Abraham Lincoln and William H. Seward
John Taylor, William Henry Seward
William H. Seward, President Abraham Lincoln’s first and only secretary of state, was a force of political nature. Writer Henry Adams described Seward’s “slouching slender figure; a head like a wise macaw; a beaked nose; shaggy eyebrows; unorderly hair and clothes; hoarse voice; offhand manner; free talk; and perpetual cigar…” When entertaining “among friends, Mr. Seward threw off restraint, or seemed to throw it off, in reality, while the world he threw it off, like a politician, for effect.”1 Journalist Charles Dana recalled that Seward had “a great, subtle, far-reaching intelligence. He was an optimist. He had imagination. He was reaching out always toward the future, and dwelling upon it.”2
“Seward is small in stature, big as to nose, light as to hair and eyes, averse to all attempts upon his portrait, and very republican in dress and manner of living,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks. “He is affable and pleasant, accessible – from a newspaper point of view – smoking cigars always, ruffled or excited, never, astute, keen to perceive a joke, appreciate of a good thing, and fond of ‘good victuals,’ if not of luxurious furniture.”3 In 1861, wrote biographer Van Deusen, “Seward was not quite sixty years old when he became Secretary of State. His wiry hair, now silvery white, was more apt than not to be disheveled; his clothes were scarcely ever in style; and he had a slight stoop from years of desk-sitting. His voice was husky, his face sallow, his ears protruded, and his large beaked nose and keen eyes peering out from under gray, grizzly eyebrows gave him an alert and rather bird-like appearance.”4 Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that Seward was “a commanding figure, an outsize personality, a ‘most glorious original’ against whom larger men seemed smaller. People were drawn to this vital figure with the large, hawklike nose, bush eyebrows, enormous ears, once bright red, had faded now to the color of straw. His step, in contrast to Lincoln’s slow and laborious manner of walking, had a ‘school-boy elasticity’ as he moved from his garden to his house and back again with what one reporter described as a ‘slashing swagger.’”5
There were many differences between Mr. Lincoln and his New York State rival for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. Seward seemed to get less enjoyment out of his legal profession than Mr. Lincoln. He had practiced law for profit, not pleasure. His early political career was a financial struggle – especially his two terms as Governor, during which he went heavily into debt in order to support an expensive lifestyle in Albany. Seward and Mr. Lincoln first met during the 1848 Whig presidential campaign when both were campaigning in New England. Seward recalled Mr. Lincoln give a “rambling, storytelling speech, putting the audience in good humor, but avoiding any extended discussion of the slavery question.”6 Mr. Lincoln was impressed by Seward’s serious disposition speech on that issue.
Seward’s reputation as an anti-slavery crusader was secured in 1847 when he gave a campaign speech in Cleveland: “There are two antagonistical elements of society in America.” Seward had proclaimed, “Freedom and slavery. Freedom is in harmony with our system of government and with the spirit of the age, and is therefore passive and quiescent. Slavery is in conflict with that system, with justice, and with humanity, and is therefore organized, defensive, active, and perpetually aggressive.”7 His reputation would be reenforced by future references to a “higher law” and “irrepressible conflict.” Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote of Seward’s speech against the Compromise of 1850 that “as he moved into the second hour of his speech, his conviction gave him ease and confidence. Step by step, he laid the foundation for the “higher law” doctrine that would be forever associated with his name. Not only did the Constitution bind the American people to goals incompatible with slavery, he asserted, “but there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part…of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe. We are his stewards.”
With this single speech, his first national address, Seward became the principal antislavery voice in the Senate. Tens of thousands of copies of the speech were printed and distributed throughout the North. The New York Tribune predicted that it would awaken the nation, that his words would “live longer, be read with a more hearty admiration, and exert a more potential and pervading influence on the National mind and character than any other speech of the Session.”8
Though he had decades of political experience, Seward had far fewer political skills than Mr. Lincoln. Unlike Mr. Lincoln, Seward subcontracted political strategy to Albany newspaper editor Thurlow Weed. Although charming and gregarious, Seward, unlike Mr. Lincoln, did not attract or create an enduring political team of the kind that Lincoln had in the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago. Although politically astute, Seward sometimes had a tin ear to what others would hear in his statements – as the publication of his diplomatic papers in the middle of the war demonstrated. Historian Allan Nevins wrote of Seward: “A man of ripe political experience, he could show impressive astuteness, and had a fine capacity for persuasive public speech. Yet he revealed at times superficial thinking, erratic judgment, and a devious, impetuous temper, which were the more dangerous because he was cockily self-confident. He had immense vanity; in fact, remarked the British minister, so much more vanity, personal and national, than tact, that he seldom made a favorable impression at first.” 9 Historian David Donald observed: “Aware of the Secretary’s self-importance and vanity, he encouraged Seward to drop in at the White House nearly every day, and when the two men did not meet, they exchanged frequent brief notes about schedules, appointments, and the like.”10
As different as Mr. Lincoln was tall and Seward comparatively short, the two men share several interesting points of comparison:
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward had a natural self-confidence in his own abilities but that self-confidence was interpreted as egotism by his enemies.
- Like Lincoln, Seward underwent a period of severe depression (1840-41) brought on by financial troubles. Seward’s debts after the leaving the New York State governorship totaled $200,000.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward tended to assume the best in others.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward enjoyed a well-turned phrase – albeit with less economy and elegance than Mr. Lincoln aspired to.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward saw the virtues in Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton even when he didn’t get along with him. Indeed, he sponsored his inclusion in the cabinet.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, he did not let his personal feelings or protocol stand in his way when necessity called.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward had a striking but not handsome face. Like Mr. Lincoln, he was careless in dress and sparing in his use of a comb.
- Like Mr. Lincoln (Simeon Francis), Seward early found an editor (Thurlow Weed) as his political sponsor. Weed and Seward had met when Weed helped fixed Seward’s broken carriage in Rochester in 1824.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward cultivated editors – like the New York Times’ Henry Raymond. Like Mr. Lincoln, he was careful to make sure that copies of his speeches were distributed to important people.
- Both Mr. Lincoln and Seward were more tolerant of their enemies than their enemies were of them.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward had little affection for the setting of his childhood. Indeed, Seward expressed a loathing toward his boyhood home in Goshen, New York.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward loved household pets. Unlike Mr. Lincoln, he also loved plants – especially roses.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward was a strong supporter of transportation improvements.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward played father/mentor to John Hay and recruited him to become the secretary to the Paris legation in the second Mr. Lincoln Administration.
- Like Mr. Lincoln’s son Robert, Seward’s firstborn son, Augustus, was enigmatic and noncommunicative. Like Mr. Lincoln’s son Willie, Seward’s second-born son, Frederick, reflected his father’s abilities and temperament.
