William Henry Seward

A NEW generation has come upon the stage since William H. Seward, past seventy years old, a battered, exhausted, outworn statesman, died in 1872. Men are yet living who were his junior associates in public life during the strenuous years when he was a leader ; a foremost opponent in the United States Senate of the slave power in its mighty struggle to establish an incontestable supremacy in the nation; the adroit, resourceful, and, under Lincoln, the successful director of our desperate foreign relations during the momentous crisis of the civil war. But these living associates are not many, and are fast passing away. Men who knew Seward in the time of his power, only as neophyte politicians and schoolboys know mature and declining party leaders, now occupy the seats of authority. The recollections of him that stay in the minds of these are colored by the hue of partisan praise or party detraction to which they were accustomed in their impressionable years.

Has the time come for a broad historical view and review of this man’s career ? Regarding the purpose and scope of a Life, a biography, the answer must be an affirmative one. Indeed, it may be thought that the time is late rather than early. Already such service has been done, well done, for several of his great contemporaries. Certainly Mr. Bancroft had this justification for the task he has attempted and performed.1 He had also some particular qualification in his long service in the State Department, his knowledge of the traditions of the capital, and of the peculiar subtle influences that pervade the place and affect the motives and actions of those who live the life of politics there.

The result of his labor is given to the public in two stout octavo volumes, containing more than eleven hundred compactly printed pages. The work bears evidence of diligent delving in various appropriate sources of information, and of patient digestion of large stores of material. It is understood that the work was in hand during several industrious years, and this may easily be credited. Here is no mere compilation of documents and of other men’s knowledge and judgments. There is no suggestion of padding. In consideration of the inevitable temptations presented, the fewness of long citations, either for proof or for illustration, is a noticeable merit. All of Seward’s literary work abounds in quotable material. Many an historical Life is stuffed to a condition of lethargy and deadness, when the author’s fondness is like the appetite of a gourmand. Whatever limitation may have been put upon Mr. Bancroft’s desire by outward conditions, — copyrights, for example, — it is obvious that he had freedom in many directions, and he has not abused it in any. He has the faculty, instinctive it may be, but disciplined too, of plucking from a speech, a letter, a dispatch, the sentences and phrases which contain the significance of the whole, and so weaving them into his narrative that they do not halt it. This is a dangerous power when a writer may be suspected of another aim than to reveal the real truth, and it may excite suspicion when reference and correction are impossible. In this case the sources are accessible and carefully indicated. Misrepresentation can hardly escape exposure.

The story Mr. Bancroft has to tell is one of real character, action, and circumstances. He tells it seriously, intelligently, vigorously, clearly. He belongs to the school of writers who would, if they could, expunge from their minds the talent of ideality, when they set about a task of this kind. Ideals, they say to themselves, belong to poetry, romance, music, perhaps to religion; but not to history, not to the actualities of life as it is lived, nor to a record of it. A biography, in order to be true, must be free from the illusory tinge of admiration. It must not be a statue with its best aspect in light and the rest in shadow; not a picture painted or photographed from the most advantageous point of view; but a flat chart of a life, with all the soundings duly indicated in plain figures. Mr. Bancroft has so spread out to contemplation the life of Mr. Seward. The analytical purpose is controlling. Seward is explored, dissected, exposed, catalogued, — his motives as well as his deeds. It is very completely done. Few affairs in his career about which men hereafter will care to inquire have escaped the author’s curious, searching, pragmatical attention. The presentation may be strictly accurate, but it is not picturesque. It is interesting, but not of the deepest interest, for it does not much engage the heart. It is instructive, but not of the highest instruction, for it does not kindle aspiration. Granting, as must be granted, that this limitation of effect is due in great part to the nature of the subject, in some part it is due also to the method of the author.

In its literary quality the book is carefully and vigorously written. Mr. Bancroft’s style is lucid, virile, and reasonably affluent, well adapted to narration and to conveying opinion. He has ability to say what he desires to say with direct and forceful impression. It is not a style that is especially characterized by elegance or charm. One does not often linger upon the felicity of the phrasing, and less often is he halted by any awkwardness of form or indistinctness of meaning. As the treatment of the theme exhibits a strong sense of values and relations and a mastery of contributory details, so the style, in its structure, its movement, its stress, and its qualifications, shows talent for the due organization and array of the materials of language to engage attention to its substantial message. It is a style free from weakening diffuseness, from perplexing involutions, from crabbed and mutilated sentences. Commonly, it is full, sometimes copious, scarcely ever prolix or tawdry. It is not epigrammatic, and the perils that beset an unnatural effort to be epigrammatic are escaped. It advances from topic to topic and from thought to thought with steady, even movement; not as a march with music and banners, nor as a tedious plodding onward, but with becoming spirit and eagerness and confidence.

