Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

William H. Seward,
the War-Time Secretary of State

Shall we picture a tragic scene that took place in Washington in April, 1865, just after the close of the dreadful Civil War? There came then a night of horror. An assassin shot down the noble President Lincoln as, happy at the end of his great work, he sat in quiet enjoyment in his box at the theatre. The same dreadful night other assassins entered the house of the Secretary of State, forced themselves into the room where he lay ill in bed, and attacked him with tigerish fury, stabbing him in the face and body. Only the courage of the old soldier who served as his nurse saved his life, and for days it was doubtful if he would recover.

Fortune alone saved William H. Seward from suffering the fate of his great chief. He had played as active a part in the drama of insurrection and won the hatred of the rebellious element as much as Lincoln himself. It is our purpose here to give some of the incidents in the life of this able and prominent man, who so nearly became a victim of the band of assassins that murdered the President.

William Henry Seward was at this time well advanced in years, having been born in the town of Florida, New York, on May 16, 1801, almost at the beginning of the century. The boy must have been difficult to manage, for he began his career in life by running away from college and seeking far-off Georgia, where he undertook to act as principal of an academy at a salary of eight hundred dollars a year. This was a daring escapade for a boy of seventeen. It was due to a dispute with his father about tailor's bills and other such college matters. The young rebel, however, surrendered when he heard that his mother was in sore distress about his behavior. He gave up his position to a friend and went back to his studies.

After graduating at Union College, Seward studied law and opened an office in the town of Auburn. This town he made his home throughout his later life. It happened that here lived a Miss Frances A. Miller, with whom the young lawyer had fallen in love, and whom he married as soon as he had business enough to make the venture and set up a home of his own.

The young lawyer was not long in practice before he became active in politics. He had been brought up a Democrat, but he soon joined the Anti-Masons, then the Whigs, and in later years came to be a leader of the Republicans. In 1830 he became intimate with Thurlow Weed, then the most prominent figure in New York politics, and the two formed a political partnership which for many years ruled the politics of the State and had much to do with the politics of the nation. It was known as the Whig firm of Weed & Seward. In later years, when Horace Greeley joined in, it became what Greeley called the firm of Seward, Weed & Greeley. Seward's name now came first.

In 1830 Seward was elected to the State Senate by the Anti-Masonic party. When the next election for Governor came round this party had vanished and the Whig party had been formed. It nominated Seward for Governor, but he was defeated and went back to his law business. In 1836, however, he was elected Governor. This position he held for six years, and then retired to private life, declining to run for a third term.

By this time Seward had taken a decided stand on the slavery question. He made a visit with his wife to the Natural Bridge of Virginia in 1835, and saw things while in that State that made him a foe of the slave-holding system. While Governor, he plainly showed his enmity to this system. Three black sailors were wanted by the Governor of Virginia on the charge of having helped a slave to escape, but he refused to give them up, saying that what they were charged with was not a crime in New York. He also had the law repealed by which a slave-holder travelling with his slaves could hold them for nine months in the State of New York.

One thing he did is of interest as taking a stand against an old but evil New York custom. For many years the celebration of New Year's day in New York City had been an occasion for social visits at which punch and wine were set out for the guests. The Governor in 1842 substituted cold water and lemonade for these strong drinks. This was not in consequence of his own tastes, but he felt that it was his duty to throw his influence on the side of the growing temperance sentiment.

On returning to the law, Seward soon became very successful, and gained a large practice in patent law cases, of which he had previously known very little. While active in the law, he did not give up his hold on politics. He, Weed, and Greeley were the active powers in New York politics, the causes they favored were the winning ones, the State offices were theirs to dispose of, and they earned for New York the title of the "Empire State "by making it the arbiter in two Presidential elections. Seward supported Henry Clay for President, opposed the annexation of Texas, and in 1848 used all his influence in favor of the election of President Taylor. Shortly after this he was himself elected to the United States Senate and took his seat in that great body of legislators.

He had won a reputation in his own State, and soon made himself prominent in the Senate, placing himself in the ranks of the most vigorous opponents of the system of slavery. Seward was not a specially attractive man personally. He is pictured to us as a slender, hook-nosed, grey-eyed, homely man, with red hair, a harsh and unpleasant voice, and a very awkward manner. But his speeches were at once graceful in delivery and strong in thought, his style clear and pure, and when Seward rose to speak the Senators sat still to listen. With all his defects of personality, he had the power to hold an audience. He was never addicted to coarse efforts at satire or buffoonery, but he had a keen, dry humor, delightful and telling, which still makes his speeches agreeable reading.

In the Senate he distinguished himself by certain striking phrases which took hold of the public fancy and became campaign cries in later political contests. Thus, in the debate on the admission of California to the Union, he said: "The Constitution devotes the national domain to the Union, to justice, to defence, to welfare, and to liberty. But there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes."

This speech was widely read and much talked of, and its phrase, "a higher law," took hold strongly upon the popular mind. It was everywhere repeated, and the doctrine of the "higher law "became one of the potent influences of the times. Another phrase which struck the public fancy was that of the "irrepressible conflict," which could end only by making the country all free or all slave. He had in some degree the gift of prophecy.

