Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #88: William Henry Seward, Lincoln's Right Hand
In the 1850s the Republican Party emerged as a coalition of former pro-commercial growth Whigs and anti-slavery "Free Soil" Democrats. The nascent GOP embraced abolition and economic development as the surest path to freedom and prosperity for all Americans. We all know Abraham Lincoln as the first Republican president, but what many don't realize is that the Great Emancipator was a cautious liberal, a reluctant radical. Not so his Secretary of State. William Seward was always a step ahead of public opinion, to his eventual electoral dismay.
Elected to the NY State Senate as an Anti-Mason in 1830 (at the age of 29), Seward was later elected governor of New York in 1838 and 1840 as a Whig. In Albany he championed and enacted laws that unapologetically advanced the interests of freed blacks and advocated abolition. Among these were the guarantee of jury trials for fugitive slaves, a deeply controversial position a full two decades before the Civil War. He was also a tireless advocate for universal public education. Following the 1848 and 1854 elections, Whig state legislatures in NY would send him to the United States Senate, where he swiftly became a leading national abolitionist and leader of the new Republican Party.
As a candidate for the presidential nomination of this new GOP, Seward was hurt in the south by his strident opposition to slavery and by his support of Catholics, immigrants, and by his close relationship with Thurlow Weed, the New York City political boss. Lincoln landed the nomination, and Seward rallied to the side of the man who denied him the presidency, campaigning for Abe and then serving in his cabinet. Those who do know Seward will recall him from Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" or from David Strathairn's portrayal in Spielberg's Lincoln biopic. Seward was one of the towering Secretaries of State in history, certainly the greatest between John Quincy Adams and John Hay. During his tenure serving Lincoln's administration, his signal achievement was negotiating with foreign powers like the UK and France and convincing them not to support the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Targeted and badly injured by the plot to assassinate Lincoln and cripple the Union government, Seward stayed on as SecState under Andrew Johnson. It was in 1867 that Seward purchased Alaska from Russia. Once famously deemed "Seward's Folly", the deal is now seen as visionary and fortuitous, especially considering gold and oil were not discovered there until after Seward died in 1872.
A complicated creature, Seward was a bold progressive with strong views about equality and democracy as well as a cigar-chomping pragmatist willing to cut deals with adversaries to advance his agenda a little rather than allow the status quo to persist and retain his personal ideological purity. Perhaps the second-greatest Republican of the 19th century (before the ascendancy of Teddy Roosevelt), Seward is often overlooked by history because of Lincoln's long shadow. But he deserves to be remembered.