Elected to the Senate in 1848, Seward became the leader of the movement to restrict slavery to the states where it already existed, first as a Whig and later as a member of the new Republican party.  He was already seen as a dangerous radical even before his famous 1858 speech, which declared an "irrepressible conflict" between slavery and freedom, which must end in the country becoming "entirely either a slave-holding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation."  Seward was forever after associated with that phrase, which with his reputation as a radical were also factors in 1860. Though Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery, and had made similar statements about the conflicts between slavery and freedom, Seward's prominence cost him.

As the most prominent Republican in the country, one with far more experience than the newly-elected president, Seward thought that he would be the power in the Lincoln administration.  He soon realized his mistake, as well as the high qualities that the unknown Lincoln brought to his office, and the two would work together closely throughout the war.  Many feared Seward's influence over Lincoln, and there were constant efforts to force Lincoln to remove him from office, which Lincoln neatly countered.  This was a familiar story to me.  What I did not know was the role that Seward played in Andrew Johnson's administration, when he became president following Lincoln's assassination.  In both administrations, Seward's focus was on bringing the southern states back into the Union as quickly as possible.  Like Lincoln, he was willing to let the states themselves deal with the newly-freed slaves.  As long as the former Confederates accepted the emancipation of the slaves, they could even impose "black laws" that restricted where African Americans could live or what jobs they could hold (northern states had similar laws).  Many Republicans in Congress believed it was the federal government's responsibility to assist and protect the freed people, and they instead wanted the rights of former rebels and slave owners restricted.  Seward supported Johnson in his conflicts with Republicans over Reconstruction, even as the House moved to impeach the president.  He seems to have been as indispensable to Johnson as to Lincoln.  For this, Seward was accused to betraying his party, his country, and the freed people for whom so many Union soldiers and Lincoln himself had died, but he remained firm in his priority: restoring the Union.

As Secretary of State, Seward also worked to expand America's territory, laying the foundation for what would later be called the "American Empire."  He is best remembered of course for the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1868 (later derided as "Seward's Folly").  He was one of the most active Secretaries in American history, signing treaties to encourage trade and immigration with Japan and China, negotiating for naval bases in the Caribbean, and working to build a canal across Panama, then part of Colombia.  For his diplomatic work, his support of immigration and industry, and his role in the Senate and the Cabinet, Stahr argues that while William Henry Seward "was far from perfect, his talents and accomplishments" make him "other than presidents . . . the foremost American statesman of the nineteenth century."  This wonderful biography, thoroughly researched and very well-written, makes a compelling case.  It also succeeds in what Paul Murray Kendall defines as the mission of biography: "to elicit, from the coldness of paper, the warmth of a life being lived."


  1. Seward is a fascinating historical figure! His home/museum is well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in the area.

  2. JoAnn, it's now on my list of places to visit - especially since it's not too far from Seneca Falls. and you're right, Seward is fascinating!

  3. What a remarkable man! It is amazing how much he accomplished in his lifetime. I remember reading about him in Team of Rivals, but there are so many men talked about that he didn't stand out for me there. I love hearing more about the people who helped shape our nation.

  4. I didn't remember anything really about his early life from Team of Rivals - which is an amazing book. I really appreciated learning more about his life before the war, and then after. And he should definitely be honored for all he did for the country.

  5. I stopped reading your review halfway through to see if the book has come to our library yet. No, but it probably will. This sounds just great.

  6. Oh, I hope so, Fay - it's excellent. And it gave me a different perspective, since my reading tends to be rather Lincoln-centric.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!