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"Lincoln's Hundred Days" and "Seward"

Two new Lincoln-related biographies offer further evidence that we will never tire of reading about our sixteenth president.

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While Masur rarely asserts his personal opinions, when he does, it’s always thought-provoking: “Union was a condition; liberty, an idea. The Emancipation Proclamation remade the war into a new cause. It gave meaning to lives lost, and it gave purpose to a conflict that seemed fatally directionless – a battle here, a battle there, but no vision beyond restoring the Union, which was no vision at all. This is not to say that Union was not an important ideal – only that it was a restorative rather than a transformative idea.”

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Walter Stahr’s biography of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man, takes a while to attract. Though Seward was personally energetic, though he fully documented his own life with letters and dispatches from his political career, Stahr proceeds cautiously, as if he were Lincoln’s slowpoke General George B. McClellan assembling his myriads of troops but rarely advancing. In Stahr’s defense, William Henry Seward (1801-1872) is and was not, from a distance, easy to like or admire. Once we know him, however, just as it happened with his contemporaries, his depth and high spirits win us over; he sparkles, pleases, and charms. A sharp politician of great skill, always clever, never resentful, Seward, through persistent compromising, before, during and after the Civil War helped steer the United States forward.

Though the first half of "Seward" narrative is slow going, the cumulative effect is interesting enough. The book-loving upstate New York lawyer rose to serve in the state legislature and married an adamant abolitionist-sympathizer. Before the war, abolitionists were mocked and loathed by most of America, and – don’t ask me why – they still earn sneers from historians. They were right, the rest of America was wrong. Because the one percent of one percent of those times wanted to hold millions of people with dark skins in bondage, America went to war. Five years before secession began in 1860, Seward spoke on “how the ‘privileged class’ – a few thousand southern slaveholders – had dominated American politics from the very outset, and managed still to control all three branches of the federal government.” Those who had conspired to enslave other human beings were able to paint the abolitionists as rabble-rousers.

Seward was good with enemies, loyal to friends, tolerant, generous, busy, a wheel-dealer who loved to calculate risks and make bargains. He was, in the four years before 1860, the American most likely to become president. When Lincoln captivated the Republican Party with a speech at Cooper Union in late February of 1860, however, Seward’s chances quickly evaporated, in part because everyone knew very well his anti-slavery opinions – then, as now, strong, clear, consistent positions sink presidential hopefuls. Bumped aside, the former governor of New York, and at the time an influential senator, drummed up more support for Lincoln’s November election than anyone else, giving speeches, writing or dictating newspaper editorials and building enthusiasm for the mum candidate (it was thought unbecoming of a nominated leader to campaign for himself).

The second half of the biography is devoted to Seward’s Civil War years and its aftermath, which, no matter how often we read about that era, seems as compelling as the present. Seward had a fine sense of the nation’s pulse, which allowed him to nudge and prod political action and public opinion, but he uncharacteristically misunderstood how much momentum secession had, and predicted the Civil War would fizzle out before it started. 

Stahr presents the events of late 1860 and early 1861 in such a way that it begins to seem that Seward was going to be right – that through shrewd politicking and compromise actual warfare was going to be avoided: “Seward may not have saved the Union during the secession winter... but on these and other occasions he made essential contributions to keeping the peace and maintaining the Union through inauguration day.” Once shots had been fired, he became Lincoln’s most trusted member of the cabinet, though the President often ignored his advice.

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