William H. Seward (American Crisis Biographies), by Edward Everett Hale, Jr.
This is the sort of book that would be more enjoyable if the author was not continually trying to evaluate and subtly criticize Seward with faint praise in the volume. By and large, Seward comes off as a moderately effective politician who followed a traditional path to political prominence and found himself blocked from reaching the ultimate heights because he was unable to successfully unify his state party or to demonstrate availability at the key moment when he had the best chance for victory. There is no shame in having a career like Seward’s, though. He served loyally in various parties as he sought his place in the world of high politics, as a Clintonite Democrat, then as an Anti-Mason, then as a Whig, and finally as a Republican. He had principles and ideals and was also a practical politician and he found some conflict between the two that left him being viewed as remote and not always very friendly by those who knew him in person. But there is no great problem in being emotionally remote, even if it did ultimately hurt Seward’s political ambitions, which ended up successful enough as it is.
This book is nearly 400 pages long and it contains 20 chapters that look at the life of William Seward in chronological fashion. The author begins with a look at his early years (1) after a chronology, and then the political conditions as they existed in his early adulthood (2). There is a discussion of his support of Adams and Clinton (3) early in his adult life as well as his role as a leader in the Anti-Masonic movement (4) and his time as a state senator (5) and an early member of the Whig party in New York (6). There is a discussion of Seward’s election as governor (7), his administration (8), his re-election (9), and his dealing with new issues that increased in importance (10). This leads to a look at his election to the Senate (11), his opposition to the Nebraska bill (12), his importance as an early leader of the Republican party (13), and his unsuccessful efforts to gain the presidency in 1860 (14). After that the author discusses the beginning of the Civil War (15), the danger of foreign intervention (16), matters of blockades and cruisers (17), the home front (18), and the end of the war (19) where he was almost assassinated on the night Lincoln was shot. This book then ends with a discussion of his last years, including the purchase of Alaska (20), and then a bibliography and index.
It is without a doubt that William Seward is one of the more important Secretary of States that the United States has ever had. If the Civil War and the period afterward were not a substantial part of his lengthy political life, it certainly is the most interesting part of his life and the part of his life that makes him most worthy of study. This particular series, after all, is devoted to American political leaders who were in positions of high office during the time before and during the Civil War and thus had a role in shaping the political world during the crisis that led to the Civil War. This book does an admirable job of setting up the context of that crisis that shows how a politician who favored internal improvements found himself struggling to gain a constituency when slavery overtook all of the other issues politically speaking even if he would have preferred it to be otherwise. We do not deal with the problems that we would want to deal with nor can we make a stand on issues we would choose to. We have to deal with the circumstances and the times that we are given.