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Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man by Walter Stahr (2013-09-17)

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  • By Paul on October 7, 2012

    Walter Stahr has provided a good biography of William Seward, and while his writing is very good and keeps you moving through the life of this politician, I see the history not so much of a statesman as of a politician and sometimes a flawed one at that.In his early political development, Seward initially allied with the Anti-Masonic party, serving four years in the New York State Senate. After that, he joined the opponents of the Jackson Democrats as a Whig. After an unsuccessful run for governor in 1834, he won four years later and was re-elected. When the Whigs gained a momentary control of the state legislature in 1849, he was sent to the senate of the United States.Seward was controversial in that he favored prison reform, the inclusion of Catholics and immigrants in society, and developed into a free labor and anti slavery advocate, although not to the extend of an Abolitionist. It appears in the biography that his most famous speeches in the Senate were ones that were not only controversial, but in which he tried to perform damage control on, which alienated his supporters and did nothing to appease his opponents.While it appeared to be a foregone conclusion that he would win the nomination for president in 1860 (Thurlow Weed had been preparing for this inevitability for years) a hard hitting Lincoln team won the nomination on the third ballot. The author does make an excellent point that Seward's fame (and sometimes controversial views) were more know nationally while Lincoln was more of an Illinois sensation and did not carry the baggage that Seward did, even though both thought that the nation could not endure divided between free states and slave.Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln points out that Lincoln's selection of cabinet members was an exercise in political brilliance. Lincoln selected accomplished men from different sections of the country and sometimes conflicting political stances to form an effective body of men. Seward, thinking that he would be the king pin in the group and effectively determine policy that Lincoln would accept soon became aware that Lincoln was in charge of the show, and Seward, like many others accepted their place in the pecking order of Lincoln's administration.One interesting and flawed theory of Seward's was his idea to find a way to engage the United States into a war with a European power, thus bringing back the wayward states of the newly formed Confederacy in defense of the union. This was certainly not a good plan and quickly was relegated to the circular files.The author does a thorough job of reviewing the Trent Affair, when it appeared that England and the United States might actually go to war over an American warship seizing Conferate envoys from a British ship enrout to England, but war was averted, as it had to be. Stahr attempts to make the point that it was the expert diplomacy of Seward who avoided this crisis and appeared to be ready to fall on the sword for the nation, in that his return of the detainees would make him immensely unpopular. I understand that, but he almost makes it sound as though Lincoln was in favor of escalating the incident. Lincoln was far too wise to allow that incident to get out of hand. Stahr tries to compare this event to the Cuban missle crisis of a hundred years later, and that, for me, is a bit of an historical stretch. It is not that Seward was not important during this time, but maybe not indispensable. In some ways, Stanton and Welles had great loyalty to the president and were as trusted in their thoughts as Seward, but the real hero in all this was Prince Albert, who came off a death bed and wrote a plea for peace between England and the United States.He did offer good advise to Lincoln regarding the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Seward wanted the announcement held until a Union victory could be claimed. Lincoln, who understood the mood of the nation, agreed and only after the strategic victory of Antietam was it announced. For further information of relations with Britain during this crucial period, see A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War which is an excellent and comprehensive study of this important aspect. Also see The Long Road To Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution to better understand the complexities of this event.And, after nearly being killed in the Lincoln assassination events, Seward, in my opinion, did damage to his reputation by defending so vigorously Andrew Johnson, likely the single biggest failure of an American president this country has ever seen.Finally, he is know for his purchase of Alaska from Russia, which at the time was called "Seward's Folly". This event was in some ways his most successful action of his lifetime, but I have to respectfully disagree with the author's premise that Seward was one of the most important Americans of the 19th century. He was prominent but not of the statesman like quality Walter Stahr portrays. I would cast that vote for Henry Clay and refer the reader to Henry Clay: The Essential American for further evidence. The one ,person indespensable to Lincoln was Grant, for very obvious reasons.

  • By David R. Anderson on October 17, 2012

    William Henry Seward, the Secretary of State whose foresight, diplomacy and skill at political infighting, enabled the United States to purchase the Alaska territory from Russia in 1868 for $7,200,000 (two cents an acre), ranks second only to John Quincy Adams, his mentor, among the 68 Americans who have held that post. Just for fun, imagine our concern if Russia had still owned that territory when the Cold War started. To set the stage for his splendid biography of Seward, Walter Stahr quotes Alex de Tocqueville to the effect that Americans were political by nature when he visited in the 1830's. de Tocqueville also observed that law permeated every part of American society. Lawyers came into their own as citizen statesmen when they were called upon to deal with the complex legal issues that arose during the course of the American Revolution. The lawyer as statesman flourished in the Nineteenth Century, and Seward, born in 1801, was very much a Nineteenth Century man. He chose the law as his profession and public service as his mission. Elected to the New York State Senate at 29, he honed the legislative and political traits that he would rely on throughout his life. In national office, he sought, as with the acquisition of Alaska, to expand our "empire" to assure his country a commanding place in the world. He was equally determined to see the country grow from within by educating its immigrants, treating members of all religions with respect and bringing about the end of slavery. As this political biography of Seward's extraordinary achievements makes clear, he met goal after goal against odds that would have thwarted anyone else. How did he do it? He possessed "a rare capacity for intellectual labor, with an industry which never tired and required no relaxation," according to his life-long friend, Thurlow Weed. And, as his biographer puts it, the "intelligence, diligence, eloquence, sociability, likeability," that made him an effective political leader, "were already in place" by the time he took his seat in the New York Senate. Before he became Lincoln's "indispensable man," his Secretary of State, Seward was twice elected Governor of New York, twice elected U.S. Senator from New York, and at least that often seriously considered as his party's likeliest candidate for president. At each step, he fought for laws that would carry out his goals. In what Stahr describes as his most important speech as a U.S. Senator, Seward, on March 11, 1850, weighed in on the slavery issue making clear his objections to the fugitive slave law. As he saw it, "the people of the North could not `in our judgment, be either true Christians or real freemen, if we impose on another a chain that we defy all human power to fasten on ourselves.'" But it was as Lincoln's right hand man that Seward made his most important contributions. Both men were accomplished lawyers, both used to talking things over, often at length, looking for alternatives, minding the nuances, seeking solutions, going out of their way to avoid giving offense, willing to bend but not to break. Because Seward lived just across the street from the White House, the President and his Secretary of State could and did confer frequently. They had each other's full confidence and trust. The decisions they made, often on a daily basis, were critical to winning the Civil War. This is a political biography. As such, it does not purport to be a full blown biography of Seward's personal life. For example, Stahr addresses without decoding the Sewards' complicated married life. On the other hand, Seward's character traits are on display: his rumpled, often out-of-style suits; his ever-present cigar, his penchant for a glass or two (but rarely more) of good wine, his hospitality (he often mixed business and pleasure). He was what we would call today a workaholic; no hour was too late to go to his office to send a cable, no hour too early to meet a visitor from out of town. Auburn, New York, Seward's home town, was dear to him and he relished his opportunities to get back there when he could. You will be impressed by Stahr's scholarship. There are 110 pages of notes, and a 43-page index. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of "Team of Rivals", her fine group biography of Lincoln's cabinet, provides the first of five highly favorable dust jacket blurbs for the book. Seward, she says, finally has the biography he "so justly deserves." End note. Seward's standing as one of the great figures of his times, if not of all our history, has largely gone unhonored by his countrymen. Seward, Alaska, is named for him, as is the highway connecting Seward to Anchorage. And the last of the eleven forts built in Alaska during the Gold Rush in Haines bears his name. There is a full-sized bronze statue of him at the entrance to Madison Square Park in New York City, dedicated in 1876, and another in Seattle's Volunteer Park - more life-like than the New York version because the sculptor has Seward dressed in rumpled-looking clothes. Auburn, New York, has a minor league baseball team. Two years ago it created a William Henry Seward bubblehead doll to honor the town's most prominent son. It's a good bet that it is paired with one of Abner Doubleday, Auburn's more famous, if not as important, son.

  • By Jack Hermann on January 2, 2013

    This is a positive view of Seward’s life. Persons who are interested in 19th century American history are likely to enjoy this biography because it documents Seward’s association with many of the important historical events of the mid-century. There is little that I dislike about the book, and all of those concerns are minor.As most politicians, Seward enjoyed strong admirers but also was hounded by those who loathed what he said and did. Much of Seward’s public life was during a very contentious period in American history, so it is not surprising that many of his contemporaries seemed to either love or hate him; few seemed to be in the middle ground when it came to Seward. This book comes down on the positive side of Seward’s political positions and actions; it puts a positive spin on some of his political failures and on those things that many of his contemporaries disliked about the man. Stahr does a good job of documenting the important, and some minor, political issues on which Seward took positions. The rationales taken by Seward for many of his positions and actions have been extracted from a massive number of historical documents. Some misconceptions about Seward are addressed and laid to rest. Seward was often unsuccessful in achieving specific goals, but he seldom gave up on those goals. He was a consummate politician. He thrived on politics. He enjoyed personal friendships with many politicians of his time, and even with a number of his political enemies. Stahr argues that Seward was much more than a politician, that he was also a statesman who left a large footprint on American and world history. In fact, Stahr concludes that “Seward was the foremost American statesman of the nineteenth century.” Historians may debate that claim.


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