Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Library Corner: Seward

William H. Seward. Library of Congress
Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man
By Walter Stahr
Published in 2012
Simon and Schuster

This weekend I finally finished up Walter Stahr's richly detailed and well written biography, Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man. Clocking in at 550 pages not including notes, this book took a while, but was well worth it. The book has received some good reviews, and I found that Stahr succeeds in bringing to life the man who he believes should rank as, "other than presidents, the foremost American statesman of the nineteenth century." There's a lot of content so I won't recap it all. But I did want to highlight some of the more interesting aspects of William H. Seward that Stahr has brought to life.

Over the course of his long career, Seward earned a reputation for political cunning and calculation. The recent movie Lincoln's depiction of Seward's role in the passage of the 13th amendment has perhaps cemented this legacy. And yet, while Stahr does an excellent job of bringing this side of Seward to life, he also introduces readers to the more complex aspects of Seward's personality and political beliefs. The book describes Seward's principled stances as a defender of the disadvantaged early in his career. As Governor of New York, Seward defied the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant wing of his own party by backing state funding for schools for immigrants operated by their own clergy and taught in their native language. In 1846, Seward ignored immense political risk and accepted the case of William Freeman, a free black man who had confessed to murdering a white family of four. Prior to the murders, Freeman had recently been released from prison, where he had been beaten so severely that he had lost his hearing. Seward argued the defendant's insanity, but failed to sway the jurors. In 1850, as a new senator from New York, Seward became a leader of the antislavery movement through his fight against the Compromise of 1850 and the expansion of slavery into the western territories.

I found the discussion of Seward's relationship with his wife Frances one of the more fascinating aspects of the book. While they spent much of their lives apart - Seward in Washington and Frances in Auburn - Frances was an important confidant and counselor to her husband, and pushed him on many political issues. Frances was much more radical than her husband on the issue of slavery, and in letters often criticized the Lincoln administration's slow embrace of emancipation during the war.

The book explores in depth Seward's role during the Civil War, including his controversial efforts during the secession crisis as the only semi-official voice of the new administration in Washington at the time. The book also details Secretary Seward's largely successful efforts to manage the country's delicate foreign affairs  - keeping Europe out of the war by backing down from confrontations in some cases and pressing England and France in others. The book examines the trusting nature of Seward's close working relationship with Lincoln after a rocky start, and readers come to understand the ways in which Seward helped to shape Lincoln's emancipation policy during the war, and in developing postwar reconstruction plans.

Throughout it all, Seward emerges as a man who deeply believes in the future of American empire. In many ways Seward's Whig roots never faded. In the antebellum years Seward staunchly supported internal improvements and the organization of Westward territories. He foresaw a great nation built upon commerce, industry and free labor, and this outlook informed his stance against the expansion of slavery into the territories. As Secretary of State, these same notions of American empire led Seward to seek new territories for strategic reasons. His search for harbors and coaling stations for the U.S. Navy, and for expanded economic opportunities on the high seas, led Seward to pursue the purchase of Alaska and into efforts to secure a Caribbean harbor. Seward also unsuccessfully pushed for a canal across the Isthmus of Darien, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Indeed, Stahr paints readers a picture of a man who perhaps did more than any other American to lay the groundwork for the future of American power. In addition to his most famous achievement - the purchase of Alaska - Seward set in motion efforts that would eventually lead to the addition of Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, as well as the construction of the Panama Canal.

Seward's most controversial years were his service as Secretary of State for Andrew Johnson. During this time, Seward supported the President's unpopular reconstruction policies. While most moderate Republicans turned on Johnson for his failure to defend the rights of newly freed blacks in the South, and to utilize the army to protect them from violent attacks, Seward stayed staunchly loyal. The man whose antislavery crusading helped to build the Republican Party, and who many found too radical for the 1860 Presidential nomination, found himself supporting Democrats for election in the latter part of Johnson's administration. Never popular with Democrats, Seward found his popularity waning on both sides of the aisle by the end of his service.

I found myself wanting a bit more analysis of this period of Seward's career. Stahr does a great job explaining Seward's actions in support of Johnson, but I wanted to understand why Seward made these choices, breaking with many longtime political allies and friends in the process. Many Republicans felt as though Seward had sold out their cause. Other observers, like cabinet colleague and constant critic Gideon Welles, noted that Seward truly had no deep or durable convictions in the first place - accusing him of only being interested in power. Perhaps Seward supported Johnson in an effort to simply maintain his position as Secretary of State. And yet, that view does not mesh with Stahr's depiction of Seward's antebellum political career.

In Stahr's view, Seward's support of Johnson stemmed from a number of reasons. First, Seward believed that as Secretary of State it was his responsibility to back the President's position. Second, Seward wanted to return Confederate States to the fold as quickly as possible after the war, and believed that doing so was critical to the future success of the nation. Finally, Seward thought that the precedent of impeachment was a dangerous one, and believed that a successful impeachment of Johnson would destroy the power of the office of the President. This, Seward believed, would doom the United States to the same failures of other republican forms of government. And yet, when I finished the book I found myself still asking the question: who was William H. Seward? Was he a pragmatic statesman adept at getting things done and capable of shifting positions to maintain his power? Or was he, contrary to Gideon Welles's opinion, a man who fought for what he believed, willing to buck his own political allies if needed? I'm not sure there is a definitive answer to this. 

In the end, we must recognize the incredible influence that William H. Seward had on the future of the United States. For thirty years during the most tumultuous period in the country's history - from 1839 to 1869 - Seward remained one of the most prominent political figures of his day, and influenced the future course of the nation. With Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man, Walter Stahr has given us an important work that allows us a great deal of insight into the man and his contributions.

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