Some critics will be apt, and not without reason, to find fault with the author’s habitual introspection, — not of himself, but of Mr. Seward. He is not satisfied to tell the reader what Mr. Seward did or said, but must track the action back to its motive source in the inner chambers of his soul. A reasonable amount of this kind of psychological speculation is tolerable and helpful ; but after a reader gets the clue to the author’s notion of his subject’s nature and traits, he can divine it in particular cases, and does not relish being anticipated or impeded in making his own reflections. When an author feels obliged to note continually, as often as occasion is presented, that a course of conduct under consideration exemplifies an already well - attested trait, it becomes tiresome to men of disciplined intelligence, however useful it may be for instructing the immature. One does not get far along in this Life of Seward without learning that he was a politician whose career was bound to be a struggle to reconcile the intellectual entertainment of certain noble sentiments of duty to country and humanity with the gratification of his ambition for popular applause and stations of practical power. One who accepted as his mentor in patriotism and statesmanship John Quincy Adams, and depended for advancement in politics upon the management of Thurlow Weed, could hardly avoid obtaining a reputation for duplicity and timeserving.

This insistence upon calling attention to Seward’s inconsistencies and his lapses from the high standard of his better conceptions of duty appears to be without malice ; but the cumulative effect is disagreeable, if it does not cause in some instances a perversion of judgment. A disproportionate sense of demerit, it may be feared, will enter into the estimate of readers who derive their knowledge of him chiefly from this book. Not that there is apparent reluctance or failure to present the nobler aspects of the statesman’s character and service distinctly and generously, — for this cannot be alleged ; but there is, perhaps, too much anxiety on the part of the author lest he might be suspected of the sin of eulogy. No one would limit the discretion of the biographer of an historical personage by the maxim, " De mortuis nil nisi bonum ; ” but between this precept and a rule prescribing pitiless truth in exploiting the weaknesses of those whose title to remembrance is great service to the state there are at least ninety degrees of latitude.

A quality of the book that deserves commendation is its close sticking to its subject. The temptation to ramble and to treat at large of the service and quality of other public men, the phases of public sentiment, the unessential intrigues, the military operations, the related but inconsequential episodes of domestic and foreign affairs, must have been only less enticing than the temptation to quote in extenso, to which allusion has been made. As to all such digressions the author has been severely abstemious. Nothing has place which is not definitely and, almost it may be said, indispensably essential to the relation of Seward’s career, being a part of his immediate work or necessary to an understanding of it. There are no long interjected essays, — nothing like the chapter on Society in Boston, in Pierce’s Life of Sumner. Seward is always in sight, and almost always the chief figure. No one, not even Lincoln, is permitted to distract attention from the one person whom it is the purpose of the author to depict. Seward lives in the book, a very real and human man, with great natural gifts, great desire for power, great opportunities of serving his country, great success and honor of accomplishment. No good reason is apparent why the story of his career should be told in fullness again. Nothing highly important can remain to be added. Whatever of criticism has been suggested here is not meant to imply that the author has not succeeded in a manner deserving warm recognition and praise. It would be fulsome to say that the work ranks with the few biographies accounted of the first class, but it merits esteem for its fidelity, sincerity, courage, and power.

Mr. Seward’s nature was so complex that it is difficult to characterize him simply. To do it at any time hereafter will be as difficult as now, unless meanwhile much is forgotten. In the first place, it is not easy to designate his polestar. Sometimes it appears to have been a sun of the firmament, and sometimes a mere terrestrial beacon. He was ever surprising his contemporaries by some unexpected action, or counsel, or failure. He had a sagacious but not infallible instinct for seizing the prevalent opinion of the day as a means of power. Also, he showed at times the possession of a far-penetrating glance, by which he was enabled to put’ himself en rapport with the opinion of to-morrow and the day after to-morrow, in order to make use of that when it should become prevalent. His faith in eternal verities was strong. At any time he would have confessed their existence, and sometimes he affirmed it with impressive solemnity ; but his constant reliance was on the knowing intellect of William H. Seward and the managing skill of Thurlow Weed. He was a prophet who delighted to prophesy smooth things. He had no troublesome sense of consecration to deliver the very truth in his message, or to adhere to it in his course. He was no Garrison, no Sumner. He could withhold utterance with a masterful repression until sure that his speech would fall upon minds waiting for it.

