Born in Orange County, New York on May 16, 1801, Seward spent time in the South as a young man, earning his living as a schoolmaster before returning to his native state to establish a law practice in Auburn. He entered politics as an Anti-Mason and then became a Whig, serving as a state senator from 1830 to 1834. During this time, he forged a most valuable and enduring political friendship with Thurlow Weed, a political fixer with the name and appearance of a Dickensian clerk and editor of the influential Albany Evening Journal. Weed and Seward remained indelibly linked for the next four decades, building a network of correspondents and supporters that sustained Seward throughout his long political career.
In 1838, Seward became governor of New York. In that office, he provided vigorous support for state-funded internal improvements and the extension of public education. He was sympathetic to educational reform initiatives and to projects to create insane asylums, although his sociability made him rather more distant from that other great cause of Whiggish Protestant reformism, temperance. Seward was never a racial egalitarian, and he deeply distrusted what he regarded as the single-issue fanaticism of the abolitionists. Nevertheless, he acquired a reputation as a radical for his defense of fugitive slaves in a number of high-profile court cases. Like many other Whigs, he was instinctively opposed to the extension of slavery into the new territories gained after the Mexican-American War because doing so would not only restrict opportunities for free white migrants, but would make the eventual disappearance of slavery more difficult to accomplish. Like Abraham Lincoln, Seward believed that slavery, while tolerable where it currently existed, should be seen as an aberration to the general rule of freedom in the United States. This concern about slavery in the territories was reinforced by Seward's fervent belief in Manifest Destiny, an enthusiasm for national expansion that was to become an increasingly important element in his political career.
Seward was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1849 and made a dramatic appearance on the national stage during the debates on the Compromise of 1850. To the delight of antislavery Northerners who had felt betrayed by the ageing Daniel Webster's support for, among other things, a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act, Seward boldly announced that a "higher law than the Constitution, the law of God" condemned slavery to eventual death. It was a striking and influential phrase with which he was to be thereafter associated, earning him a reputation for radicalism, which sat rather uneasily with his more cautious inclinations.
Initially, Seward was reluctant to abandon the old Whig Party, which he saw as the ideal vehicle for advancing the kind of economic policies and social projects he believed in. His embrace of the Republican Party did not represent a rejection of those values, but a recognition that economic and social questions were being overwhelmed by sectionalism. He played an important role from 1855 onward as the old Northern Whig voice in the Republican Party. Unlike many other former Whigs, Seward was never tempted by the Know-Nothing's appeal to anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant prejudice, but as a life-long opponent of Jacksonian Democrats he was distrustful of the influence in the Republican Party of former Democrats. In 1860, he sought the Republican nomination and was widely expected to receive it. But the convention, meeting in Chicago, thought that Abraham Lincoln would be a more effective candidate in the lower North, especially the key states of Indiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, which the Republicans had failed to win four years earlier.
Seward prevaricated when Lincoln asked him to become secretary of state, hoping to exercise influence over the new cabinet and to establish his authority over the untested Lincoln. Seward, who was based in Washington throughout the winter of 1860-1861, was far more aware than Lincoln (and most other Republican leaders) of the genuineness of secession threats, and he became convinced that his personal and political contacts with border-state congressmen and upper South politicians were essential to prevent war. Seward pressured Lincoln to appoint old Whigs to his cabinet and to offer a post to a Southerner, John A. Gilmer of North Carolina. Seward was deeply opposed to the appointment of the self-important ex-Free Soiler Salmon P. Chase to the treasury.
Seward's concern to conciliate the South led him to suggest a number of amendments to the draft version of Lincoln's inaugural address. All the suggestions, in the words of James G. Randall, "in their general effect tended to soothe the public mind." Seward took upon himself to make some stylistic improvements as well, inventing a strangely morbid image of "mystic chords proceeding from . . . so many patriot graves . . . through all the hearts . . . in this broad continent of ours." Lincoln's reworking of this image as "mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living hearth and hearth-stone" demonstrated a deftness of expression that Seward's cumbersome prose never approached.
In cabinet, Seward took the lead in opposing the reinforcement of Fort Sumter, arguing that Southern public opinion, which was "feverish" for secession, should be given time to calm down. His assumption of superiority within the administration was revealed by a clumsy attempt to persuade three Confederate commissioners that Sumter would not be reinforced—an undertaking given with no authorization at all from the president. In his self-conceived role as the first minister of the administration, Seward underestimated Lincoln's political judgment and skill. On April Fool's Day, 1861, the secretary of state overreached himself. In a rather presumptuous memorandum to the president, he implicitly offered to take control of the administration: "either the President must do it himself, and be all the while active in it; or devolve it on some member of his cabinet. . . . I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility."
It was typically quixotic of Seward that he suggested a foreign war to remind Southerners and Northerners of their shared interest and common values. Lincoln dryly responded that, if any new policy was to be undertaken, "I will do it." Thereafter, relations between the two men were cordial, even warm. Lincoln was able to calmly discard the most unnecessarily exuberant of his secretary of state's suggestions, while broadly concurring with the thrust of his suggestions. Above all, Lincoln entirely agreed with Seward's insistence that the administration must "Change the question before the public from one upon Slavery or about Slavery for a question upon Union or Disunion. In other words, from what would be regarded as a Party question to one of Patriotism or Union."
As secretary of state, Seward took control of the administration's internal security arrangements. He became notorious for a reported boast about being able to imprison anyone in the Union at the ring of a "little bell." He was certainly zealous in his determination to suppress dissent, but his reputation as a dictator was exaggerated.
In the sphere of foreign policy, Seward was by turns bullish and conciliatory, threatening war against Britain if it recognized the Confederacy in 1861, but backing down over the Trent Affair in part after pressure from Lincoln. The extent to which Seward was really in control of foreign policy later became a mater of dispute between wartime U.S. minister to London Charles Francis Adams and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. After Seward's death, Adams published a short work, Lincoln and Seward (1873), in which he lauded the secretary of state's pivotal role as advisor to the martyred president. On the other hand, Welles, a grumpy New Englander who was always distrustful of his cabinet colleagues, accused Seward of aggrandizing himself at the expense of Lincoln, who was always the real master of operations. It is certainly true that Seward had less influence than he sometimes liked to think, but equally true that Lincoln relied heavily on his judgment. This was revealed when the president took Seward's advice about the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The secretary of state thought that they should wait for a significant military victory before announcing the policy so that it would appear to be a product of military strength rather than desperation. Seward was overanxious about foreign reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation, but his sensitivity to the conservatism of domestic public opinion was characteristically acute. Lincoln duly waited until after the Battle of Antietam before making public the emancipation policy.
While he understood the frustrations of the radical antislavery campaigners, Seward steered the Lincoln administration toward as broad an electoral appeal as possible. Although he was the most effective conservative influence on Lincoln, Seward was genial enough and maintained sufficient contacts throughout the Republican Party and beyond to insulate him from some of the fierce assaults from radicals suffered by more brazen, although less influential, conservative cabinet members, such as Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. Throughout the war, Seward was among those who were unhappy with the apparent dominance of radicals in the party. Thurlow Weed briefly flirted with the idea of a third party "composed of the moderate men of both parties," on the principle that if it was not possible to read the radicals out of the Republican Party, then they should be deserted by the rest. Along with New York Times editor Henry J. Raymond, however, Seward believed that the war gave the Republican moderates an unrivaled opportunity to broaden their base, including ex-Whigs and those voters who had supported Constitutional Union candidates John Bell and Edward Everett in 1860. By 1864 Seward and Raymond were looking forward to a settlement of the slavery question in such a way that something resembling the old Whig Party might be reconstructed. They agreed with Weed in his assumption that the Republican Party could not be electorally successful in the future unless it created a base in the South and among "the men of moderation and sound-judgement." As ever, factional struggles over control of patronage, feuds that had their origins in the murky world of antebellum New York politics, intersected with these kinds of strategic political considerations. Seward and Weed saw the threat of radicals within the administration as a direct challenge to their ability to distribute spoils. For instance, it was reported that Seward completely lost his temper about the success of the Loyal National League in New York because he saw it as a threat to his and Thurlow Weed's political control.
Seward's political leadership was crucial in the shaping of the Union Party strategy for the 1864 presidential election. The decision to call a convention to nominate Lincoln for reelection under the name "National Union Party" consciously met the pleas of many conservatives who, since the decline of the Whig Party in the mid-1850s, had been left without a natural political home. Moderate Republican leaders such as Seward saw the Union Party as a strategic step toward a new organization that would embrace a national conservative constituency. Seward spoke enthusiastically of a "great coming together" of the parties once the divisive issue of slavery was dispensed with by the Thirteenth Amendment. For precisely this reason, Seward used his influence to play down publicly the radical implications of emancipation. Although he firmly supported the ending of slavery, he attempted to distance the administration from the taint of prewar abolitionism and repeatedly denied that he had any interest in predetermining the nature of Southern society after the war. Leading Unionists built a campaign that side-stepped the issue of emancipation while not repudiating it, and Seward was a key figure in the articulation of this approach. His correspondence is filled with reports from friends in key electoral states, and throughout the war he maintained close connections with conservatives outside the fold of the Republican Party. Seward and like-minded moderates hoped to distance Lincoln's Union organization from what many conservatives and border state people still regarded as the irresponsible radicalism of the Republican Party, while building on what they saw that party as having accomplished.
The 1864 campaign began in earnest on September 3, with a speech by Seward in his hometown of Auburn that was widely reprinted in the newspapers and as a campaign document. He appealed to those voters who accepted emancipation as a final solution to the sectional crisis, and as a moral advance, but who were fundamentally conservative on the question of race. He made no mention of the Baltimore convention's enthusiastic endorsement of the proposed abolition amendment. Instead, he insisted that while the rebels waged war, military measures affecting slavery—meaning the Emancipation Proclamation—would continue. But, Seward said, as soon as the Confederates laid down their arms, all such questions would "pass over to the arbitrament of the courts of law and to the councils of legislation." To the irritation of many radicals, Seward had neatly set the tone for the campaign. He had not explicitly endorsed the proposed Thirteenth Amendment, but he had declared his faith that constitutional action could solve the slavery problem. Most importantly, he had assured his listeners that a commitment to emancipation would not prolong the war. Hugh McCulloch, Seward's future cabinet colleague, understandably observed that the speech had been "captivating and adroit!"
The Seward speech was delivered two days after the North learned of General William T. Sherman's great victory at Atlanta, and three days after the Chicago convention had committed the Democratic candidate to pursue a policy of an armistice, followed by negotiations with the Rebels. These two developments were a tremendous boost to the credibility of the proadministration arguments. A sudden return of public optimism about the war made the crucial conservative center more receptive to the idea that changing horses while crossing a stream would be folly. No longer forced to be defensive about the military situation, supporters of the administration were free to concentrate their attacks on the Democrats and the threat to the national cause that they represented, especially given the contents of the Chicago platform, which played into the hands of Lincoln supporters, who found it easier than they otherwise would have done to stigmatize all their opponents with copperheadism.
At the Hampton Roads Peace Conference, Seward was apparently prepared to concede the commitment of the administration to abolishing slavery in return for reunion. Although he may well have been willing to concede the temporary effectiveness of the Emancipation Proclamation, the secretary was convinced of the necessity of a constitutional amendment to settle the slavery question. His influence was crucial in persuading wavering congressmen in the lame duck session in January 1865 to support the Thirteenth Amendment.
A grim testimony to the influence of Seward in the administration is that he was also the target of an assassin on Good Friday, 1865. Recovering in bed from a carriage fall, Seward was stabbed by an intruder, Lewis Thornton Powell, an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth. Seward survived and after a summer of convalescence returned to his duties in the State Department under President Andrew Johnson's leadership.
After the war, Seward became one of a minority of Civil War Republicans who continued to support the Union Party project, seeing it as a means of reconstructing something like the old Whig Party, a great conservative cross-sectional organization, that would be nationalist and expansionist in both economic and geographical terms.
The National Union Party emerged from the conflict with such a stock of moral and political capital that Harper's Weekly could talk confidently of the "end of parties." During 1865, Seward, Raymond, and their allies tried to exploit antipartisanship to construct a new centrist organization. They saw the National Union Party as the basis for an alliance of the "conservative" men of the country, uniting Southern Whigs with the "moderate men of the north" around a platform of generosity toward the South and support for President Johnson. Building on the successful wartime strategy, the National Union Party of 1865 rallied against the evils of division. Resolutions presented at a Union "mass meeting" at the Cooper Institute in June contained a sharp attack upon parties now that the contentious issues of slavery and Union were "substantially settled and decided." Still later, in 1866, President Johnson's supporters met in Philadelphia to rally support for the National Union Party. Seward and Raymond were leading figures, but by then the coalition of support that Lincoln had created had collapsed. In war, the divisive issues of Reconstruction could be kept at bay with an appeal to national unity. By this time, with the president in conflict with Congress and the bulk of his own party, claims to represent the entire nation sounded empty. Johnson's men did not have the political authority to dominate the political agenda in the way that Lincoln's supporters could in 1864. Seward's legacy to the Republican Party was an ambiguous one: a vital figure in its early days, he appeared to abandon the party in later years.
William H. Seward was a sagacious political operator and a witty and affable man who greatly enjoyed his challenging public roles. Although committed to the antislavery cause, he was a better representative than his more radical colleagues of the political assumptions of most Northern whites. Seward considered that one of his greatest triumphs in politics was the acquisition in 1867 of Alaska, purchased from Russia and immediately dubbed "Mr. Seward's Ice Box." It is a revealing and highly characteristic final achievement: apparently eccentric, quirkily dramatic, but entirely consistent with Seward's vision of what the United States would become. For Seward, as for many white Northerners of his generation, slavery was not only a moral indecency, it was the great obstacle to that vision. Adam I. P. Smith
From ABC-CLIO's Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, editors
Taylor, John M. William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991; Van Deusen, Glyndon G. William Henry Seward. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Adam I. P. Smith