"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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In any case, and in almost all cases, Seward was masterful. As we read, he becomes more and more typically and admirably American, more likable, more wonderful, practically as attractive and fully characterized as a politician in an Anthony Trollope novel. (Trollope, by the way, met and dined with him during the war’s Trent crisis with England and I can’t help believing the British author probably drew inspiration for his fictional "The American Senator" from Seward.)Skip to next paragraph
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Seward had obvious faults and weaknesses and less obvious but more important strengths, passions and loves. He traveled the world before and after the war, for pleasure and education. He lived very rarely with his wife in upstate New York, as she didn’t like Washington or parties, and he didn’t seem to cotton to sitting at home.
Unlike Lincoln, he was not depressive; like Lincoln, with whom he became close, he liked bad jokes and risqué anecdotes. He was less patient than Lincoln, quicker than Lincoln, and less scrupulous. He had a marvelous professional equanimity and weathered scathing criticism and second-guessing but never seemed to resent it. He never minded that people didn’t like him right away; he just kept at them, and sometimes he won them over. He was most proud, during the war, of diplomatically twisting the arms of England and France to keep them from getting involved; had the Confederacy been recognized officially by either of those European powers, the Union probably would not have survived.
One day in early April of 1865, Seward, who had been seriously injured in a carriage accident, was visited in his home by the President. “‘You are back from Richmond?’ Seward asked, his voice a mere whisper. ‘Yes,’ said Lincoln, ‘and I think we are near the end, at last.’ To converse more comfortably, Lincoln stretched himself out on Seward’s bed and rested his head on his elbow, near Seward’s head on the pillow. When Fanny [Seward’s daughter] entered the room and slipped around the bed, Lincoln somehow managed to reach out his long arm and shake her by the hand, ‘in his cordial way.’” What a picture of affection and intimacy! Because we know it was less than a week before assassins would attack Seward and Lincoln, its warmth makes me want to weep. On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators broke into Seward’s bedroom and slashed him with a knife.
Most of us remember that during Andrew Johnson’s administration that completed Lincoln’s second term, Seward brokered the deal to buy Alaska for the United States from Russia. As usual, he was criticized for this – though its benefits, as so much else he did, proved him right.
After 1868, debilitated and a widower, also having lost his dear daughter Fanny, he finally retired from politics, but still merrily toured the globe (“more than 72,000 miles,” in the last three years, he claimed) and poked away a bit at his memoirs, which didn’t seem to much interest him, and wrote and revised a travel book. He died, having adopted his amanuensis as his daughter, in the fall of 1872.
Bob Blaisdell edited "Civil War Letters: From Home, Camp and Battlefield" and "The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln."