Sunday Burgs book review
Reviewed by Charles “Dutch” Tubman of Christiansburg. He works for Norfolk Southern’s Coal Business Group in Roanoke.
For most Americans, William Henry Seward is known, if at all, as the person responsible for “Seward’s Folly,” the seemingly foolish purchase of Alaska from Russia. It is thanks to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” and now Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” that Seward’s role in the Lincoln and Andrew Johnson administrations has begun to attract greater recognition.
As with many other famous Americans, Seward came from small-town beginnings. His father was postmaster and owned a general store in Florida, N.Y., a small village near Newburgh. Seward was a bright lad, and the first in his family to attend college. After an argument with his father about finances, Seward left college, and moved to Georgia where he took a position as a schoolmaster, and possibly fathered a daughter by a local enslaved woman. Eventually he returned to New York, finished college and studied for the law. He became attracted to Frances Miller of Auburn, and they married in 1832.
Seward first ventured into politics as a candidate for the State Assembly in a party with anti-Masonic leanings that also took a public stand against the public financing of canals and later railroads. Once elected, Seward gained increasing notice in the State Assembly, and in 1835 was elected governor of New York. As governor, he changed his position regarding railroads (after his first short trip he wrote, “you can’t imagine how nice it was not to be jostled and thrown around”), and became known as an enemy of the “Know-Nothings” and an advocate for Catholic and immigrant rights.
While not an ardent abolitionist like his wife, Frances, Seward was strongly against the spread of slavery to new territories.
When the Republican Party was formed in 1854, Seward joined it, and found himself its leading candidate for president in 1860. Unfortunately for him (if not for history), he found himself out-flanked by a little-known Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who went on to win the general election, thanks in large part to the splintering of the Democratic Party.
After disabusing Seward of the notion that he would run foreign policy, Lincoln brought Seward into the Cabinet as secretary of state. Seward had his hands full during the war keeping the Europeans (primarily Britain and France) neutral, keeping track of (and tracking down) Southern sympathizers and spies, as well as fulfilling the traditional duties of the secretary. It was during the eve of the conflict that Seward played a leading role in the passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.
The evening of Lincoln’s assassination, Seward and his son Frederick were almost beaten to death by the maniacal Lewis Powell. Amazingly, Seward recovered enough to return to his duties in several weeks’ time, but Frances, who had a weak constitution, did not recover from the shock of that horrible evening and passed away a month later. After Vice President Johnson’s ascension to power, Seward stayed at his post, serving a full eight years. In 1866, Seward accompanied President Johnson on the “swing around the circle” tour, possibly one of the most infamous political whistlestops in U.S. history where Johnson (of whom, one contemporary stated “he preferred all-out enemies to lukewarm friends”) performed increasingly erratically in the public eye. Sadly, Seward was also correctly perceived as not being overly concerned about the fate of post Civil War African-Americans, who, in large part, were abandoned to the caprices of their former masters.
During his tenure, Seward not only arranged the much-criticized acquisition of Alaska (a newspaper noted, “if this country ever had a national friend it was Russia”) but laid the groundwork for the purchase of Hawaii, the American Virgin Islands, and the Pacific Islands (though not British Columbia).
Seward also foresaw the day when America’s trade with East Asia would be as important as trade with Western Europe for America’s growing empire. Upon leaving office, Seward, one of the most indefatigable of men, not only ventured West (visiting both Alaska and Mexico), but soon after undertook an astonishing “around the world in 80 Days” sort of voyage, accompanied by two young daughters of an old acquaintance.
Stahr has written a well-nuanced and highly readable biography of one of the most influential, yet largely forgotten, Americans of the 19th century.
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