University of Rochester Library Bulletin: William Henry Seward in Retrospect

Volume VIII · Autumn 1952 · Number 1
William Henry Seward in Retrospect
On the evening of April 25, 1952, the William Henry Seward Room in Rush Rhees Library was formally opened with appropriate ceremonies. Following a speech by Dr. Cornelis W. de Kiewiet, in which he accepted the bequest of the Seward Papers on behalf of the University, the address of the evening was delivered by Dr. Harry J. Carman, Professor of History at Columbia University. The major portion of the address is here reproduced.

Mr. Chairman, Professor Perkins, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a great privilege to be with you on this memorable occasion. First of all may I personally and on behalf of a sister university with which I have long been associated, congratulate the Rush Rhees Library of the University of Rochester for having been chosen as the permanent repository of the rich Seward Collection. In more ways than one it is fitting that this collection of the correspondence, diaries, legal papers, account books, and manuscript records of William Henry Seward and of other members of the Seward family should be housed here. What more persuasive reason could there be than that here too are deposited the papers of Thurlow Weed, Seward's aide, mentor, and teammate in as efficient a political combination as the state of New York or the nation has ever known? The fact that the Seward Collection, so indispensable to the student of nineteenth-century American history, has come to this great university center is in itself a guarantee that nothing will be left undone to make its treasures available to all who would explore this rich storehouse of source material.

When Mr. Russell kindly invited me to be with you this evening and pressed for a topic I was bold enough to suggest "William Henry Seward in Retrospect." I say "bold" on two counts: first, because any definitive evaluation of Seward cannot be made, it would seem to me, without fuller exploration of the mass of source material in the Seward Collection, much of it now available for the first time. In the second place I am aware as I know all of you are, that in this audience I have a dear friend and co-worker in the academic vineyard who has long been interested in and is familiar not only with the principal facets of Seward's varied career but with the literature and other source material out of which any definitive portrayal of William Henry Seward, must be constructed. Those in this company who have read Dexter Perkins' masterful account of Seward published in the Dictionary of American Biography in 1935 or his shorter but equally illuminating statement which appeared last autumn in the University of Rochester Library Bulletin, will, I am confident, agree with me.

Instead, therefore, of reharrowing the ground so well-tilled by Professor Perkins, I should like this evening with your permission to confine myself to two questions concerning Seward's interesting life and distinguished career. These are: (1) Why did he fail to become President of the United States at the eve of the Civil War? (2) In terms of value what kind of a human was he? I have purposely selected these questions for it seems to me that both have meaning for us in the mid-twentieth century.

Today, as in 1860, the people of the United States are in the midst of an exciting and significant presidential campaign. Then as now deep-seated economic and moral issues of a domestic nature were to the fore. To domestic issues in 1952 must be added far-reaching matters of foreign policy. Before the Civil War the United States was a federation of sections as well as a union of states. The lines dividing the sections were not always clear-cut. Yet they were sufficiently distinct to indicate that the social, political, economic, and intellectual ideals of the South differed radically from those of the North. The fundamental issue involved not theories but two incompatible modes of living. Today the question of civil rights and other domestic issues though important, are, in the opinion of many, of less consequence than what our policy or policies should be in a world increasingly divided between the forces of democracy and totalitarianism. In 1952, as in 1860, the political party in power may be voted out of control. The prospect of Republican success in 1952 as in 1860 presents opportunities for the ambitious who would occupy the White House. As in 1860, also, we are at the moment witnessing the preliminaries of the forthcoming battle at Chicago.

I raise my second question concerning Mr. Seward because I am convinced that man in his continuing conquest of the physical world has not learned how to control himself. His heaven is a heaven of material things made possible by the product of science and technology. Science and technology are not ends in themselves but means to an end. Alone they cannot remake the world or save man from degradation. No amount of mechanization can confer spiritual values or teach us how to behave ourselves in our relations with each other. We should be aware of the need to discover how the results of science can be utilized for human benefit. We should realize that scientific education and research are imperative in adding to our factual knowledge about the world and other parts of the universe. But neither science nor technology furnishes us with the information and formulae as to how this factual knowledge can best be used for the enhancement of man's welfare.

