My Favorite Historical Person: William Seward

A postscript to the series!

William Seward

I taught U.S. Foreign Policy in the spring semester, so I spent a bit of time with Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward. A strident abolitionist, Seward lost the nomination to Lincoln in 1860 because he had too many enemies and was too vocal about his hatred of slavery. His political career in New York had advanced quickly in the antebellum period and he did not hide his ambitions for the highest office in the land. Seward is (these days) the Civil War person that I most admire because his bellicose attitude toward Great Britain makes me laugh, raise my eyebrows, and shake my head all at the same time. I am impressed by his tenacity and determination, and I love his quote about the purchase of Alaska in 1867:

“The purchase of Alaska [was my greatest achievement], but it will take the people of the United States a generation before they realize it.”

Seward entered office in 1861 with aggressive opinions that he thought he could push onto Lincoln. Before the attack on Fort Sumter, Seward advised Lincoln to declare war with Spain or France to stop the momentum of secession and hopefully reunify the country. Lincoln ignored him and Seward turned his attention to trying to stop the British from interfering in the war and, especially, siding with the Confederates. In 1861, Seward admonished the British that he expected the blockade “to be respected by Great Britain” and insisted that they not engage in any interactions with the “so-called Southern Confederacy” that might be construed as diplomatic recognition. All of this was pretty straight forward but Seward also threw in a statement toward the end that was as condescending as it was hypocritical:

War in defence of national life is not immoral, and war in defence of independence is an inevitable part of the discipline of nations.

Surely, lecturing the British on wars in defense of nation and independence was unnecessary, but Seward clearly enjoyed taking the opportunity to remind the British that the United States intended to win its war against seceding forces.

240px-William_Henry_Seward_-_editedThe following year, Seward warned the Spanish, French, and British against sniffing around to take control of Mexico as a way to reestablish their influence in the Western Hemisphere. “The emancipation of this continent from European control,” Seward reminded them, “has been the principal feature in its history during the last century. It is not probable that a revolution in a contrary direction would be successful…” He cited the growing population, resources, and political system of the United States as reasons why European intrusion into the hemisphere would fail. This was an interesting tactic considering that all three of those things (population, resources, and democracy) were at that point under grave threat.

The most recent biography of Seward came out in 2012 at the same time as the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. Walter Stahr’s portrayal of Seward in the biography Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man complements the central role that the Secretary of State played in the film, and yet historians still disagree on whether Seward deserves so much credit for the final outcome of the war. I can honestly say that David Strathairn’s interpretation of Seward in the film will likely remain my mental image of the man, even as I continue to explore his methods as a statesman. Regardless, I think historian George C. Herring put it best in his foreign policy tome when he called Seward “a total political animal.”

Documents related to Seward’s term as Secretary of State brought forth fantastic discussion and debate in my classroom last semester. The students found Seward humorous, strong-willed, and compelling. We compared his approaches in various primary sources and talked about the ways that he contributed to European response to the war. Students are used to the focus being on Lincoln and the generals; they genuinely enjoyed contemplating the role of someone like Seward, whose personality was vibrant and whose writing was forceful. Unlike Lincoln, who can be vague at times and open to interpretation, Seward’s directives were clear and visceral and the students appreciated that. I think in the future I will include Seward even more in my narrative of the war, as he really is the key to helping students understand the truly international aspects of the conflict.

4 Responses to My Favorite Historical Person: William Seward

  1. I would be interested in an ECW article on the international aspects of the CW and this author would do a fine job, I am sure.

  2. It is worth mentioning that we owe Seward’s last four years of service to his country (to March 4, 1869) to his daughter Fanny. It was she, then only 20 years old, who interposed herself between the would-be assassin Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Payne and many other aliases) and her bed-ridden father on the night of April 14, 1865. Powell had already rained knife-blows upon her father, who was saved by an appliance or a framework back rest he was wearing because of a recent carriage accident, and had effectively neutralized the Secretary’s sons Frederick and Augustus, in addition to the army nurse, Sergeant George Robinson. He was moving upon the Secretary for the kill, with only Fanny in the way. According to one report, “Payne afterward said that if he could have made up his mind to strike (Fanny) out of his way, he could have accomplished his purpose upon the Secretary, but that her face between his weapon and her father disarmed him; he had not the heart to take her life also.” (“Death of Miss Seward,” Obituary, Baltimore Sun, October 31, 1866) A latent drop of humanity in the otherwise “terrible Lewis Powell” saved Seward and saved Fanny too, though, tragically, she would die the following year of tuberculosis, a fate undoubtedly hastened by the trauma of that night of horrors, as was the death of her mother, Frances, who died of a heart attack only nine weeks after the attack on her husband.

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