University of Rochester Library Bulletin: William Henry Seward

Volume VII · Autumn 1951 · Number 1
William Henry Seward

The study of American politicians of the past is one of the best ways of understanding the politics of the present. For the nature of the game has changed but little, and the same mixture of idealism and practical expediency prevails in the maneuvers of 1951 that characterized the maneuvers of a century ago. There are few people who better repay study from this point of view than William Henry Seward. Seward never became President of the United States. But he entered politics early in life, played an active role for more than a quarter of a century, was probably the most prominent member of the Republican party in the fifties, and, as Secretary of State in the Lincoln and Johnson administrations, was one of the most significant figures in the history of these years. He was, moreover, by the judgment of specialists, one of the greatest figures that ever conducted American foreign policy, ranking second, perhaps, in his career at the State Department only to John Quincy Adams.

It is, therefore, a matter for gratification that through the bequest of Seward's grandson the papers of this great statesman have come to the University of Rochester. There has been no biography of Seward in many years. The reinterpretation of his life will be an interesting task for some historian, and the papers will also throw a flood of light on the times in which he lived and on the politics of the State of New York.

The purpose of this brief article, however, is not to indicate the importance of the Seward manuscripts in detail but rather to sketch in brief fashion the outstanding facts in Seward's political career, and to show how and why he deserves both more attention and more admiration than he has yet received.

Seward's early political faith was contrary to his political upbringing. The members of his family were Democratic Republicans, but Seward, when he began his career as a young lawyer at Auburn, allied himself with the Clintonians and with those elements in New York politics which supported the candidacy of John Quincy Adams for President of the United States. His choice of a political allegiance seems to have been based in large measure on principle, on devotion to the cause of internal improvements, and on distrust, even then, of some of the southern elements in the ranks of the Jeffersonians. But Seward early made one of those important political contacts which may count so much in a man's advancement. As early as 1824 he came into casual acquaintance with Thurlow Weed, destined in time to be the dominant political figure in the Whig party in New York. The association grew with time and was a very fruitful one. Weed delighted in the mechanics of politics; Seward was bold and even reckless in the espousal of causes. The two men supplemented each other and were destined to become close friends. And, incidentally, something of this relationship is to be found in the Weed Papers, generously given to the University by Mrs. Harriet Weed Hollister Spencer, Mrs. Elizabeth Hollister Frost Blair, and Mrs. Isabelle Hollister Tuttle.

Seward's early political career culminated in his election to the governorship of New York State in 1838 and 1840 on the Whig ticket. The mixture of politician and idealist is clearly seen in his acts during this period. In the campaign of 1838 he dodged some embarrassing questions on the rising issue of the Negro question as candidates from time immemorial have dodged unpleasant inquiries. But he showed much boldness once he was elected. He courageously advocated a policy of public spending to relieve the distress caused by the depression which had hit the country; he championed the cause of public education; he refused to surrender three sailors who had instigated the flight of a fugitive slave to New York when the extradition of these men was demanded by the state of Virginia; and the humane and generous side of his nature was reflected in all these decisions. Indeed, on the slavery question he seems to have felt himself in advance of public opinion and this had something to do with his declination to run for re-election in 1842.

It was the slavery question that brought Seward back into political life and contributed to his election to the Senate in 1849. There Seward resisted the Compromise of 1850 and spoke brilliantly against it. In this debate he made the prescient declaration that the slave system would either be removed "by gradual voluntary effort and by compensation" within the framework of the Union or the Union would be dissolved and civil war ensue, bringing on violent but complete and immediate emancipation. It is in this same debate that he declared that there was a "higher law than the Constitution."

But the New Yorker's radicalism was often diluted with political expediency. The "higher law speech" Seward attempted afterwards to explain in rather shuffling phrases, and in 1852 Seward and his friend Weed were influential in bringing about the nomination on the Whig ticket of General Winfield Scott who represented virtually nothing whatsoever in the way of principle.

The slavery question was temporarily laid to rest with the Compromise of 1850. But it revived with the Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854, and in the years that followed Seward represented the anti-slavery forces as much as any man. He was not always completely consistent; he had his moments of equivocation like many a politician before and after him; but he was, on the whole, a leader, and the foremost candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency when the Republican convention met at Chicago in 1860. Seward's failure to be nominated was due to factors which in part reflected credit upon him and which in part did not. His bold language on the slavery question made him vulnerable; so, too, did his outspoken opposition to "nativism" and his obvious and oft expressed sympathy with the immigrant. In both of these matters he commands our sympathy. But his alliance with Thurlow Weed and the rather crass methods of the New York Republican organization militated against him, and here we can understand why he was the subject of criticism. The convention turned to a less conspicuous candidate and nominated Abraham Lincoln.

Seward accepted his defeat with the cheerfulness that was a part of his nature and campaigned loyally for the ticket. Before the year was out, on the victory of the Republicans, he had accepted Lincoln's invitation to serve as Secretary of State of the United States. In the crisis of the winter and spring of 1861 he certainly showed something less than the best of judgment. We may view sympathetically his desire to compromise as expressed in his speech of January 12, 1861; but it is impossible to assess other than harshly his famous circular of April 1, "Some Thoughts for the President's Consideration," in which he urged President Lincoln to embroil the United States with Europe as a means of preserving the Union, and egotistically suggested that the President abdicate his power to the Secretary of State. Nor is it easy to justify the machinations behind the back of the President by which the reenforcement of Fort Pickens was delayed and the expedition to Sumter, when it sailed, was weakened by the absence of an important vessel. But these blunders do not bulk large when one considers in any broad perspective Seward's record in the State Department. In the eight years of his administration his high qualities stand out again and again, and, perhaps most important of all, is the evidence of his capacity for growth under responsibility. It is this quality that distinguishes the statesman from the conventional politician.

