Wednesday, April 15, 2015

William Seward: Lincoln's final ally

William Seward was Lincoln's biggest rival and best friend.
     Republicans were set to nominate William Seward for president in 1860. He was a skilled lawyer who had served four years as governor of New York, and was in the second of his two full Senate terms. However, the fates and Judge David Davis's ability to cut deals on behalf of Lincoln, cost Seward the nomination. This set the stage for one of the more endearing friendships in American political history.
     Born on May 16, 1801 into a slave-owning family in New York, where slavery was legal as late as 1827, Seward nevertheless became an abolitionist. He loved school; a childhood friend recalled that while other boys escaped from school to return home, William Seward escaped from home to return to school. Indeed, at 17, Seward began teaching school in Georgia. He returned to Auburn, New York, a short while later. The state Bar admitted him at age 21. He became a partner of Judge Elijah Miller, and married his daughter, Frances Adeline, who bore him five children. After her death in 1865, there was a minor scandal when Seward, nearly 70, befriended Olive Risey. To quell rumors, he adopted her. She was 26.
     Seward's political career began in the New York legislature, after being befriended and recruited by Thurlow Weed, one of the first political bosses in American history. Seward quickly became the star of Weed's political roster.
     Weed was by trade a journalist, who had purchased the Rochester Telegraph in 1825, only to be pushed out by Masons. Weed began a rival, anti-Masonic newspaper, the Rochester Enquirer, before establishing the Albany Evening Journal on March 22, 1830. Weed later helped Horace Greeley establish his newspaper career. Weed was highly involved in presidential politics, backing John Quincy Adams in 1824 and 1828, Henry Clay in 1832, and William Henry Harrison in 1840. at the same time, Weed established his Albany Evening Journal as the nation's largest circulating political newspaper. He held this title until Greeley's weekly edition of the New York Tribune surpassed him in the 1840s.
     Greeley surpassed Weed in political influence, too. Weed helped found the Republican Party in 1854 and had backed John Charles Frémont's nomination as the nascent party's first presidential candidate. But by 1860. Weed's influence was on the wane. His longtime service in opposition to the Democratic Party (and Masons) had its influence, but a new generation of politicians had arrived. After winning the first two ballots, but without enough votes to secure the nomination, Seward lost the nomination to Lincoln who won on the third ballot.
     The loss shocked Seward, who had assumed the Republican convention in Chicago was a formality. Instead it was his Waterloo. But his old friend Weed went Springfield, met with Lincoln, and then went to Washington to get Seward to support the ticket of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin (they had great names back then; every man should have a son named for a Carthaginian general).
     But Seward soldiered on, campaigning for Lincoln throughout the Midwest. New York was a key to the election. Without it, the election might be thrown to the House of Representatives to decide as they had done in 1824. But Seward bombarded the state with speeches backing Lincoln. Three days before the election, Seward gave a patriotic speech in New York City that likely won the state and the election for Lincoln.
     Seward's reward was an appointment as Secretary of State. America's reward was the best Secretary of State ever. He kept England and France out of the Civil War, and purchased Alaska dirt cheap after the war.
     Lincoln and Seward became friends. Lincoln had appointed other Republican rivals to his Cabinet, including Salmon Chase as Secretary of the Treasury. Indeed, Lincoln appointed Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War in 1862. Back when they were lawyers in private practice, Stanton had called Lincoln an ape -- and they were on the same side in the case! In recent years, historians have latched on to calling this a Team of Rivals, beginning with Gore Vidal in his historical novel, "Lincoln," in 1984.
     "As Lincoln and Seward became more comfortable in their relationship, the latter became a target of the president's wit. According to son, 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?' " according to Seward biographer John M. Taylor.
     Seward grew not only to like Lincoln, but to adore him, writing that Lincoln was "the best man of us all and history will concur in that opinion.... Steadfastness of will, fairness of judgment, humility of self, growth of mind and bigness of heart were the invincible attributes that Lincoln brought to Washington in those dark, bitter years when democracy as a workable form of government stood on trial before the world."
