I spoke last night to an enthusiastic audience at the Exeter Historical Society. It meant so much to speak both to a few of those who taught me, years ago at Exeter, and those whom I am teaching now, in the mock trial club. I hope that my presentation lived up to the mock trial club’s high standards: projection, eye contact, not pacing or rocking, not fidgeting or fussing.
Here is roughly what I said:
Most people have heard of Seward: they know that he bought Alaska, “Seward’s folly.” Many know that he was Lincoln’s rival and then his secretary of state. But they do not know much more. Who was he? Why does he matter?
Seward was born in New York in 1801, attended Union College and studied law, then settled in Auburn, about halfway between Albany and Buffalo. Almost from the outset of his legal career he was active in politics. In 1830, he was elected to the state senate and in 1838 governor of New York.
Governors are important today; but they were even more important in the nineteenth century. Think about it: there was no federal department of education, no federal department of transportation. One of Seward’s main efforts was to secure better education for the children of Irish Catholic immigrants; most of them were not attending school at all, because the “public” schools of New York City were under the control of a Protestant charity. Another of Seward’s main efforts was better transport: he wanted the state to fund canals and railroads, not only for economic reasons, but to bind the nation together. Seward became famous in the North, and infamous in the South, when he refused a request from the governor of Virginia to turn over three men accused of helping a slave escape. There was no law of New York, Seward said, that recognized that one man could be the property of another.
After his second term as governor ended, Seward returned to his legal work. Since many of you are members of the mock trial club, I need to say a few words about Seward as a lawyer, indeed about mock trial because Seward participated in mock trial. When he was a law student in New York City, not yet twenty years old, Seward and others formed an organization “in which they tried causes as a mock court.” Seward recalled in his memoir that he was “an active and earnest member of this association” and that it helped him get over his speech difficulties.
After he passed the bar exam, Seward joined a senior lawyer in Auburn, and was soon trying his own cases in real courts. Seward occasionally complained about his legal work. He wrote to his wife from a nearby town that “we have a bright morning, which it seems almost a sacrilege to devote to this vile litigation.” But there is no question that Seward was a talented lawyer: he handled not only complex trials but appeals in the highest courts of New York and the United States.
Seward’s most famous case was the 1846 trial of William Freeman, a black man who, after being released from Auburn prison, brutally killed four members of a white family. After he was arrested, Freeman was almost lynched by a mob on the way to the jail; the people insisted that Seward should not defend Freeman. But he did, because, as his wife put it in a letter, he would not stand by and let an injustice be done.
Seward’s defense was insanity: Freeman had been beaten in prison so hard that he lost his hearing and his sanity. In his closing, Seward said that the best proof of Freeman’s insanity was the way in which he had behaved in the courtroom:
“There is proof, gentlemen, stronger than all this. It is silent, yet speaking. It is that idiotic smile which plays continually on the face of the maniac. . . . He laughs while I am pleading his griefs. He laughs when the attorney general’s bolts would seem to rive his heart. He will laugh when you declare him guilty. When the judge shall proceed to the last fatal ceremony, and demand what he has to say why the sentence of law should not be pronounced upon him, even though there should not be an un-moistened eye in this vast assembly, and the stern voice addressing him should tremble with emotion, even then he will look up in the face of the court and laugh, from the irresistible emotions of a shattered mind.”
Seward lost at trial: the jury found Freeman sane and the judge sentenced him to death by hanging. But he won on appeal, although it did Freeman no good; he died in his cell.
Seward was elected federal senator in early 1849. His most famous speech was in 1850, opposing what we know as the Compromise of that year. He was especially against the proposal that some parts of the territory recently acquired in the Mexican War should be opened to slavery: a “higher law than the Constitution,” he said, dedicated the western territory to freedom.
Since many of you are members of the Republican club, I need to say a word about that party’s early history. In 1854, over Senator Seward’s strong opposition, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska act, making it possible for settlers to form slave-state governments. New groups started to spring up, some calling themselves Republicans, opposed to the extension of slavery. Seward was initially reluctant—he was a loyal Whig—but after he was re-elected in early 1855, he joined the Republicans, and campaigned hard for other Republican candidates. In 1858, in a famous speech in Rochester, Seward declared that there was an “irresistible conflict” between the free-labor and slave-labor systems, that the United States would some day be either entirely free or entirely slave.
By 1859 and early 1860, Seward was the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president. He was so far ahead that one of his supporters wrote him asking whether Abraham Lincoln was the right choice for vice president. The convention was in Chicago, and on the morning set for nomination, Seward in Auburn received a telegram from Chicago: “All right. Everything indicates your nomination today sure.” A few hours later, however, as Seward was chatting with a few friends in his garden, another man raced towards them, waving a telegram and shouting: “Oh God, it is all gone! gone! gone! Abraham Lincoln has received the nomination!”
Why? It is a complex story, involving factors large and small. A small factor: Lincoln’s friends in Chicago arranged the floor of the convention to disadvantage Seward, to make it impossible for the Seward men to get to the doubtful delegations. A larger factor: Lincoln’s managers promised the Pennsylvania delegation that, if they would just give their votes on the second and later ballots to Lincoln, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania would have a place in Lincoln’s cabinet. Another large factor: anti-Catholicism. Thaddeus Stevens, Republican member of Congress from Pennsylvania, said bluntly that his state would “never vote for a man who favored the destruction of the common school system in New York to gain the favor of Catholics and foreigners.”
Seward mastered his disappointment and campaigned for his rival Lincoln, in almost every northern state, including New Hampshire. In early August he returned from Bangor, Maine to Boston by train, stopping and speaking at the main train stations along the way, including Exeter. The crowd here was, in the words of the paper, a “respectable congregation.”
The election was very close: a few thousand more votes in a few states would have thrown the contest into the House. But Lincoln prevailed, the southern states started to secede, and northerners divided over how to respond to secession. Some, including Seward’s friend Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, said the North should make no concessions whatever; it should let the southern states “depart in peace.” Others, led by Seward, advocated compromise. Seward believed that, if war could just be avoided for a few months, a strong “Union party” would emerge in the South, and the southern states, one by one, would come back into the Union from the nascent Confederacy. He therefore opposed the armed mission to supply Fort Sumter, which he predicted would lead to Civil War.
Secretary Seward’s key tasks, during the War, were to prevent Britain or from supporting the South and to ensure that the North did not stumble into a war with Britain. We know that Seward succeeded in these tasks; that there was no foreign war during the Civil War. But what we forget is how close the United States came to foreign wars, especially during the Trent crisis, when Seward skillfully avoided what seemed an almost inevitable war with Britain.
Seward’s role was not limited to diplomacy: he handled what we would call domestic security, arresting suspected spies; he helped Lincoln and Stanton recruit soldiers for the army; he played a critical role in Lincoln’s re-election campaign in 1864.
At the end of the war, John Wilkes Booth targeted not only President Lincoln but also Vice President Johnson and Secretary Seward. Why Seward? Booth was an actor, a famous Shakespearean actor. He wanted to kill not only the tyrant, Lincoln or Caesar, he wanted to kill the co-tyrant, Seward. He wanted, in short, a different ending for his version of the play.
Booth killed Lincoln but not Seward. The assassin Powell managed to get into Seward’s sick room—he was confined to his bed by other injuries—with pistol and knife. But, although he sliced up Seward’s face and neck, he failed to severe the key arteries, and Seward survived.
He survived and remained secretary of state, through the controversial administration of President Andrew Johnson. It was during this period that he signed a treaty with Russia to purchase Russian America, what we know as Alaska, for $7.2 million in gold. It is a myth that the purchase was immediately mocked as “Seward’s folly”; the initial newspaper coverage was almost entirely favorable; and within a few days the Senate approved with only two votes against.
The opposition to the treaty arose months later, as people realized that Seward intended to purchase not just Alaska but British Columbia and the Panama Canal Zone and other places. The Hartford Courant said that Seward would “buy up the whole hemisphere from the glaciers of Greenland to the volcanoes of Tierra del Fuego, if he only lives long enough and the credit of the nation holds out.” None of these other acquisitions happened, in Seward’s time, but he should get some credit for them, for laying the foundations of the American empire.
Enough about Seward’s accomplishments: what was he like as a person?
He was not tall, about five feet six, and slight of build. In his youth his hair was red; in time it turned mainly but not entirely grey. He dressed formally but not carefully. Charles Francis Adams, Jr., recalling that Seward was “small, rusty in aspect, dressed in a coat and trousers apparently made twenty years ago, and by a bad tailor at that.”
Another description, this by Edward Dicey, who met Seward in his office during the Civil War. “I found him dressed in black, with his waistcoat half-unbuttoned, one leg over the side of his armchair, and a cigar stuck between his lips. Barring the cigar and the attitude, I should have taken him for a shrewd, well-to-do attorney, waiting to learn his new client’s story: you are at your ease with him at once; there is a frankness and bonhomie about his manner which renders it, to my mind, a very pleasant one.” Dicey continued: “A good cigar, a good glass of wine, and a good story, even if it is a little risqué, are pleasures which he obviously enjoys keenly. Still, a glance at that spare, hard-knit frame, and that clear, bright eye, shows you that no pleasure, however keenly appreciated, has been indulged to excess throughout his long, laborious career.”
Seward was an energetic, diligent man. One of his law clerks recalled that Seward would return to the office after dinner and write pages and pages; the clerks would arrive in the morning to find the floor littered with the brief. During the Civil War, Seward wrote hundreds of letters each year to instruct the various American ministers abroad, so many long letters that even reading them takes weeks.
Seward was a talkative, sociable man. He would gather, around his dinner table in Washington, diverse groups: politicians, diplomats, authors, actors. Sometimes Seward would talk too much; one guest complained that he and the others were just like “shingles under Niagara,” the waterfall of Seward’s constant conversation.
Perhaps that is a good place for me to stop and take questions.