"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.
As Americans we know Lincoln’s faults and character better than that of any other president. Yet some of us are jarred when we are reminded how much of a politician he was. It’s absurd, but we don’t like it that the best president in our history was a politician.
No matter the angle, however, no matter the focus on particular events or decisions in Lincoln's life, when we examine his story we always see an earnest human being struggling to know how to do what must be done. Many books about Lincoln have the feel of a novel. We the readers are able to watch him make his difficult way, as we know – even though he does not – that he’s doing about as well as an American man in his time could have done.
“That he seemed to take forever to act, that he hedged and hesitated, that he irritated not only his political opponents but also his friends, that he appeared at times to shrink from the unprecedented challenges before him, make the story all the more compelling,” Louis P. Masur says in his introduction to Lincoln’s Hundred Days, and he’s as good as his word. “By revisiting the hundred days between the preliminary version and the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation, we can observe Lincoln as he watched, worried, listened, read, debated, cajoled, prayed and even joked – then made up his mind and marched the nation toward freedom and the light of the unknown.”
In Masur’s telling, the story of the making of an important yet dull and confusing document is exciting and somehow suspenseful. The Emancipation Proclamation came about as a result of Lincoln’s deepest moral reflections and, as Masur shows, by a momentary political and wartime opportunity. Lincoln saw that the curse of America’s institutionalization of slavery, which no one thought could be done away with in the 19th century, was suddenly vulnerable.
Masur lets Lincoln take all the criticism for the document’s unconstitutionality, its crudeness, its half-measuredness, its faults and deficiencies, and also the due credit for the fact that – despite its stylistic awkwardnesses and limited emancipatory claims – it worked. The Emancipation Proclamation, it turns out, was not a bolt of lightning but a big blunt lever that effectively tipped slavery off the map.
What it meant at the time was debated and argued over, misunderstood and misinterpreted, reacted to with disappointment, outrage, and joy – but the carefully flat-voiced, legalese document did its work. “The most redoubtable decrees – which will always remain remarkable historical documents – flung by him at the enemy all look like, and are intended to look like, routine summonses sent by a lawyer to the lawyer of the opposing party,” noted that decree-flinger Karl Marx in October 1862, foreseeing that Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, “which is drafted in the same style... is the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union, tantamount to the tearing up of the old American Constitution.”
Masur divides "Lincoln’s Hundred Days" into three: before, during, and after the period between September 22, 1862, when Lincoln published the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the “Jubilee,” January 1, 1863, when Lincoln signed the final version. Some doubted that at the end of those 100 days he would go through with it; Lincoln’s inner struggles before he issued the Preliminary Proclamation and after he had done so, the transformation of public opinion, especially among Union soldiers (who were seeing real slaves in the real South) and politicians, is the swift narrative Masur directs especially well, as he quotes the participants and assesses the turning points. Masur also neatly manages to convey the complete arc of the war, including a moving retelling of Lincoln’s visit to captured Richmond on April 4, 1865.
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.”
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.
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.)
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."