     Some modern writers like to portray Lincoln as a dark and moody manic depressant, but Seward wrote "had no notion of recreation as such; enjoyed none; went thro' levees et cetera purely as a duty -- found his only recreation in telling or hearing stories in the ordinary way of business -- often stopped a cabinet council at a grave juncture, to jest a half hour with the members before going to work; joked with every body, on light & on grave occasions. This was what saved him."
     Seward lived a block away from the White House. He spent many a day with Lincoln. That may have saved Seward's political career. Seward could turn crowds on and acquaintances off. His biographer, Taylor, described Seward as a "bumptious New Yorker." In what was later known as the Trent Affair, a group of Republican senators decided Lincoln should fire Seward. Lincoln thought otherwise, and the ax fell on instigator Salmon Chase instead.
     That is because Lincoln saw something in Seward that Thurlow Weed had seen 30 years earlier: competence. Seward biographer Walter Stahr wrote: "Seward was the indispensable man in the Lincoln administration: the man who managed to keep the European nations out of the American Civil War; the man who avoided war with Britain during the Trent crisis; the man who advised Lincoln on every aspect of domestic and foreign policy; the man who somehow kept his sense of humor and hope through the darkest days."
     There developed a mutual respect between Lincoln and Seward, just as there was a mutual goal: abolition and a strong union. As Lincoln's first term neared its end, the goal was in sight. Nearly a century and a half later, Dorothy Wickenden, executive editor of The New Yorker, wrote: "A few days after the 1864 election, Seward had addressed a crowd gathered at his house in Washington. According to newspaper accounts, he said that everyone would soon see Lincoln as 'a true patriot, benevolent and loyal, honest and faithful. Hereafter, all motive of detraction of him would cease to exist, and Abraham Lincoln would take his place with Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, among the benefactors of his country and the human race.' This was not rote political rhetoric. He believed every word."
     Four days before Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Seward broke his arm and jaw, and suffered a nasty concussion after a carriage spill. The doctor used a jaw splint to treat the wound. This saved his life 10 days later.
     On April 14, 1865, at 10 p.m., Lewis Powell, a confederate of John Wilkes Booth, gained entry into the Seward household under the guise of bringing medicine to the wounded man. Suspicious, Seward's son, Frederick, intercepted the man at the top of the stairs. Powell drew his pistol, an 1858 Whitney revolver, which was a large, heavy, and popular gun during the Civil War, which misfired. Instead he used it to bash Frederick on the head causing several injuries to the skull. Frederick slumped to the floor. Powell, brushed Frederick's sister, Fanny, aside, and began stabbing the wounded Seward, nearly killing him. Only that jaw splint prevented Powell's knife from cutting the jugular vein. Several others were injured on Powell's escape.
     Nearly lifeless, Seward hung on and for days drifted in and out of delirium. But the tolling of the bells in the morning brought him into sharp focus. No one had told Seward of Lincoln's assassination that night, for fear that such news would kill him. But upon hearing the mournful bells, he knew it was Lincoln for whom the bells tolled for, as he said later, if Lincoln were alive, he would have been at Seward's bedside.
     Seward recovered, survived the catastrophic Andrew Johnson administration, purchased Alaska, and retired in 1869.
     He, Olive, and her sister visited Japan, China, India and other nations. When they returned to Auburn, New York, he began his memoirs. But he died before he could complete them. His final words were, "Love one another."
     President Grant could not attend his funeral, but Thurlow Weed indeed could and did. Harriet Tubman, the former slave who had been a Union spy, sent flowers.
     Seward, Alaska; Seward, Illinois; Seward, Kansas; and Seward, New York, are all named for Lincoln's best ally at the end. The Civil War pitted brother against brother. But it also drew two of America's most exceptional public servants together in a kinship that even the soldiers at Agincourt would admire, for the Team of Rivals in this case became a Band of Brothers.


  1. Thanks, Don; I knew not enough of him.

  2. We descended from Seward as SecState to Thunder Rodent Thighs and Flipper. What a contrast!