He entered political life in 1831, as the representative in the New York Senate of a factitious local rage known as Anti-Masonry, fostered for political ends by enemies of the party then in power, the Republican party, which later took the name of the Democratic party. He retired from political life in 1869, when the weak and distrusted administration of Andrew Johnson, in which he had held on as Secretary of State, came to an unlamented end. Meanwhile, he had been a Whig during the lifetime of that party, and a Republican thereafter, and in office three fourths of the time. Whether in office or out of office, he was always active, prominent, and influential, although his last years in office were marked by declining vigor and the abandonment of former friends. In the beginning of this career he was noted for extraordinary intellectual power and extraordinary industry, for fertility in ideas and resources, for the variety of his public interests, the shrewdness of his counsel, the ardor and persuasiveness of his speech, the poise of his character, the charm of his manners, and the nobility of his ambition. Sagacious men, friends and foes, regarded him as one destined to advancement whenever political conditions were favorable, who might demonstrate an ability for the high places of national statesmanship. But his opportunities did not follow swiftly. He had but one term in the legislature, the Anti-Masonry party dissolving almost as rapidly as it had been formed, and the (Democratic) Republicans regaining control of the state. He was active in the organization of the new Whig party. In 1834 he was its first candidate for governor. He failed in that year, but four years later he was chosen, and, by reëlection, served for four years. Then came a term of six years of unofficial although very active life, until a turn of Fortune’s wheel, giving the legislature to the Whigs, made him a United States Senator, when he entered on the career that raised him to historical eminence, being then not quite forty-eight years old.

No full summary of this higher career can be attempted here. Seward was already strongly and variously committed to anti-slavery principles. He was never an apologist for slavery, never an abettor of the slaveholder’s schemes to nationalize the sectional institution. He was not an Abolitionist, nor did he ally himself with the Liberty party of 1844, or the Free Soil party in either of its campaigns. Through all this period he was a Whig with antislavery principles, opposing the Clay compromises of 1850 which Webster favored. He supported General Scott in 1852, but inactively, because he did not approve of the party’s acceptance of the compromise acts as a finality. The crushing defeat of that year did not extinguish his hope of becoming the leader of the party in a new policy. Even after the great uprising of the North in protest against the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, he did not immediately perceive that the case was hopeless. Not until 1855 did he and Thurlow Weed consent to lead the remnant of the Whig party of New York into the camp of the recently christened Republican party.

As he had been the leading Whig statesman, after the rejection of Webster in the national convention of 1852, he at once became the leading statesman of the new party, ranking in the ardor and effectiveness of his advocacy of its principles with those who had been its apostles since 1848, and excelling them all in knowledge of political arts and the range of his official experience. It cannot be said that his zeal was that of a new convert ; for, while marching under another flag, he had long professed the doctrines and the aims in statesmanship which the new party was organized to promote, and had long been regarded as with it in spirit, although slow to discern that the Whig party was no longer a hopeful instrumentality for the achievement of these doctrines and aims. It was not strange, therefore, that as soon as he cast in his lot with the Republican party he was a prominent candidate for its nomination for the presidency. Not for the first time did he then contemplate the possibility of such distinction ; but his earlier ambition was to be sometime the candidate of the Whigs, if that party could be brought into the position of representing the national sentiment opposed to the designing, ruthless, insatiable greed of the political slave power. The key to his course until he joined the Republican party is his optimistic confidence that he could mould the Whig party into a successful party of freedom, and be its national leader.

He was defeated in the national Republican convention of 1856. Not William H. Seward, but John C. Fremont became the first candidate of the new party. Mr. Bancroft alleges that the opposition to Seward was on account of his radicalism. In addition it may be said that the elements composing the movement had not fused. The prejudices of old antagonism were powerful. Seward was unacceptable to some because he so lately was a Whig. During the next four years he did great work in the Senate and on the platform, contributing large service to solidifying the sentiment and inspiring the hope of the new party. His fame was much enhanced, and deservedly so, for it grew upon new demonstrations of his statesmanship, his resources of power, and his understanding of the fundamental character, in the aspect of patriotism, of the issue to be determined. Again, and now with apparent certainty, he was regarded as the coming candidate of his party. Yet he was defeated in the convention, when defeat seemed impossible, by a combination of conditions and interests which no human wisdom could foresee and prevent, which no one now wishes had been prevented.

The four months between the election of the Republican President and his inauguration afforded the supreme opportunity of Seward’s statesmanship. He saved the Union then. It is hardly too much to say: alone he did it. Had he been the President elect, he could not have done what he did without compromising his administration. No one else could have done it, for no one else had the necessary combination of wisdom, station, influence, and fortitude. More than the President in the White House, more than the elected President, more than the Congress in the Capitol, more than the agitated, fuming politicians of the North and the South, he held in leash the rage of sections, and steadied the reeling nation by his imperturbable confidence of peace. He stayed the storm until in the place of chief responsibility the whimpering senility of Buchanan was supplanted by the robust manhood of Lincoln.

His best and incontestable title to fame rests on his conduct of our foreign relations during the eight years of Lincoln’s and Johnson’s administrations. In 1861 none of the leaders of the Republican party had been tested in offices of national administration, nor had the President. Some of them had been governors of states ; most had won their standing in public discussion or in Congress. No one had a record of longer or more notable public life than Seward. In the Senate he had taken special interest in foreign relations. His knowledge of international law was not equal to Sumner’s, but his general fitness for the office of Secretary of State was recognized. His defeat in the convention had not prevented him from giving Lincoln a loyal and effective support. Personal and party obligation designated him for the office. There was a more imperative requirement. Half of the Republican party were solicitous, to say the least, regarding the new President’s ability ; believed Seward’s to be the master mind, and expected him to be the President’s controlling guide in the business of government. To these his acceptance seemed the necessity of public safety. Seward himself was of this opinion ; and when the circumstances are calmly considered, it is not necessary to attribute his feeling solely to vanity. It is now apparent that at the start Seward blundered egregiously, and dire misfortunes were prevented only by Lincoln’s overruling wisdom. When Seward discovered that Lincoln intended to be President in fact as well as in name, and to take upon himself as a personal responsibility every duty that belonged to the office, he fell into his proper place with a good will and fidelity that must be reckoned magnanimous.

The supreme task was to keep European states from recognizing the Confederacy as a national government, and lending their aid to the accomplishment of the fact. It was a task of extraordinary difficulty, all the dynasties, except that of Russia, seeming ready enough to have the great republic of the western world broken in two, and its power divided. It is confessed now that the Lincoln-Seward diplomacy, viewed in the large, was vigilant, courageous, tactful, masterly; not successful in every incident, to be sure, but triumphant in the main points. In the points wherein it failed, as the escape of the Alabama and the invasion of Mexico, it prepared the way for future penalty and humiliation. Without assuming to speak with authority in these high matters, it seems not undue praise to say that, in the long term of Seward’s tenure of the office of Secretary of State, he was not overmatched by any of the well-schooled diplomats of Europe with whom he had important, delicate, and critical negotiations.

He came near being a companion of Lincoln in martyrdom. If one assassin’s dagger had done its cruel work as effectively as the other’s pistol, the two statesmen would have been more closely associated in fame forever. Lincoln died at the culmination of his greatness, and is apotheosized with Washington. Seward lingered through Johnson’s administration in the Department of State, doing his proper work with unimpaired efficacy, but siding with his chief in the disastrous conflict with Congress, and sharing the distrust and reprobation that attended him. He descended to the grave under the pall of this obloquy, and its darkness yet beclouds his fame.

Nevertheless he was one of the statesmen and leaders of whom the nation must be proud. At this distance of time, it is more fit to exalt his virtues than to magnify his faults. He had his limitations, his weaknesses, — mostly amiable ones, — his share of fallibility in judgment and failure in effort. But from the beginning to the end of his long career, he loved his country, he was a champion of liberty and of law, a servant of the Constitution, a defender of the Union, an ally of moral forces in government, a protector of the poor and the weak against their oppressors, a hopeful believer in human development and progress, a prophet of national growth and power, a friend of learning and science and art. What boots it now to insist upon the unessential infirmities of his high career ? They wrought no lasting evil to the state. The parade of them is unlikely to be of service for warning.

Say that he was ambitious. Who has endured the defeat of ambition with a nobler grace of acceptance ? Say that he was a timeserver. Who has waited with more patience for the ripe occasion, or more promptly seized it when it came ? Say that he gave undue importance to the shallow issue of Anti-Masonry ; but add that till the end of his life he was the consistent foe of political secret societies, and the steadfast friend of the despised immigrant. Say that he dodged the vote on Sumner’s motion to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law ; but recall that he gave to the anti-slavery cause its two most potent watchwords, the higher law and the irrepressible conflict. Say that he presumed to govern for Lincoln ; but he loyally governed with him and worthily suffered with him. Say that he was an optimist, who thought the slaveholders’ insurrection would be suppressed in sixty days; but add that he never lost heart in the most desperate strains and discouragements of the four years’ weary conflict. Say that in the beginning of the rebellion he courted a foreign war to make a commanding cause for the reunion of the states ; but remember that he forced Louis Napoleon out of Mexico without firing a gun, and acquired Alaska, a magnificent enlargement of the nation’s domain, without using the duress of war, and without the condition of a war entailed.

Walter Allen.

  1. 2The Life of William H. Seward. By FREDERIC BANCROFT. With Portraits. In two volumes. New York and London : Harper & Brothers. 1900.