One of Seward's great qualities as Secretary lay in his close association of American diplomacy with public opinion. It is no chance that the publication of diplomatic despatches in one or more annual volumes dates from his time. He wrote, indeed, always with an eye on the reaction of the people, and at worst this gives to his despatches a somewhat demagogic character. But far more often he served to inspirit and to raise the national morale; in particular, his despatches to Charles Francis Adams, our minister in Britain, breathed a lofty self-confidence in the success of the Union cause which could not fail to be communicated to others. It was highly important during the Civil War that Europe should understand that the North intended to see the struggle through to victory; and this Seward made abundantly clear.

He could also handle a difficult situation with great deftness. When in the fall of 1861 the Southern commissioners to Europe, Mason and Slidell, were seized on a British ship by an American warship and carried to Boston, a serious international crisis impended. The indignation in Britain was extreme, and it soon became apparent that it would be necessary to surrender the two Southerners, especially since their seizure was contrary to international law. But how was Seward to accomplish this in the face of the enthusiastic applause that had greeted their seizure in the United States? He solved the difficulty by a great despatch in which he showed that to yield to Great Britain in this case was to maintain the great American principle of the freedom of the seas. "If I decide this case in favor of my own government," he wrote, "I must disavow its most cherished principles, and reverse and abandon its essential policy. The country cannot afford the sacrifice." Writing thus, he mollified American sentiment, and yet effected a retreat from an untenable position.

Seward was capable of great prudence. He opposed emancipation in the summer of 1862 because he feared it would be taken in Europe as a mark of the desperate situation in which the North found itself. The President accepted his judgment in this regard, and the famous Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until after Lee had been checked at Antietam. Still more Seward showed his cautious side in the Mexican problem. The French intervention in Mexico and the setting up of the Austrian Archduke Maximilian on a Mexican throne was the sharpest challenge that had ever been made to the Monroe Doctrine. But during the war years Seward was content merely to keep the question open, and when Congress condemned the French action in a resolution of the House of Representatives, he explained in a carefully drawn note that the opinion of the legislative department did not alter executive policy. When the war was over, however, he began to step up his tone; he moved in concert with the development of rising popular pressure; and bit by bit he forced the French government to yield ground until he finally secured the promise of the evacuation of Mexico in a fixed period of time, and this without the danger of war.

Seward was also a man of large imagination. He was, even in his early years, an expansionist, though his attitude in this regard was naturally qualified by his hostility to slavery. But when the war was over, he gave his naturally hopeful and broad view of the future of American power more scope. The purchase of Alaska was his personal achievement. In his day there were those who sneered at the new acquisition as "Seward's ice box," but the paltry price paid for it was as nothing compared with the revenues it brought to the American government, and its strategic significance in the world of today hardly needs to be underlined. He also negotiated a treaty for the purchase of two of the Danish West Indies. This treaty failed but, in the days of the Wilson administration, the islands were acquired for a price far in excess of that for which they might have been obtained in Seward's day. His interest in Hawaii was also considerable, as was his desire to pave the way for an inter-oceanic canal. All in all, no statesman saw more clearly the lines of development for the United States in the future, and this at a time when, in the backwash of war, there was a natural indisposition to any such large and ambitious view of things.

In his attitude towards reconstruction Seward was always a moderate. He supported the administration of President Johnson, wrote some of the President's most important veto messages, and made many public speeches, accompanying the Chief Executive in the "swing around the circle" in 1866. By doing so he lost both popularity and influence, and he valued both dearly; but in this, as in other matters, a core of principle is to be discerned in Seward's conduct. He was shrewd and ingenious, but never sheerly opportunist; he paid heed to, but also on occasion guided or tried to guide, American public opinion; and he showed more than once that he could meet an issue when he had to. It is easy to be morally snobbish about the great game of politics and to judge public men by some abstract standard of candor and directness which would almost certainly limit their practical usefulness. In the balance of his qualities Seward was ideally fitted for public life, and there is no doubt of the value of his services.

As a human being Seward must be regarded as highly attractive. He was, like most successful men, at times egotistical and vain; and, occasionally, as in "Some Thoughts for the President's Consideration," this vanity led him astray. But he was wholly without personal jealousies; after the first few months he accepted President Lincoln's leadership and served him loyally; he never indulged in discreditable intrigues against the Executive as did Salmon P. Chase. He was warm in his personal relations and in his family circle; his mind was wide and far-reaching; he read and traveled widely, going to Europe several times, and seeing much of his own country. He had humor and a sense of proportion. Above all, he possessed an invincible optimism. No quality is more important in practice. Belief in the future is one of the great forces that helps to mold it; resiliency in the face of disaster makes disaster only a stepping stone to redressing the balance of fortune. In his faith and hope for the future of America, Seward stands in the front rank of Americans and exemplifies the spirit that has given vitality and strength to the United States.