Like Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Seward started his political career as an anti-Mason candidate before becoming a Whig and later a Republican. Indeed, Seward left practical politics up to Thurlow Weed while he concentrated on policy. But one policy speech in Rochester in October 1858 got him into trouble. Senator Seward spoke frankly about the impact about the growing split between North and South over slavery: “Shall I tell you what this collision means? They who think that it is accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators, and therefore ephemeral, mistake the case altogether. It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation. Either the cotton and rice fields of South Carolina, and the sugar plantations of Louisiana, will ultimately be tilled by free-labor, and Charleston and New Orleans become marts for legitimate merchandise alone, or else the rye fields and wheat fields of Massachusetts and New York, must again be surrendered by the farmers to slave culture and to the production of slaves, and Boston and New York become once more markets for the trade in the bodies and souls of men.”11
Seward’s speech shook up politics in both the North and South and marked him as more radical than he was. But Seward wore the mantle of Republican leadership nonetheless. “Seward had been the leader of the Republican Party, and especially of the Republicans in Congress, for nearly six years,” wrote historian David M. Potter. “He held this pre-eminence by qualities which peculiarly fitted him for a position of influence in a parliamentary body. Though he lacked the erudition and grandiose pedantry of Charles Sumner, he was probably the most intelligent member on the Republican side of the Senate. Keen insight, balanced judgment, and a capacity for thinking in broad terms characterized his mind. Moreover, his intellect was free from the rigid moral dogmatism which hardened the mental arteries of many anti-slavery men. Because of this, he was quick to sense the trend of events and to alter his own course according to circumstances. This quality may be regarded as tactical skill or as conscienceless opportunism, but it made him, in either case, a dangerous antagonist, for he strove only for objectives which he might hope to win. The moral grandeur of ‘lost causes’ held little appeal for him. Consequently he became a superb politician, a master of artifice, equivocation, and silence. His lack of moral fervor made it possible for him to maintain an astonishing diversity of friends – ranging from Jefferson Davis to Theodore Parker. And, when applied to himself, his detachment of mind left him free from senatorial pomposity. This did not mean that he lacked self-confidence; on the contrary, he sometimes magnified his own role. But the cynical vein in his nature took an introspective turn, and left him without any touch of the ex cathedra attitude.”12
Given their differences, their competition for the Republican presidential nomination of 1860, and their lack of previous personal relationship, the partnership they developed during the Civil War was extraordinary, according to Lincoln aide John Hay: “The history of governments affords few instances of an official connection hallowed by a friendship so absolute and sincere as that which existed between these two magnanimous spirits. Lincoln had snatched away from Seward at Chicago the prize of a laborious life-time, when it seemed within his grasp. Yet Seward was the first man named in his Cabinet and the first who acknowledged his personal preeminence,” wrote John Hay. “Seward was the first man who recognized the President’s stature, and from the beginning of the Administration to that dark and terrible hour when they were both struck down by the hand of murderous treason, there was no shadow of jealousy or doubt ever disturbed their mutual confidence and regard. The only word of regret at Lincoln’s superior fortune I ever heard from the Secretary was a noble and touching one, at the hour when the fight of faction had grown fiercest. ‘Lincoln always got the advantage of me, but I never envied him anything but his death.’” 13
Proximity was a key to the Lincoln-Seward relationship. Seward’s Washington house, just across Lafayette Park from the White House, was a favorite nocturnal destination of President Lincoln. Seward’s House was a frequent nocturnal destination for the President. Presidential aide William O. Stoddard recalled: “It was not at all uncommon for Mr. Lincoln to walk over to the State Department, in the daytime, or to Mr. Seward’s house, in the evening, with or without an attending private secretary to carry papers. On the whole, he generally preferred to go alone, as he would have done formerly in the transaction of private business at Springfield.” 14 Historian David Herbert Donald wrote that Seward “was at his best in his drawing room after supper, comfortable in his easy chair and surrounded by billowing smoke from his inevitable black cigar. After a drop of brandy he would regale his guests with irreverent and often profane comments on the day’s happenings, punctuated by hearty cursing of his opponents. Seward like company, but he also thought his social life a duty. ‘In this confusion of nations and of men, he explained to his daughter, ‘I must be calm, undisturbed, hopeful of all things, and gracious in every way.”15
Seward himself was a frequent visitor to the White House. When the French warship Gassendi visited Washington in April 1862, Seward wrote the President a note: “I called at your House on my way from the Department, to say that perhaps it would have no bad effect if you should drop in about 9 o’clock and be seen at your ease by the French Sailors. Gideon Welles, Gustavus V. Fox and John Dahlgren will be here.”16 Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “The long evenings of camaraderie at Seward’s, where interesting guests wandered in and out, probably rekindled memories of Lincoln’s convivial days on the circuit, when he and his fellow lawyers gathered together before the log fire to talk, drink, and share stories. Between official meetings and private get-togethers, Lincoln spent more time with Seward in the first year of his presidency than with anyone else, including his family.”17
Seward was indeed a social animal. Unlike President Lincoln, Seward treasured good food, fine wine and fine cigars. He liked gossip and stories. Biographer Glyndon Van Deusen wrote: “Charlotte Cushman was usually Seward’s guest when she came to Washington. On one occasion, she had a favor to ask and Seward took her to see the President when he judged that Lincoln would be in ‘a pliant mood.’ There she was so much taken with the President’s humor that she forgot to mention a young friend’s desire for a West Point appointment. Seward sent the letter in which she wrote of this to the White House.”18 Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “Within the Washington community, Seward’s extravagant dinner parties were legendary, attended by Northerners and Southerners alike. No one showed greater acumen in reconciling the most contentious politicians in a relaxing evening atmosphere. Throughout the 1850s, the New Yorker used such dinners to maintain cordial relations with everyone, from Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and John Crittenden of Kentucky to Charles Sumner and Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts.”19
Newspaperman Charles Dana recalled that Seward ” was an interesting man, of an optimistic temperament, and he probably had the most cultivated and comprehensive intellect in the administration. He was a man who was all his life in controversies, yet he was singular in this, that, though forever in fights, he had almost no personal enemies. Seward had great ability as a writer, and he had what is very rare in a lawyer, a politician, or a statesman imagination. A fine illustration of his genius was the acquisition of Alaska in the administration of President Andrew Johnson. That was one of the last things that he did before he went out of office, and it demonstrated more than anything else his fixed and never-changing idea that all North America should be united under one government.” Dana wrote: “Mr. Seward was an admirable writer and an impressive though entirely unpretentious speaker. He stood up and talked as though he were engaged in conversation, and the effect was always great. It gave the impression of a man deliberating ‘out loud’ with himself.” 20 Historian Allen C. Guelzo noted: “Seward the raconteur, was notorious for dropping outrageous opinions into discussions to watch how far the ripples spread.”21
Compared to Mr. Lincoln, Seward was an urbane and occasionally profane man. General James Grant Wilson recalled this story of the two officials: “One day the President and the secretary of state, accompanied by a young staff-officer, attended a review near Arlington on the opposite side of the Potomac. An ambulance drawn by four mules was provided. When the party arrived on the Virginia side of the river, where the roads were rough and badly cut by artillery and army trains, the driver had so much difficulty with the team, in his efforts to prevent the wheels dropping into the ruts, that he lost his temper and began to swear; the worse the roads became, the greater his profanity. At last the President said, in his pleasant manner: ‘Driver, my friend are you an Episcopalian?’ Greatly astonished, the man made answer, ‘No, Mr. President, I ain’t much of anything; but if I go to church at all, I go to the Methodist Church.’ ‘Oh, excuse me,’ replied Lincoln with a smile, and a twinkle in his eye; ‘I thought you must be an Episcopalian for you swear just like Secretary Seward, and he’s a churchwarden!’”22
Comparing Secretary of State Seward to President Lincoln, Gideon Welles wrote: “The Secretary of State had, with higher culture and scholastic attainments, quickness of apprehension, wonderful facility and aptness in adapting himself to circumstances and exigencies which he could not control, and a fertility in expedients, with a dexterity in adopting or dismissing plans and projected schemes, unsurpassed; qualities which made him an acceptable companion, if not always a safe adviser, but never the superior and controlling executive mind. His training and habit were partisan, and his acts often impulsive; but, accustomed through his whole official life to consult a faithful friend, to whose judgment and guidance he deferred, he had not in great emergencies the self-reliance, energy, will, and force of character which are essential to a truly great and strong executive. He sometimes acted rashly, not always wisely, But if he had not the will which is necessary for a chief, he had the sustaining qualities which are valuable in serving a capable leader with whom he might be identified. He was subordinate to Abraham Lincoln, and deferred to him as he had deferred to Thurlow Weed.”23
Seward biographer John Taylor wrote: “As Lincoln and Seward became more comfortable in their relationship, the latter became a target of the president’s wit. According to Fred Seward, his father, searching for the president in the White House, once found him polishing his boots. When Seward remonstrated, telling Lincoln sternly that in Washington ‘we do not blacken our own boots,’ the president was equal to the occasion, remarking good-humoredly, “Indeed, then whose boots do you blacken, Mr. Secretary?”24 Seward made his own rules about politics and social conduct. He made outrageous statements for effect and told outrageous stories for their humor. Biographer Glyndon Van Deusen wrote: “As Seward became better acquainted with Lincoln, the two men found it easy to drop into nonsensical and preposterous dialogue, with humor that was often broad. Ralph Waldo Emerson, visiting Washington in the winter of 1862 and being taken by Sumner to the State Department, came away with what he termed an ‘extraordinary exordium’ from Seward wrote down his recollection of Seward’s words:
“The President said yesterday, when I was going to tell him a story, ‘Well, Seward, don’t let it be smutty.’ And I remember when a witness was asked in court, ‘Do you know this man?’”
