Man in the Middle of 19th-Century American History

WILLIAM HENRY SEWARD was, without question, a key political player in the United States during three crucial decades of the 19th century. John M. Taylor's new biography presents Seward against a background of social and political change, emphasizing his significant contributions in both domestic and foreign policy.As governor of New York State from 1839 to 1841, Seward supported the efforts to reform prisons and the petitions of Irish Roman Catholics in the nation's largest city for more equitable treatment in terms of public education. As a lawyer and citizen, he defended the rights of blacks in his community to fair treatment under the law. As a member of the US Senate, he denounced slavery as inhumane and unjust. Serving as Lincoln's Secretary of State, Seward oversaw relations with France, Great Britain, and Russia. His ability to dissuade them from recognizing and actively assisting the Confederacy was central to the Union victory in 1865. Convinced of the importance of the Union's maintaining good relations with Great Britain, he urged the appointment of Charles Francis Adams as US ambassador. Target of an attempted assassination (part of the plot devised by John Wilkes Booth), Seward continued to serve in the cabinet under Andrew Johnson. Committed to a policy of territorial expansion, he negotiated for the purchase of Alaska from Russia ("Seward's folly"). This record of achievement, Taylor asserts, deserves greater consideration than it has previously been given. His point is well taken. The most recent scholarly biography, written by Glyndon Van Deusen and published in 1967, concentrates on Seward's rise in New York politics. A more comprehensive work has been needed. Taylor's biography is not, however, a scholarly work. He adopts as his thesis an observation that Seward made about himself - that he was something of an enigma - and describes his subject as a man of great complexity, but he does not dig much below the surface in his examination or analysis. The book draws heavily from the earlier biographies and older histories of the Civil War, including works by George Bancroft, Allan Nevins, David Potter, T. Harry Williams, and David Donald. References to more recent publications, such as James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" and Merrill Petersen's "The Great Triumverate," are scattered throughout the notes. Letters and diaries are also cited, but all too often Taylor relies on secondary works for access to these primary materials. His shortcomings as a historian are evident, too, in his discussion of major events. Describing the Senate's debates over the Compromise of 1850, for example, he dismisses Calhoun's speech as "only a gloomy rejection of Clay's proposals." In fact, Calhoun used this opportunity to introduce his notion of "concurrent majority," maintaining that the Union could be preserved if each section were given veto power over federal legislation. Despite his interest in examining Seward's personal relations in order to gain a better understanding of this "complex" individual, Taylor seems to have made virtually no effort to explore the wealth of materials dealing with women and families in the 19th century. As a result, his efforts to make sense out of Seward's marriage lack insight and contribute little to our understanding of either Frances, his wife, or Seward himself, or the nature of their relationship. Seward's relationships with Thurlow Weed, powerful boss of a New York State political machine, and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and presidential candidate in 1872, raise fascinating questions about the political process of the time. But these are not explored. The book does remind us of Seward's critical role during the Civil War and in the larger scheme of 19th-century politics. It provides a competent overview of the New Yorker's life and places him in the context of some of the major events of his time.

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