William Henry Seward

William Henry Seward once wrote that he was an enigma even to himself. Seeming contradictions bewildered his contemproaries. Famous for his commitment to principle, Seward always acted as a practical politician. A proud, even vain man, Seward was unfailingly courteous and amiable, to high and low, friends and enemies. John M. Taylor’s deftly written and fast-moving popular biography of Seward illuminates the complex character of a great American.

Born in 1801, Seward grew up in New York State, in comfortable middle-class circumstances. He trained for the law, but became entranced by the world of politics. A pillar of the Whig Party, Seward advocated the creative use of government to improve the social and economic welfare of the people. Elected Governor of New York for the first of two consecutive terms in 1838, Seward defended the rights of immigrants and initiated important prison reforms. Entering the United States Senate in 1849, he became famous as an outspoken opponent of slavery. He emerged as a leader of the new Republican Party, and it was widely expected that he would be the party’s presidential candidate in 1860. However, at the convention Abraham Lincoln of Illinois dashed Seward’s dreams of the White House.

During the crisis which followed the election of Lincoln to the Presidency, Seward labored to find a compromise between North and South which might preserve the Union. Failing in this, Seward joined Lincoln’s cabinet as Secretary of State. Seward quickly became the President’s most trusted advisor, and played a crucial role in the civil War by preventing British and French assistance to the Confederacy. Seward’s close association with Lincoln nearly cost him his life. The night Lincoln was assassinated, a conspirator seriously wounded Seward with a knife. Seward recovered, however, and, resuming office under President Andrew Johnson, purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million.

Taylor’s masterful biography is a welcome addition to the literature of the Civil War era.