We hear much these days about human dignity, right living, social justice, and the quest for peace. These and other noble aspirations involve basic values. William Henry Seward lived in a troubled world as do we today because men have lost sight of those fundamental principles which ennoble life. In Seward's day as now the ailments of the world were ignorance, suspicion, selfishness, corruption, prejudice, crass materialism, intolerance, bigotry, the love of power for power's sake. Every community in America today, to say nothing of the rest of the world, is plagued by these degrading evils. On the basis of their conduct, too many Americans of our generation show little evidence that they possess those inner traits which make for real human greatness: integrity, self-reliance, a deep sense of responsibility for one's thoughts, words, and actions, unselfishness, fair play, faith in a social order which cherishes freedom and opportunity for human betterment, right against wrong in terms of human welfare, and a premium on excellence of performance. This struggle to rid the world of those forces which degrade mankind and block the road to better human existence will be won in last analysis by the qualities of mind and heart which cause men to rise above the conflict, the confusion, the excitement, the selfishness, the bigotry, the materialism, and the gods of fatalism that press in upon us. Did William Henry Seward belong in this category? Is the story of his life and the service he rendered of the character that men of our own generation should emulate?

Let us now address ourselves to the factors which account for Seward's failure to win the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1860.

Certainly his failure cannot be attributed to want of political acumen and experience. Born in Orange County, New York, in 1801 and graduated from Union College in 1820, Seward was admitted to the bar in 1822. Almost immediately he entered politics as a Democratic-Republican opponent. His distrust of the Southern Jeffersonians and his enthusiasm for internal improvements, as Professor Perkins points out, caused him to support DeWitt Clinton for the governorship and the presidential candidacy of John Quincy Adams for whom he had lifelong admiration. In the same year that the second Adams was chosen President, Seward met Thurlow Weed, destined to be one of the most astute, skillful, and indefatigable political managers ever known. The two became warm friends and political partners. Results followed quickly. With the backing of the Anti-Jackson forces organized by Weed into the "Anti-Masonic" party Seward was elected to the state Senate. Here for the next four years he distinguished himself as a clear thinker and forceful debater.

By 1834 the Anti-Masons had been supplanted by the newly organized and stronger Whig party captained by Weed and Seward. Though Seward failed of reelection to the Senate under the banner of the new party he was elected to the governorship of the State in 1838 and again in 1840. Believing himself to be too far in advance of public opinion on the slavery issue to prosper politically and depleted financially, Seward declined to be a candidate for reelection. In 1848, however, because of a split in the ranks of the Democrats, the Whigs gained control of the New York legislature. Seward, finding the magnetic attraction of politics irresistible and realizing that anti-slavery sentiment was gathering strength, yielded easily to Weed's plan that he become one of New York's representatives in the United States Senate. His vigorous opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and Weed's amazing ingenuity won him reelection in 1855 despite the official and deep-seated opposition of the Know-Nothings. As a consequence, he had almost two terms in the Upper House of Congress prior to the campaign of 1860. His political experience during these years was wide and varied. Not only was he the outstanding anti-slavery spokesman in the Senate, but his feud with Millard Fillmore, his arch-foe in New York Whig politics, the disintegration of the Whig party as a national organization, and the rise of the Republican party with which both he and Weed tardily affiliated late in 1855, whetted his political acumen.