Seward as a Senator made himself one of the great forces of the time. He was one of the organizers of the Republican party, and a strenuous opponent throughout of the spread of slavery into the territories. As such he had a marked share in bringing on the "irrepressible conflict "which he foresaw, and in 1860 was so plainly the leader of the Republican party that he was widely looked upon as the logical candidate for the Presidency. He fully expected it himself, and was bitterly disappointed when the voice of the convention was given for Abraham Lincoln. Several causes led to this—local prejudice, personal enmity to Seward, the question of availability, and, perhaps strongest of all, the opposition of his old associate, Horace Greeley, who preferred Lincoln, and threw the powerful influence of the Tribune in his favor.

However deeply Seward may have been disappointed, he did not let it openly appear, but worked earnestly for the success of his party, aiding the election of Lincoln by a series of powerful speeches which vigorously presented the anti-slavery side of the contest. After Lincoln's election, he did his utmost to check treasonable designs in Buchanan's cabinet, and made a very able speech against disunion.

It was the prominence of Seward and his declared policy that induced President Lincoln to select him as his Secretary of State, and thus gave him the opportunity to make himself famous by his wise and skillful management of the foreign affairs of the country during the trying period of the Civil War. Various questions arose that demanded the highest statesmanship in the Secretary, in some of which a man of less discretion than Seward might have plunged the country into a foreign war.

It must be said that in all these questions President Lincoln had a voice, and often a controlling one. It is matter of common opinion that when Seward accepted the position of Secretary of State he looked upon himself as the virtual master of affairs. He had a degree of contempt for the awkward, uncultured, inexperienced man who had been put in the Presidential chair, and expected to pose as the "power behind the throne," who would be able to manage and control the new man from the West, keeping him from doing harm.

He soon found himself mistaken. In his first attempts to handle Lincoln he found himself "up against a stone wall." He was taught that Lincoln had a mind and a will of his own, and knew precisely where he was and what he was doing. He was willing to take advice, but preferred to make his final decisions for himself, and Seward soon fell into his true place, that of the President's adviser. He had enough to do in managing Europe during the Civil War. Urgent and perilous question arose, some of them with no precedent to aid in their settlement, but Seward rose in the level of his duties, and showed himself as great in the Cabinet as he had been in the Senate. It has been said that during the four years of war "his brain was pitted against all Europe and always won." Perhaps this is an exaggerated view, but he certainly showed himself a statesman of unusual acuteness and ability.

The most critical question with which he had to deal was that of the seizure by an American war-vessel of two Confederate commissioners from the English mail-steamer "Trent," and the bringing them into a Northern port as prisoners of war. The authorities of Great Britain were furious and made more than thralls of war, for they sent troops and war-ships to Canada and demanded in harsh terms that the commissioners should be given up to them. They were turning the tables on us, for in 1812 the United States had declared war against Great Britain for a similar affront, though a far more aggravated one.

What was Seward to do? The whole North was in a flame of patriotism. Everywhere Captain Wilkes was praised for seizing the commissioners, and the administration was called on to sustain his act. Seward had a very awkward affair to handle, but he handled it very judiciously. The United States had never admitted the right of search of vessels on the high seas, and on this basis the administration admitted that Captain Wilkes had done wrong, and agreed to give up the men. But it took the opportunity to rap England shrewdly on the knuckles and remind that country that it had done the same thing hundreds of times before the War of 18'2, and had never acknowledged that it had no right to do so.

As for the people of the North, they did not accept placidly this settlement of the case. There was a wide feeling that Great Britain had taken an unfair advantage of this country by threatening it when its hands were tied by a war at home. The show of unfriendliness was not soon forgotten. It was only one case among many. The result was a bitter feeling against the British nation that took years to die away.

We have already told how, soon after the war ended, President Lincoln was murdered and his great Secretary narrowly escaped death. Seward continued as Secretary of State under President Johnson, the remainder of his career being marked by two important events. While Great Britain had taken advantage of the trouble in America in one way, France did so in another, Napoleon III. taking the opportunity to invade Mexico and put a monarch of his own choice upon the throne. Seward protested against this at the time, and as soon as the war was over he plainly advised the French emperor to take his troops away from Mexico if he did not want them driven out by our Civil War veterans. Napoleon III. meekly obeyed orders. He saw that he had made a mistake.

The other event was the purchase of Alaska from Russia. By this purchase our country obtained for a few millions of dollars a territory which has already been worth hundreds of millions of dollars to us. Mr. Seward was throughout an earnest, honest, and upright man. He was always ready to help the poor or the unfortunate, and to do his duty by his clients, and he took the side of danger boldly when, in 1846, he defended two negro murderers against whom a bitter mob spirit had been aroused. He at that time, moved by the feeling against him, expressed the hope that some one might carve on his tombstone the words, "He was faithful." These are the words to be seen on his tomb in Auburn Cemetery, where he was interred after his death on the loth of October, 1872.