“Yes, I know him.”
“How do you know him?”
“Why I know him. I can’t say I have carnal knowledge of him.”25
Comparing Mr. Lincoln to Secretary of State Seward, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles observed: “Those who best know the two men are aware that their minds were widely different inherently and in their organization. The President was greatly superior in intellectual strength and vigor, had the more solid and substantial qualities, more earnestness and sincerity, a great grasp and comprehension, a more intuitive and far-seeing sagacity, came almost instinctively to right conclusions, had more correct convictions, greater self-reliance, greater firmness of purpose, a stricter adherence to principles which he believed to be correct; points that were best understood by those who knew him best.”26 Nevertheless, noted Interior Secretary John Palmer Usher, “The utmost confidence and kindly feeling existed between these two men. The people do not know and would hardly believe me if I told them their kindly feeling for each other, and the obligation of this nation to these two men for their great labors for the preservation of the Union.”27
Even though he was a Senate leader of his party, Seward’s party identification was weaker even during the 1859-1860 period when he was perceived as “Mr. Republican.” Seward once said in a Senate debate: “I know nothing, I care nothing, I never did, I never shall for party.”28 Seward was stunned but subdued by his loss at the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago. He wrote his friend and campaign manager, Thurlow Weed, “You have my unbounded gratitude for this last as for a whole life of efforts in my behalf.” He wrote fellow Senator Charles Sumner: “The road is new to all of us. When it seems to divide we swerve for the moment in choosing the path. But it is clear enough now. So onward with cheer. 29
After a period of self-reflection, Seward joined the 1860 campaign trail. Biographer Frederic Bancroft noted: “Aside from the torchlight processions of ‘Wide-Awakes’ in every northern city and village, Seward was the great feature of the Republican campaign. At first there was considerable anxiety less he and Weed might not take an active part in the canvass, and Seward himself indicated a preference to ‘remain at rest.’ He made a midsummer trip to Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, chiefly for the purpose of recreation and to visit intimate friends. Where his coming was known, large crowds gathered to see him.” More important was western trip which Seward took with Massachusetts Congressman Charles Francis Adams. Bancroft wrote: “On the last day of August, 1860, Seward set out from Auburn on a speech-making tour of five weeks in the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois and Ohio. Since he had become famous he had not been farther west than Cleveland and Detroit. Everywhere in the Northwest he was regarded as the greatest American statesman. In many places, even where his train or boat was to stop for merely a few minutes, thousands awaited his arrival and insisted upon his speaking to them.”30
Seward campaigned against slavery that fall – but was less vocal about his support for the Republican Party’s standard-bearer. According to historian Emerson D. Fite, “By far the most prominent Republican speeches of the campaign were those of Seward, delivered on a long tour through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri. Every speech was fresh, without repetition of former utterances, and far outclassed the ordinary stump speech in fervency of utterance, literary quality, elevation of though, and great enthusiasm on the part of the auditors. Still some sentiments ran through them all, the ‘irrepressible conflict,’ to which the orator now returned after his ill-judged apostasy when seeking the presidential nomination, the evil effects of slavery, the necessity of curbing the slaveholders in the territories and in the states, the absurdity of secession, the manifest destiny of the United States to absorb all the continent, and the transference of political power from the East to the West. It was as the oracle of the party that Seward spoke. Lincoln, the orator scarcely mentioned, and when he did condescend to refer to the candidate. Returning homeward Seward’s party reached Springfield, Illinois, where the proud, haughty, domineering New Yorker never left the railroad car. Far from it. But Abraham Lincoln, humble American, one in a large crowd, came to the depot and nudged his way through the crowd to Seward’s car and into it; Seward rose, shook hands with the visitor, introduced him to the members of the little party, then again sat down! There was no conversation. Finally, to relieve the situation, Seward made a short speech to the people and Lincoln found his way out of the car as best he could.”31
Biographer Frederic Bancroft wrote: “There was no public word or sign on Seward’s part indicating that he did not bear with perfect equanimity the disappointment of not being the candidate. His praise of Lincoln was generous and in perfect taste. His manner toward other candidates was above criticism, and one wonders, from the superior quality of his speeches, how they could have been delivered in an exciting public campaign. His admirers often pointed to his bearing at this time as the best vindication of their efforts to nominate him.”32
Neither Mr. Lincoln nor Seward often betrayed their private emotions. Like Mr. Lincoln on occasion, it was a virtual policy for Seward to be enigmatic. Seward was a master of intrigue – his positions and relationships in early 1861 was a bizarre – which apparently represented his attempt to forestall the inevitable. Seward seemed unreliable to those valued principle. Not everyone was impressed by Seward’s style of leadership. Polish emigre Adam Gurowski wrote: “Some days previous to the inauguration, Mr. Seward brought Mr. Lincoln on the Senate floor, of course on the Republican side; but soon Mr. Seward was busily running among Democrats, begging them to be introduced to Mr. Lincoln. It was a saddening, humiliating and revolting sight for the galleries, where I was. Criminal as is Mason, for a minute I got reconciled to him for the scowl of horror and contempt with which he shook his head at Seward. Only two or three Democratic Senators were moved by Seward’s humble entreaties.”33
Mr. Lincoln had early decided that Seward should be secretary of state but Seward was not so certain he wanted the job. Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “It is impossible to overemphasize the fact that Mr. Lincoln’s twin task of Cabinet-building and policy-making were inextricably entangled; that the stark battle being waged in Washington between the Seward-Adams moderates, who wished to show a conciliatory front toward the South in the hope of holding the border States and eventually rebuilding the Union, and the Sumner-Wade-Chandler implacables, who agreed with Greeley that the very word concession was hateful, was directly connected with efforts to manipulate the new President in the choice of his official family. The struggle on both these closely, linked fronts was to continue until the hour he entered the White House.”34
Journalist Ben Perley Poore wrote: “Senator Seward, who assumed the leadership of the Republicans in Congress, had been correctly described by Henry Clay as ‘a man of no convictions.’ He had not that magnetic mind which could subordinate others, or the mental courage to take the helm in the hour of victory, but relied upon the pecuniary operations of an unscrupulous lobby, which had followed him from Albany, and sought to fill its military chest with the spoils of the public printing and binding. After long announcement the Senate Chamber was crowded to hear what he would have to say on the political situation. Political friends and political foes, the most conservative and the most ultra, the Abolitionist from Vermont and the fire-eater from Mississippi, all looked upon that pale, slight figure in a gray frock coat – so calm, so self-possessed, so good-natured – as the man who had but to speak the word and the country would be saved.”35
In the Washington winter of 1860-1861, Seward represented compromise. Historian Ralph R. Fahrney wrote that “the sentiment generally prevailed that some form of peaceful reconciliation should be utilized to quiet southern disaffection. On every side the general impulse predominated to do nothing and say nothing in any manner likely to fan the flame of disunion. Business interests of the East, represented by such prominent financiers as August Belmont, Hamilton Fish, and Moses H. Grinnell, were thoroughly alarmed by the anticipated loss of an extremely profitable Southern market.” 36 Indeed, noted historian Daniel Ryan: “The man best posted on the southern situation was William H. Seward. He was in the Senate in the last session of Congress wherein Jefferson Davis served – 1860-61. He was sure that Davis expected a peaceful dissolution of the Union. Seward knew as long as Davis felt that way, there would be no obstruction to Lincoln’s inauguration. On the contrary, Seward was equally certain that if Lincoln foreshadowed his policy as expressed in his inaugural address that war would be commenced earlier, and the southern contingent in Congress would have forced some method to prevent the canvass of the electoral vote. Seward about that time made a speech at the Astor House in New York. It was very conciliatory and persuasive. He said, in the same vein Lincoln said it in Ohio, that there is “going to be no trouble”, and “it would be over in sixty days.”37
According to Gideon Welles, “Mr. Lincoln was comforted by the assurances and predictions of his future minister then in the Senate, but he had apprehensions which no prophetic declarations could entirely put at rest. Results have shown that ‘in this perilous interval,’ he, ‘in his secluded abode in the heart of Illinois,’ with unpretending yet undoubted sagacity, had a more correct knowledge and better appreciation of the condition of affairs – foresaw with more accurate perception the threatened difficulties – than the experienced politicians who predicted and promised peace.”38 Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “For weeks, Seward had acted under ‘two supreme illusions’: first, that he was in reality the man in charge; and second, that Southerners would be appeased by the abandonment of Sumter and would eventually return to the Union. He had risked his good name on his conviction that Lincoln would follow his advice and surrender Sumter.”39
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “Upon his return to Washington for the new congressional session that began after the New Year in 1860, Seward took Weed’s advice and prepared a major address. Designed to reassure Northern conservatives and moderate Southerners that he was a man who could be trusted to hold the Union together, the speech was to be delivered on the Senate floor on February 29, 1860. Historian George Milton Fort wrote: “He offered no more immediate relief than the Republicans had proposed to the Committee of Thirteen, but vaguely suggested that in a year or so a national convention should be called to consider amendments to the Constitution. The Republican Radicals did not like his soft tone, but the Secessionists claimed it destroyed the last hope of compromise.”40
Reporter Henry Stanton later recalled that Seward showed the manuscript to him before delivery and asked Stanton to write it up for the New York Tribune and to include a description of the Senate chamber while Seward was talking. Salmon P. Chase, a fellow senator and fellow future Lincoln cabinet member, wrote that Seward’s speech was “not so wrong as I feared not so good as I hoped.” But many fellow Republicans were upset. Historian Burton Hendricks wrote: “The Republican members of Congress almost unanimously condemned the Seward program, and were barely restrained from calling a caucus and passing resolutions repudiating its proposals, while elections presently held in New England and Ohio showed decreased Republican majorities – a loss generally attributed to a belief that the leaders of the party were surrendering to the South.”41
Wisconsin Republican Carl Schurz, who had been a key backer of Seward at the Chicago convention, wrote his wife after the Seward speech: “What do you think of Seward, my child? Have you read or heard about his last speech? The mighty is fallen. He bows before the slave power. He has trodden the way of compromise and concession, and I do not see where he can take his stand on this back track. This star also paled! That is hard. We believed in him so firmly and were so affectionately attached to him. This is the time that tries men’s souls, and many probably will be found wanting. Lincoln still stands like a stone wall. Every report from Springfield confirms my faith in him. A great majority of the Senate are with him, and between eight and eighty-four members of the House.”42
Still, Seward wanted to be in control. If he could not be President, he wanted to control the President. He worried that too many former Democrats like Salmon P. Chase were slated for the Lincoln Cabinet in the days just before President Lincoln’s inauguration, he indicated he would not accept a cabinet post. Biographer Glyndon Van Deusen wrote: “Seward and his friends promptly spread the news of his withdrawal, doubtless as a means of bringing additional pressure on the President-elect. Had the New Yorker carried through, it would have been a heavy blow to the new administration, but Lincoln was not going to let Seward ‘take the first trick.’ On the morning of March 4 he asked Seward to ‘countermand the withdrawal.’ After the inauguration ceremonies the two men had a long and confidential talk. No record of that conversation remains, but there is some evidence that they discussed the possibility of Seward’s being Minister to England, and that Lincoln mentioned the name of William L. Dayton as his second choice for the State Department. On the following day Seward withdrew his resignation. He told his wife that he had done so because he ‘did not dare go home or to England and leave the country to chance.’”43
Seward’s vanity and visibility was at a peak in the early months of 1861. Political partner Thurlow Weed wrote Seward in mid-March 1861: “If Mr. Lincoln knew how entirely the hopes of the whole country are resting on yourself he would open his eyes.”44 Historian Richard N. Current wrote: “Seward kept worrying. War was on the way. It was bound to result from either the Sumter or the Pickens undertaking, he was sure, but he believed there would be a great difference between the Sumter and the Pickens consequences. He was particularly concerned, as always, about the probable reaction of the non-seceded slaves states. He was positive that a Sumter clash would throw most of those states, if not all of them, into seceding and joining the Confederacy. He was sanguine, however, that a Pickens clash would not have nearly so disastrous an effect.”45
Seward’s actions during this period can either be construed as those of a patriotic Machiavelli or a Machiavellian patriot. Gideon Welles observed that “At the commencement of the Administration he assumed, apparently, that he was – the premier – the Acting President, and that his colleagues in the cabinet occupied positions subordinate to him. The President, never a presuming man and without much administrative experience, deferred greatly to Mr. Seward whose characteristics were in some respects the opposite of his. Without hesitation the secretary of state was ready to direct the movements of other branches of government sometimes without even consulting with the heads of the Departments interested and in this matter, was until checked, involving the Administration in confusion.”46
Seward sought to impose his will on the rest of the cabinet. His actions ranged well beyond his portfolio in foreign relations and undermined the decided goals of President Lincoln as well as the authority of the secretaries of war and navy. Historian Roy F. Nichols wrote: “The Cabinet reversed its vote on March 29 and Lincoln started the machinery for sending provisions to Sumter under naval escort and notifying the Governor of South Carolina to that effect. Seward officiously undertook to manage this over the heads of the Secretaries of the War and the Navy.”47 Navy Secretary Gideon Welles recalled: “I never shall forget the President’s excitement when, after a Cabinet dinner at the White House, he called the Cabinet into a separate room, and informed us that General Scott had told him it would be necessary to evacuate Fort Pickens as well as Fort Sumter. It was while the question of the surrender of Fort Sumter was undecided; but at a time when it was believed the fort would be surrendered, and after the way had been prepared for it by statements in the Press that the fort was untenable. A very oppressive silence succeeded the President’s statement of what General Scott had said. At length it was said this advice of the general’s was enough of itself to show that he was playing politician and not general as respects Fort Sumter, as well as with respect to Fort Pickens, for there was no reason to believe that Fort Pickens could be taken from us.’
“Mr. Seward had overshot the mark this time. The Cabinet generally had been convinced that Fort Sumter was untenable, and acquiesced in its surrender, submitting to the inevitable. But there was no apprehension felt about Fort Pickens. The fort was well supplied, and was actually impregnable while we commanded the sea, and we then had a large naval force there. Hence, when the general said we must give up this fort too, the President’s confidence in him was staggered, and from that moment I have always thought his power with the President waned.
“When Mr. Seward saw that his policy of meeting ‘exaction with concession’ and ‘violence with peace,’ announced in his speech of January 12, 1861, had failed, and that the President would not agree to surrender the forts, as Mr. Seward had induced General Scott to recommend him to do, he immediately telegraphed Governor Pickens, by the hands of Mr. Harvey, his Portugese minister, that an attempt was to be made to reinforce Sumter. General Anderson had made no preparations to defend it, but left his barracks standing, to be fired at the first shot, instead of pulling them down and taking to his casemates, as he certainly would have done if he had not been authoritatively told that the fort was to be evacuated as soon as the small supply of provisions on hand had been consumed. But for this negligence for which he was never chided, the fort was impregnable, as events proved, for we could never take it from the Confederates. To make sure of defeating the relief, however the Powhatan, on whose seamen and guns the success of this expedition wholly depended, was secretly detached, by an order surreptitiously obtained from the President, on the pretext of relieving Fort Pickens, which was in no danger, for the defence of which ample provision had already been made, and to whose relief the Powhatan was wholly unnecessary and in no way contributed.”48
Seward had his own plan. Historian Timothy D. Johnson wrote: “Without consulting General Winfield Scott, Seward instructed Capt. Montgomery C. Meigs of the navy and Scott’s own secretary, Erasmus Keyes, to draw up plans for a military expedition to relieve Fort Pickens. They did as Seward requested, tabulated troop, shipping, and supply requirements, consulted with Lincoln, and only after the fact informed Scott of their actions. When he realized what these junior officers had done without his knowledge or approval, he sat in a silent but obvious display of emotion. Administration officials, along with subordinate officers, had circumvented his authority and disregarded his counsel. His influence was waning, and there was nothing he could do to regain it.” 49 Geoffrey Perret wrote: “What Seward did not tell the President was that Porter was convinced – rightly so – that the Chief Clerk of the Navy Department, Charles W. Welsh, could not be trusted. Anything sent to Welles would pass through the hands of Welsh, a secret secessionist whom Welles refused to dismiss.”50
These officers were placed in charge of operations that would divert critical resources from the rescue of Fort Sumter to reenforcing Fort Pickens in Florida. Navy Secretary Welles complained: “The extraordinary powers and authority with which Captain Meigs and Lieutenant Porter were invested in the spring of 1861 would have alarmed the country and weakened the public confidence in the administrative capacity of the Executive had the facts been known. Mr. Aspinwall and other gentlemen informed me that when Captain Meigs applied to them for assistance and submitted the letters of the President and Secretary of State, clothing him and Porter with unlimited authority over the military and naval service – confessedly without the knowledge of the Secretary of War or the Secretary of the Navy, – they were alarmed for the safety and welfare of the Government. It betrayed the weakness in the executive head.”51
Meanwhile, Seward wrote President Lincoln a controversial letter suggested that the government lacked a policy for handling the crisis and he was willing to fill the leadership vacuum. Frederick W. Seward recalled: “On Sunday afternoon, the 1st of April, my father wrote out a series of suggestions for Mr. Lincoln, to aid him in thinking over topics which would come up at succeeding interviews. This paper was headed, ‘Some thoughts for the President’s consideration.’ It was not to be filed, or to pass into the hands of any clerk. As my father’s handwriting was almost illegible, I copied it myself, and dispatched it by private hand.”52 Seward biographer Thornton Kirkland Lothrop wrote: “as a statement of the extreme need of a domestic policy, and yet of its entire absence, Seward’s paper only repeated the common talk of the time, – the language of the newspaper press and the opinions contained in the private letters not merely of ordinary observers, but of well-informed and sensible persons.” Lothrop wrote that “the whole memorandum seems censorious rather than advisory; it bears evidence of the extremely high pressure under which he had been living for months, and the state of nervous tension produced by the anxiety and suspense of the winter.” Of the April 1 letter to Seward: David Donald wrote: “It was a perfect rebuke – but after finishing it, Lincoln did not send it. The only known copy is in his papers, not in those of Seward.”53 Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote: “There is reason to think that the president may not have sent this letter, opting instead to deal with the situation in a personal interview, which serves only to underscore the role that writing played in helping to crystallize his thinking.”54
Historian Norman B. Ferris denied that Seward was overreaching in his April 1 memorandum: “Any historian who examines contemporary periodicals and manuscripts for the period knows that Seward was correct, both in suggesting that there was no perception – either in the nation or abroad – that the Lincoln administration had a coherent domestic or foreign policy, and in recognizing that practically all the President’s time had been devoted to dispensing loaves and fishes to job applicants.”55 Ferris refuted accusations of a Seward power grab: “American foreign relations were in a perilous state and required full-time attention by a single directing force. Lincoln had little interest in foreign policy and many other problems with which to deal. The Cabinet, consisting of long-time political rivals, was not cohesive. In meeting the threat from abroad, haste was requisite. Seward wanted two things: Lincoln’s sanction for a concerted effort to prevent foreign war, and authority to make that effort without having it undermined by Cabinet colleagues or jeopardized by the kind of vacillation already shown in regard to the Fort Sumter problem. Continued indications of weakness and indecisiveness on the part of the administration would tempt foreign adventurers. Seward wanted to show unity and strength; soon, with Lincoln’s approval, he did.”56
Seward’s meddling was a repeated source of problems in the early Lincoln Administration. When General Winfield Scott took umbrage that Seward knew more about troop deployments than he did, Secretary of War Simon Cameron deflected blame from General George B. McClellan by saying: “No, no, General McClellan is not to blame. We all know that Secretary Seward is meddlesome – interfering in all departments with what is none of his business.”57 Attorney Henry Clay Whitney recalled visiting President Lincoln at the White House in July 1861 when Secretary Seward arrived. President Lincoln “hailed him a somewhat peremptory but good-natured manner: ‘Well, Govern-nuer, what is it now?’ The Secretary seemed a mere trifle nettled, but still amused, at this abrupt greeting. His ostensible business related to some needed thing about New Mexico; the President interrupted him by remarking: ‘In other words, New Mexico has no govern-or nor govern-ment.’ He then gave the Secretary the instruction needed, when the latter immediately withdrew, fully impressed with the belief that the President had banished care and burdensome business, including consultations with his constitutional advisers, for the remainder of that day.”58
According to Lincoln biographer David Donald, “While the President was wooing the Secretary, Seward was assiduously cultivating his special relationship to Lincoln. After their initial confrontation, he understood that Lincoln did not like arguments and disagreements with his advisers. According, as Secretary of State in charge of arranging cabinet meetings, he saw to it that very little major business was brought before the group. Instead he would meet privately with the President, so that, as critics like Welles complained, he could whisper in Lincoln’s ear, ‘patronizing and instructing him, hearing and telling anecdotes, relating interesting details of occurrences in the Senate and inculcating his political notions.’”59 Seward was also a manipulator, but he had met his match. Union army chaplain John Eaton recalled an interview with the President “who was leaning back in his arm-chair, his great length stretched out at east, his head thrown back, suddenly raised himself and swung the large effective head forward until his chin rested on his bosom, exclaiming, ‘Seward knows that I am his master!’”60
But the relationship between Mr. Lincoln and Secretary Seward generated many critics, inside and outside the cabinet. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had conflicts with Seward since the beginning of the Civil War. Attorney General Bates wrote in his diary on September 30, 1864: “It gives me pain to see so many instances of Mr. Seward’s extreme looseness in practical politics, and his utter disregard of the forms and the plain requirements of the law. He is constantly getting the President into trouble, and unsettling the best established policies of the the [sic] Government.
“It was he that procured the Prest’s cotton order, in favor of Hamilton; and nobody knows what fortunes some of his friends and proteges will make out of it. Mr. Welles. mentioned the matter, complainingly, to the Prest., who said he reckoned it was all right; it had been arranged by Seward!”61
Seward contributed to his own problems. Biographer John Taylor noted that Seward “included in the published State Department correspondence for 1861 a letter to Minister Dayton in France in which he had disparaged the more-extreme abolitionists. In one sentence Seward had equated Republican extremists with Jefferson Davis and his rebels, writing that it was almost as if ‘extreme advocates of African slavery and its most vehement opponents were acting in concert’ to precipitate a servile war.”62 Historian David H. Donald wrote: “The first blast in the war against Seward took place in September 1862, when a delegation of anti-Seward Republican leaders from New York descended on the White House to demand the reorganization of the administration and, especially, the ouster of Seward, who was thought not to have his heart in the war. Lincoln gave them an angry reception. ‘You, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘to hang Mr. Seward would destroy the government.’ The went home empty-handed.”63 Revulsion at the gruesome Union defeat at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, Radical Republicans looked for a scapegoat. Having eliminated George B. McClellan as the Union commander, they looked for a target in the Cabinet.
Other cabinet members viewed the frequent private conversations between President Lincoln and Secretary Seward with suspicion. During 1862, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase poisoned the minds of many congressmen with enmity to Seward and his role in administration policy. The result was a major confrontation between the Senate and the President in December 1862. Biographer Taylor wrote: “While it was clearly in Lincoln’s interest to stand up to the Radicals, it was also in his interest to retain Seward’s services. The secretary of state was not only the premier intellect of the cabinet but had proved himself totally loyal to the president as well. Had Seward departed, who might have succeeded him as ‘premier’? Would Lincoln have been comfortable with the ambitious, contemptuous Chase or the mercurial Stanton?”64
Historian Allan Nevins wrote that Seward “suddenly learned that half his own party not only bitterly hated him but thirsted for his blood. He saw that his ideas, methods, and loose use of words had raised a storm from which only Lincoln’s consummate skill had saved him. He was henceforth content to confine himself to State Department business.”65 After President Lincoln received both the Seward and Chase resignations in December 1862, he told Senator Ira Harris: “I can ride now – I’ve got a pumpkin in each end of my bag.”66
Criticism of Seward did not evaporate but radical criticism gradually began to focus more on Postmaster General Montgomery Blair as their least favorite member of the cabinet. “The ‘radicals’ have made another drive at Seward,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks in May 20, 1863. “The President is exceeding loth to give up his wise and conservative counsels, and retains him against the wishes of a respectably large fraction of his own party friends, merely, because he believes that to his far-seeing and astute judgment the Administration has owed more than one deliverance from a very tight place. Moreover, Seward’s policy has always been of a character to avoid all things which might result in a divided North, and though it may have been too emollient at times, it has resulted in retaining to the Administration its cohesive strength, when it would have drive off its friends by following the more arbitrary and rash measures of Stanton…”67
In addition to fellow cabinet members, Seward also upset the first lady. Mrs. Lincoln was not about to be supplanted as the social hub of Washington. Seward had an enemy as well as a friend in the White House. Noah Brooks wrote that Seward “is unpopular with Mrs. Lincoln who would like to see Sumner in his place.”68 Elizabeth Todd Edwards recalled that early in the Lincoln Administration “Mrs. Lincoln insulted Seward one day. Mr. Seward was the Power behind the Throne. Mrs L had heard of this often & often – One day She Said to Mr. Seward. It is Said you are the Power behind the Throne – I’ll Show you that Mr. L is President yet.”69 Presidential bodyguard Smith Stimmel was with the Lincoln carriage one day when Mrs. Lincoln proclaimed: “I will not drive past Seward’s house. Let us take some other some other route.” Mr. Lincoln acquiesced and the carriage went a different way.70
The role of women in this period was not easy – and for educated women like Seward’s wife Frances it was not comfortable “Frances was increasingly debilitated by a wide range of nervous disorders: nausea, temporary blindness, insomnia, migraines, mysterious pains in her muscles and joints, crying spells, and sustained bouts of depression.” Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “Doctors could not pinpoint the physical origin of the various ailments that conspired to leave Frances a semi-invalid. A brilliant woman, Frances once speculated whether the ‘various nervous afflictions & morbid habits of thought’ that plagued so many women she knew had their origin in the frustrations of an educated woman’s life in the mid-nineteenth century. Among her papers is a draft of an unpublished essay on the plight of women: ‘To share in any kind of household work is to demean herself, and she would be thought mad, to run, leap, or engage in active sports.”71
Astute as she was, Mrs. Seward detested Washington politics. “The thought of the White House was like a nightmare to Frances, and after Lincoln’s nomination in 1860 her spirits rose. It looked as though Henry’s political career was coming to a close, and then would come the retirement to Auburn for which she longed,” wrote biographer Glyndon Van Deusen.72 When Mrs. Seward and her family came to call on Mrs. Lincoln in September 1861, Mrs. Lincoln deliberately rebuffed them by instructing them to be old that she was “very much engaged.” Seward daughter Fanny wrote: “The truth of Mrs. L.’s engagement was probably that she did not want to see Mother – else why not give general directions to the door keeper to let no one in? It was certainly very rude to have us all seated first.”73
The men did not hold the same grudges as their wives. Seward’s son recalled: “Thrown into daily companionship, they found, not only cordial accord in most of their political opinions but a trait in common not shared by all their contemporaries. That was their disposition to take a genial, philosophical view of human nature, and of national destiny.”74 Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “Their mutual faith in each other helped sustain both Lincoln and Seward through the continuing attacks of radicals and conservatives. Under political fire, both men remained remarkably calm.”75 Historian David Herbert Donald wrote: “Seward liked to close his office at four o’clock to take a carriage ride around Washington, and he often persuaded the busy President to accompany him. Frequently, the drove out to the ring of forts that General McClellan had erected to protect the capital, where they both enjoyed chatting with the soldiers and their officers.”76
According to Lincoln biographer Alonzo Rothschild, Seward “found safety behind the man whom, not many months before, he had thought to thrust into the background. After the repulse of the senatorial cabal, moreover, Lincoln made short work of those who came to undermine the Secretary of State. He shielded Seward against all such assaults, and kept him secure in his high office to the end.”77 Seward biographer John M. Taylor wrote: “James Scovel, a New Jersey-born newspaper reporter who enjoyed Lincoln’s confidence, had excellent access to the White House; on occasion he was even admitted on Sunday mornings, a period normally reserved for Seward and the presidential barber. Scovel could not forget the sight of Lincoln discussing recent developments with his secretary of state. ‘Mr. Seward in conversation was slow and methodical till warmed up, when he was one of the most eloquent of talkers,’ Scovel recalled. But he thought the two made an odd couple. ‘The impression following an hour with Seward and Lincoln was surprise that the two men seemingly so unlike in habit of thought and manner of speech could act in such perfect accord.’ Even in the early months of his administration Lincoln had deferred to his secretary of state in a way that irritated men like Chase and Welles. Now, with Seward’s adroit handling of the Trent affair, Lincoln believed that his original judgment had been fully vindicated.”78
Seward never lost his driving ambition although he was forced to temper it. But the growing strength of Radical Republicans in Congress assured that Seward’s presidential ambitions would be blocked. Seward wrote his wife: “I a chief reduced to a subordinate position, and surrounded with a guard, to see that I do not do too much for my country, lest some advantage may revert indirectly to my own fame.”79 President Lincoln’s secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote of the secretary of state: “Mr. Seward, while doing everything possible to serve the national cause, and thus unconsciously building for himself an enduring monument in the respect and regard of the country, was, so far as can be discerned, absolutely free from any ambition or afterthought personal to himself. He was, during the early part of the war, so intent upon the work immediately in hand that he had no leisure for political combinations; and later, when the subject of the next Presidential nomination began to be considered and discussed, he recognized the fact that Mr. Lincoln was best qualified by his abilities, his experience, and his standing in the country to be his own successor.”80
By nature, Seward was a contrarian. Seward biographer Glyndon Van Deusen wrote: “Close association, together with the haunting specter of the might have been, produced in Seward an ambivalent attitude toward the man in the White House. At times he was full of criticism and complaint. Such had been the case in March of 1861, and so it was from time to time in the succeeding years. Richard M. Blatchford, in Washington for briefing on his Roman mission, undoubtedly saw his old friend the Secretary of State. ‘Blatch’ stopped off in London en route to Italy and poured into the receptive ear of Charles Francis Adams tales of ‘the honest incompetency of the President.’ Then came the Cabinet crisis of December 1862, with Lincoln’s defense of Seward, and shortly thereafter at a Washington dinner party where the latter held the center of the stage he eulogized his chief as the best and wisest man he had ever known.”81
Treasury official Maunsell B. Field reported: “Mr. Seward expressed the very highest opinion of Mr. Lincoln as a politician. Indeed, I think it must be conceded by all who had intimate opportunities to study that remarkable man, that Mr. Lincoln was the most consummate politician that this country has yet produced, except his great rival, Stephen A. Douglas. He was in politics what the London Times is in journalism – never leading public opinion, but always following its wave so closely that, when it breaks, it is found swimming upon the crest. To the unobservant he appeared to lead, whereas he only followed. He had an unerring and rapid perception of the popular will, and the policy which he from time to time adopted was but the crystallization of that will.”82
Seward was a contrarian on emancipation. Biographer Glyndon Van Deusen wrote: “As Lincoln waited, Seward continued to wonder about the President’s plan. Emancipation, he felt, could be regarded as right in principle, but might not this proposed action be disastrous. The possibility of foreign interference, if the proclamation produced chaos in the South, haunted him, and he asked John Lothrop Motley in Vienna about his danger. Proclamations without the support of the armies, he told Frances, were paper. In August he sent Lincoln letters from two correspondents, one strongly urging, the other deploring emancipation. He added this whimsical note – ‘Theology has no article more dogmatically disputed than the political one which the parties of the country seemed determined that you should die upon. I send you an argument pro, and an argument con.’”83
Historian Allen C. Guelzo noted: “For a politician who had once been seen as a Radical, prophesying in 1858 an ‘irrepressible conflict’ between North and South, Seward had proven curiously uninterested in making war on slavery.”84 Seward wrote American Minister in London Charles Francis Adams in mid-February 1862: “To proclaim the crusade (against slavery) is unnecessary; and it would even be inexpedient, because it would deprive us of the needful and legitimate support of the friends of the Union who are opposed to slavery, but who prefer union with slavery, to disunion without slavery. Does France or does Great Britain want to see a social revolution here, with all its horrors, like the slave revolution in St. Domingo? Are these powers sure that the country, or the world, is ripe for such a revolution, so that it must certainly be successful? What if, in inaugurating such a revolution, slavery, protesting against ferocity and inhumanity, should prove the victor?”85
Seward called the Proclamation “a puff of wind over an accomplished fact.” According to Seward, “The emancipation proclamation was uttered in the first gun fired at Sumter and we have been the last to hear it. As it is, we show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”86 Historian David Herbert Donald wrote: “Seward doubted the wisdom as well as the efficacy of both Lincoln’s preliminary proclamation of September 22 and his final proclamation of January 1, 1863, declaring the slaves in the rebel states free. In a private conversation with Thomas Ewing of Ohio, Seward spoke of ‘the pernicious influence of the proclamation,’ and he told Orville Browning that ‘the proclamation were unfortunate, and that we would have been nearer the end of the war and the end of slavery both without them.”87
Seward took a key role in passage of the 13thth Amendment, according to historian Michael Vorenberg: “Besides Ashley and Lincoln, the most diligent manager of the amendment was secretary of State William Henry Seward. Perhaps on Lincoln’s advice, but just as likely on his own initiative, Seward decided to take a leading role in steering the amendment through Congress. The lobby he organized became renowned, not only for its dogged pursuit of opposition votes but also for its use of questionable, even corrupt methods.”88 Lincoln scholar Frank J. Williams wrote: “Secretary of State William Henry Seward enlisted the aid of four Democratic operatives – W.N. Bilbo, Emanuel B. Hart, Robert W. Latham, and George O. Jones – to work on New York congressmen for their support. Bilbo found Congressman Homer A. Nelson to be most helpful, and Nelson subsequently voted for the amendment resolution. Nelson was offered a foreign post at the end of his term in March 1865 – clearly in appreciation for his support. He declined, asking Seward instead for a position in the Treasury Department. Latham and Seward also had contact with Sunset Cox. On January 12, 1865, Cox created a sensation in the House by arguing that the amendment resolution, while inexpedient, was unquestionably constitutional, thus pulling out from under the Democratic opposition its major argument.”89
Historian George T. McJimsey wrote that in addition to working for passage of the 13thth Amendment, “There was other evidence that Lincoln and Seward were working together for a conservative reconstruction. On February 3, 1865, the two met aboard a ship off the coast fo Hampton Roads, Virginia, with representatives of the Confederacy, led by Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, to discuss peace terms. Peace, Lincoln said, would come when the South agreed to three conditions: reunion, a complete cessation of hostilities with no armistice, and no re-enslaving of blacks freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Elaborating on this last point, Seward informed the Confederates that Congress had just passed the Thirteenth Amendment but predicted that if the war ended soon enough the amendment would not be ratified by enough states to become part of the Constitution. Lincoln did not comment on Seward’s remarks but later advised the southern states to lay down their arms and ratify the amendment prospectively so that it would not become law for up to five years.”90
But, added McJimsey, it was not “clear that Seward spoke for Lincoln at the Hampton Roads conference when he suggested that the southern states ought to rejoin the Union in time to defeat the amendment At the Cabinet meeting on February 5, however, he proposed to compensate the slaveowners only if their states ratified the amendment at once. It might be noted also that the President had not planned to attend the Hampton Roads conference and had written out instructions for Seward, stating his minimum terms for peacemaking and concluding that ‘you will not assume to definitely consummate anything.’ Whatever Lincoln’s easure of confidence, it was not complete.”91 Although their relationship had grown since the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln may not have forgotten Seward’s manipulation of the Fort Sumter rescue mission.
Seward was injured on April 5, 1865 when he was thrown from his carriage while on a ride with his son and daughter. After rushing to Seward’s home after the accident, Secretary of War Stanton wired President Lincoln: “Mr. Seward was thrown from his carriage his shoulder bone at the head of the joint broken off, his head and face much bruised and he is in my opinion dangerously injured. I think your presence here is needed.”92 After touring Richmond, President Lincoln returned to Washington and visited the pain-wracked secretary and briefed him on the war effort. As Frederick W. Seward remembered the visit: “It was in the evening, the gaslights were turned down low, and the house was still, everyone moving softly and speaking in whispers. The injured Secretary was helpless and swathed in bandages, on his bed in the centre of the room. The extreme sensitiveness of the wounded arm made even the touch of the bed clothing intolerable. To keep it free from their contact he was lying on the edge of the bed farthest from the door. Mr. Lincoln, entering with kindly expressions of sympathy, sat down on the bed by the invalids’s side.
‘You are back from Richmond?” whispered Seward, who was hardly able to articulate.”
“Yes,” said Lincoln, “and I think we are near the end at last.”
“Then, leaning his tall form across the bed and resting on his elbow, so as to bring his face near that of the injured man, he gave him an account of his experience ‘at the front,’ Seward listening with interest, but unable to utter a word without pain. They were left together for half an hour or more.”
“Then the door opened softly, and Mr. Lincoln came out gently, intimating by a silent look and gesture that Seward had fallen into a feverish slumber and must not be disturbed.”
“It was their last meeting.”93
Seward’s injury was compounded on the night President Lincoln was assassinated. Historian Frederic Bancroft wrote “About ten o’clock in the evening of April 14th, when Seward’s sick-room had been put in order for the night, an unknown man rang the door-bell and told the servant that he brought a message from the physician. As there was nothing suspicious about him, he was allowed to pass up-stairs; but at Seward’s door he was refused admission by Frederick W. Seward. The stranger tried in vain to fire his revolver, and then savagely beat the Assistant Secretary over the head with hit, until the weapon broke. Then bursting open the door, he rushed at the Secretary, striking furious blows at his head and throat with a bowie-knife, until Seward rolled from the other side of the bed to the floor. The male nurse, who tried to protect the Secretary, received some bad cuts, and so did Augustus Seward, who undertook to expel the assassin. As the assailant was leaving he wounded a fifth man, and then rode off on the horse he had left near the front door. Seward’s throat had been ‘cut on both sides, his right cheek nearly severed from his face.’ Probably it was the iron frame on his jaw that turned a blow that might have caused instant death.”94
Miraculously, Seward recovered. Seward was not told of President Lincoln’s assassination, but he divined what had occurred when he saw the American flag at the War Department was signaling a country in mourning. Seward told his male nurse: “The President is dead.” Seward said he concluded President Lincoln was dead because “if he had been alive he would have been the first to call on me, but he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there’s the flag at half-mast.”95 New York Times editor Henry J. Raymond later wrote: “Free from the faintest impulse of revenge himself, he could not appreciate its desperate intensity in the hearts of others. Mr. Seward, with his larger experience and more practical knowledge of human nature, had repeatedly told him that so great a contest could never close without passing through an era of assassination – that if it did not come as a means of aiding the rebel cause, it would follow, and seek to avenge its downfall, and that it was the duty of all who were responsibly and conspicuously connected with the Government, to be prepared for this supreme test of their courage and patriotic devotion. Mr. Seward himself, had acted upon this conviction, and had stood at his post always prepared for sudden death.”96
Biographer Glyndon Van Deusen wrote: “Seward and Lincoln often differed, even on questions of major importance, but from the beginning they developed a close and friendly relationship. This intimacy, which caused heartburnings among various members of the Cabinet, was in some ways remarkable.”97 Historian Norman B. Ferris wrote: “Throughout the war years, Seward, while remaining a faithful subordinate to Lincoln, enjoyed the President’s complete confidence. If Seward was in any sense a prime minister, it was because the chief executive desired him to play that role.”98 Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “More than any other cabinet member, Seward appreciated Lincoln’s peerless skill in balancing factions both within his administration and in the country at large. While radicals considered Seward a conservative influence on the president, in truth, he and the president were engaged in the same task of finding a middle position between the two extremes – the radical Republicans, who believed that freeing the slaves should be the primary goal of the war, and the conservative Democrats, who resisted any change in the status of the slaves and fought solely for the restoration of the Union.”99
More on the Author
John M. Taylor is the author of Garfield of Ohio: The Available Man; Roger Ludlow: The Colonial Lawyer; Confederate Raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama; and Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E. Lee and His Critics.
- Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, p. 105.
- Charles A. Dana, Lincoln and His Cabinet, p. 27.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, May 2, 1863, p. 46.
- Glyndon Van Deusen, William Henry Seward, p. 245.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 12
- John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand Man Frederick Seward , p. 73.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (The Election of 1848, Cleveland, Ohio, October 26, 1848, Works of William H. Seward, Volume III, pp. 291-302), p. 133.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 146.
- Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: The Improvised War, 1861-1862, p. 22.
- David Herbert Donald, “We Are Lincoln Men” Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, p. 155.
- New York History Net, http://www.nyhistory.com/central/conflict.htm,
- David M. Potter, Lincoln and his Party in Secession, pp. 81-82.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 129 (“The Heroic Age in Washington”).
- William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The Man and the President, p. 265.
- David Herbert Donald, “We Are Lincoln Men” Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, p. 160.
- Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress: Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from William H. Seward to Abraham Lincoln, April 25, 1862).
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 388.
- Glyndon Van Deusen, William Henry Seward, p. 338.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 193.
- Charles A. Dana, Recollections of the Civil War, pp. 155-156.
- Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, p. 221.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln (James Grant Wilson, Putnam’s Magazine, February-March, 1909), p. 422.
- Gideon Welles, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward, p. 43.
- John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward, p. 189.
- Glyndon Van Deusen, William Henry Seward, p. 256.
- Gideon Welles, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward, p. 43.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 375 (John Palmer Usher, June 20, 1887).
- John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward, p. 106.
- Frederic Bancroft, The Life of William H. Seward, Volume I, p. 543.
- Frederic Bancroft, The Life of William H. Seward, Volume I, p. 446.
- Emerson D. Fite, The Presidential Campaign of 1860, pp. 212-213.
- Frederic Bancroft, The Life of William H. Seward, Volume I, p. 551.
- William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, pp. 77-78.
- Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to Civil War, 1859-1861, p. 438.
- Ben Perley Poore, Perley’s Reminiscences, Volume II, p. 55.
- Ralph R. Fahrney, Horace Greeley and the Tribune in the Civil War, p. 41.
- Daniel J. Ryan, “Lincoln and Ohio,” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, 1923, p. 162.
- Gideon Welles, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward, p. 42.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 341.
- George Milton Fort, The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War, p. 532.
- Burton J. Hendricks, Lincoln’s War Cabinet, p. 145.
- Joseph Schafer, editor and translator, Intimate Letters of Carl Schurz pp. 242-243 (Letter to his wife, February 4, 1861), 1841-1869.
- Glyndon Van Deusen, William Henry Seward, p. 245.
- David Herbert Donald, “We Are Lincoln Men” Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, p. 150 (Letter from Thurlow Weed to William H. Seward, March 7, 1861).
- Richard Nelson Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, p. 90.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln (Gideon Welles, p. 445 (“Narrative of Events Commencing March 6, 1861″).
- Roy F. Nichols, The Stakes of Power, 1845-1877, pp. 97-98.
- Gideon Welles, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward , pp. 65-66 (Letter from Montgomery Blair to Gideon Welles, May 17, 1873).
- Timothy D. Johnson, Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory, p. 225.
- Geoffrey Perret, Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander in Chief (Letter from Green Adams and Joshua Speed), p. 19.
- Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p.38.
- Frederick Seward, Reminiscences of a War-Time Statesman and Diplomat, p. 149.
- David Herbert Donald, “We Are Lincoln Men” Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, p. 153.
- Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 72.
- Norman B. Ferris, “Lincoln and Seward in Civil War Diplomacy: Their Relationship at the Outset Reexamined,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 12, 1991
- Norman B. Ferris, “Lincoln and Seward in Civil War Diplomacy: Their Relationship at the Outset Reexamined” , Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 12, 1991
- Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, pp. 241-242.
- Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 437.
- David Herbert Donald, “We Are Lincoln Men,” Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, p. 155.
- John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 178.
- Howard K. Beale, editor, The Diary of Edward Bates, p. 414.
- John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward, p. 205.
- David Herbert Donald, “We Are Lincoln Men,” Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, p. 166.
- John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward, p. 211.
- Allan Nevins, The War for The Union, II, p. 363.
- John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward, p. 210.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, May 20, 1863, p. 53.
- P. J. Staudenraus, editor, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, May 2, 1863, p. 175.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants (Interview with Elizabeth Todd Edwards, ca 1865-1866), p. 445.
- Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 118.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 155
- Glyndon Van Deusen, William Henry Seward, p. 267.
- Elizabeth Smith Brownstein, Lincoln’s Other White House (Fanny Seward Diary, p. 360), p. 217.
- Frederick W. Seward, Seward at Washington, p. 197.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
- David Herbert Donald, “We Are Lincoln Men,” Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, p. 158.
- Alonzo Rothschild, Lincoln: Master of Men: A Study in Character, p. 155.
- John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward, p. 187.
- David Herbert Donald, “We Are Lincoln Men” Abraham Lincoln and His Friends (Letter from William H. Seward to Frances Seward), p. 159.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Abraham Lincoln: The Observations of John G. Nicolay and John Hay, p. 120 (From John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume VI, pp. 253-273).
- Glyndon Van Deusen, William Henry Seward, p. 336.
- Maunsell B. Field, Memories of Many Men and of Some Women, pp. 263-264.
- Glyndon Van Deusen, William Henry Seward, p. 331.
- Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, p. 122.
- Isaac N. Arnold, The History of Abraham Lincoln and the Overthrow of Slavery, p. 697.
- Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, p. 222.
- David Herbert Donald, “We Are Lincoln Men,” Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, pp. 164-165.
- Michael Vorenberg, Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment, p. 182.
- Frank J. Williams, Judging Lincoln, p. 141.
- George T. McJimsey, The Dividing and Reuniting of America: 1848-1877, p. 130.
- George T. McJimsey, The Dividing and Reuniting of America: 1848-1877, p. 131.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 721.
- Frederick W. Seward, Reminiscences of A War-Time Statesman and Diplomat, 1830-1915, p. 253.
- Frederic Bancroft, The Life of William H. Seward, p. 417.
- Noah Brooks, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington, p. 459.
- Henry J. Raymond, Lincoln, His Life and Times Being the Life and Public Services of Abraham Lincoln, p. 692.
- Glyndon Van Deusen, William Henry Seward, p. 335.
- Norman B. Ferris, “Lincoln and Seward in Civil War Diplomacy: Their Relationship at the Outset Reexamined”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 1991, p. 38.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 430.