 That Seward had ambitions for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1856 there can be no doubt. Though saturated with anti-slavery idealism his utterances in the spring of 1856 in support of his bill for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state had a strong flavor of Republican partisanship. Weed's decision not to press for Seward's nomination and to favor the more "available" John C. Fremont hurt Seward's feelings but he did not whine. Instead he redoubled his efforts in Congress and came out on behalf of the new party. In 1858 he delivered a tirade against the Dred Scott decision and in the fall of the same year made his famous "Irrepressible Conflict" address here in Rochester. Both of these historic speeches enormously strengthened the Republican cause and the party won notable victories in New York and Pennsylvania and elsewhere throughout the North in the elections of 1858. Whatever political disappointments Seward may have suffered in 1856 were partially compensated when, before the end of 1858, it became known in inner circles that Weed would support his friend and co-worker to the full for the Republican nomination in 1860. Henceforth Seward's course in the Senate and out was governed by the desire for political support. He courted Pennsylvania and the Northwest and, upon Weed's advice, feigned disinterest in the pre-convention presidential canvass by going on a trip to Europe. Upon his return in December, 1859, he did his best to refute the charge of being a radical. He stoutly denied that he had anything to do with John Brown's raid and in the January, 1860, edition of Helper's Impending Crisis his earlier endorsement of the book was deleted. Moreover, he went out of his way to reassure the southerners and northern moderates. His speeches were no longer of the "higher law" and "irrepressible conflict" type. His earlier demand that the Supreme Court rescind its Dred Scott decision was for the time being forgotten. The militant Seward of a few years earlier gave way to a more conciliatory Seward:

Differences of opinion, even on the subject of slavery, are with us political, not social or personal differences. There is not one disunionist or disloyalist among us all. We are altogether unconscious of any process of dissolution going on among us or around us. We have never been more patient, and never loved the representatives of other sections more than now!

This was not Seward the idealist and humanitarian but Seward the politician and candidate for high political honors in search of votes.

In the months immediately preceding the national convention both Weed and Seward worked like demons. Both were confident that Seward would be nominated. Weed, though not a delegate, headed the New York delegation to the convention. Seward, certain of victory, remained at his Auburn home where friends had placed a cannon onthe lawn to be fired as soon as the good news of his nomination should come from Chicago. But the good news never came.

That it never came is to be accounted for by several factors. In the first place Seward, like any man long in public life, had incurred the enmity of important persons and groups. During his governorship, for example, he had precipitated the early anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, Native American movement by recommending that public money be voted for parochial schools. Henceforth, he was persona non grata to the Know-Nothing elements which after 1856 increasingly joined the rising Republican party. Especially was this true in such populous states as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. To his credit be it said that Seward, though he realized that the Nativists would do their utmost to prevent his nomination, was apparently opposed on principle to any move to win their support.

Though moderated in the months immediately preceding the Chicago convention, Seward's pronounced anti-slavery record also lost him convention votes among the moderates and conservatives. In last analysis this factor explains in part his loss of New Jersey, Indiana, and most of the New England states. "Do not give us Seward," wrote United States Senator James Dixon of Connecticut to Gideon Welles, leader of the state's delegation to Chicago. With his long anti-slavery record Seward, declared Dixon, cannot be elected. "I am more and more convinced that to nominate Seward will be a fatal policy." The Hartford Courant, chief Republican organ of Connecticut, was also outspoken in its opposition to the nomination of an anti-slavery radical.

Seward's long association with Thurlow Weed and Weed's tactics at the convention did not help him. Irrespective of the state from whence they came and their choice of candidate, many delegates utilized Seward's connection with Weed and his New York organization to block his nomination. Even William M. Evarts whom Weed had brought along to place Seward in nomination was offset by the efforts of William Cullen Bryant and his followers who circulated among the delegates tales against Weed. Or listen to the statement of Carl Schurz, chairman of the pro-Seward Wisconsin delegation. His description of Weed and his hirelings in operation at the convention lends atmosphere and helps to explain why Seward's opponents were given leverage:

"They were New York politicians, apparently of the lower sort, whom Thurlow Weed had apparently brought with him to aid him in doing his work. . . They had marched in street parades with brass bands and Seward banners to produce the impression that the whole country was ablaze with enthusiasm for Seward.  They had treated members of other delegations with no end of champagne and cigars, to win them for Seward, if not at their first, then at least at their second choice, to be voted for on the second or third ballot . . . They had spent money freely and let everybody understand that there was a great lot more to spend. Among these men Thurlow Weed moved as the great captain, with ceaseless activity and noiseless step, receiving their reports and giving new instructions in his peculiar whisper, now and then taking one into a corner of the room for secret talk, or disappearing with another through a side door for transactions still more secret."

