Lincoln’s indispensable man

October 1st, 2012

In the October 1 issue of The New Yorker, the magazine’s executive editor, Dorothy Wickenden, reviews a new biography about William Henry Seward by Walter Stahr: Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man.

Seward (1801–72), who helped to found the Whig Party in the 1830s, served as governor of New York (1839–42), United States Senator (1849–61), and as Secretary of State under both Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson (1861–69). A fierce abolitionist (he and his wife harbored fugitive slaves in their home as part of the underground railroad) and popular Republican, he lost the presidential nomination in 1860 to Lincoln, “whom he furiously described as ‘a little Illinois lawyer.'” As Wickenden recounts, though, Seward “had a trait that was rare in Washington: an ability to curb his rancor. He threw himself into campaigning for Lincoln, and, more than anyone, helped secure his victory.” A month later, Lincoln asked Seward to serve as Secretary of State. Soon thereafter, Lincoln asked his new Secretary of State to look over his draft of his Inaugural Address:

Salmon Chase, soon to be Treasury Secretary and a Seward antagonist, had been urging Lincoln to take a hard line with the South. But Seward thought that Lincoln’s bristling tone was all wrong. He compiled a six-page list of proposed revisions, including a section on the Dred Scott decision, in which the President deplored “the despotism of the few life officers composing the Court.” Lincoln accepted many of Seward’s changes, most important his elimination of the bellicose conclusion: “You can forbear the assault upon [the government], I can not shrink from the defense of it. With you, and not with me, is the solemn question of ‘Shall it be peace, or a sword?’” Seward urged Lincoln to conclude, instead, with “some words of affection,” of “calm and cheerful confidence.” Excising Lincoln’s last lines, he substituted his own:

Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Lincoln took the sentiment, stripped it of its orotundity, and produced one of the most stirring political statements in American history:

Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

It was the start of a remarkably successful collaboration between a President and his Secretary of State.

During the course of the war, Lincoln and Seward came to appreciate one another more and more, and Wickenden recounts one particularly poignant moment near the end of the war between the two friends:

When Lincoln returned from Virginia on the evening of Robert E. Lee’s official surrender, April 9, 1865, he went directly to visit Seward, who was recuperating from the carriage accident [in which he was knocked unconscious and broke his jaw]. Frederick[, Seward’s  son] recalled that “the gas-lights were turned down low, and the house was still, every one moving softly, and speaking in whispers.” Lincoln sat down on the bed. Seward, his face wrapped in bandages, whispered, “‘You are back from Richmond?’ ‘Yes,’ said Lincoln, ‘and I think we are near the end at last.’”

Less than a week later, Lincoln was dead and Seward and two of his sons were struggling to survive [from an attack by co-conspirators of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth]. But that night was marked by hope. Frederick recounts how the President, “leaning his tall form across the bed, and resting on his elbow,” lay down beside Seward. Lincoln talked about visiting a Union hospital earlier that day and shaking the hands of hundreds of patients. “He spoke of having worked as hard at it as sawing wood,” Fanny[, Seward’s daughter] recorded in her diary, “and seemed, in his goodness of heart, much satisfied at the labor.”

It is easy to imagine the moment: the two canny politicians quietly reassuring each other that the country would soon be reunited and the virulent animosities of the war fade away. A few days after the 1864 election, Seward had addressed a crowd gathered at his house in Washington. According to newspaper accounts, he said that everyone would soon see Lincoln as “a true patriot, benevolent and loyal, honest and faithful. Hereafter, all motive of detraction of him would cease to exist, and Abraham Lincoln would take his place with Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, among the benefactors of his country and the human race.” This was not rote political rhetoric. He believed every word.

Click here to read Wickenden’s entire review.

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.