Two other factors deserve brief mention in explaining Seward's failure to secure the nomination. The first was his failure to win the support of the Pennsylvania delegation, second largest in the nation. This cannot be attributed to oversight, for the Seward forces courted Pennsylvania assiduously. In March, 1859, following the adjournment of Congress, Seward on his way to Auburn made a promised visit to the home of his Senatorial colleague Simon Cameron at Harrisburg. He was warmly received and before his departure was assured that not only was Cameron for him but the entire Pennsylvania delegation would back him after a "favorite son" vote for Cameron on the first ballot. Naturally Seward was elated but neither he nor Weed at the time apparently realized that Cameron was tricky and unreliable. Nor did they realize that, powerful though he was in his home state, Cameron would be unable at the convention to command the united support of the Pennsylvania delegation. Andrew C. Curtin, an anti-Seward Pennsylvanian and his chief aid Alexander K. McClure really controlled the situation. Though it was rumored, and not without truth, that Seward's friends "would spend oceans of money" to win the support of Pennsylvania, their efforts were to no avail. Curtin was determined that Seward should not be nominated on the ground that his radical anti-slavery reputation would weaken the party in the state and thus undermine Curtin's chances of being elected governor. Henry S. Lane, candidate for governor of Indiana, took the same position.

Finally, those who would account for Seward's failure to win the prize he so coveted must not overlook the hostility of Horace Greeley, or Lincoln's availability as a candidate and the generalship of his Illinois backers, especially Norman B. Judd and David Davis, both adroit political strategists.

Had Seward been a less controversial figure, had he been willing more frequently during his career prior to 1860 to substitute political expediency for principle, had he been less closely associated with Thurlow Weed in the decade before the Chicago convention, the cannon placed on the Seward lawn at Auburn with such great expectancy might have sounded a Seward triumph.

At the risk of boring you I now turn briefly to my second question -- In terms of moral and ethical values what kind of a human being was William Henry Seward? A definitive answer to this question must await a detailed examination of the Seward manuscripts whose acquisition by this University we celebrate tonight. Short of such an examination, however, the evidence at hand enables one to make a pretty accurate portrayal. Indeed, the estimate of the man by Professor Perkins in the Autumn 1951 University of RochesterLibrary Bulletin is unlikely in all probability to undergo marked change. True, certain actions on Seward's part which have long puzzled the historian and biographer may be cleared up. Lights and shadows will undoubtedly undergo some modification-some lengthened and some shortened. But any new portraiture of Seward is likely to reveal the same basic traits and characteristics already so well known to us.

On the plus side he was keen-minded, imaginative, optimistic, and generous. He loathed controversy but did not hesitate to attack with great courage those men and institutions detrimental in his opinion to the best interests of his country and mankind. Orderly and independently-minded, tenacious, industrious, and level-headed, he was at the same time a man of broad sympathies with capacity to understand opposing points of view and, without sacrifice of principle, to work with others to common ends. His serenity and cheerfulness even when the clouds of adversity were darkest, was a lifelong characteristic. His sympathy for the lowly and oppressed was unbounded.

But Seward was not without his faults. Despite his idealism on slavery and other issues he was not above dispensing political spoils. He did not always hold tight rein over his natural impulsiveness. His recourse to political expediency during his career manifested itself on more than one occasion. Sometimes he was blindly partisan. That he was at times vain and loved public adulation is abundantly evident. His actions during his early weeks as Secretary of State indicate lack of wisdom and good judgment to say the least. Whether during this period he sought power for power's sake is as yet an open question.

When one balances the ledger of human values as far as William Henry Seward is concerned the credits far outweigh the debits and at the present writing I for one, agree with Dexter Perkins that Seward "stands in the front rank of Americans and exemplifies the spirit that has given vitality and strength to the United States."

Additional resources:

  • The register of the William Henry Seward Papers

University of Rochester Library Bulletin articles: