Lincolns Famous Rival Is Subject of New Biography

Article excerpt

In 1859, the outlook for the new Republican Party was encouraging. The advances which it had made in its brief five-year history were outstanding, and the friction between northern and southern Democrats bode well for the candidate Republicans would choose in the next year.

There were a number of suitable men, but one person was most notable, even perhaps a sure choice.

His name was not Abraham Lincoln; it was William Seward. His career had been impressive, since he had been elected, as a Whig, governor of New York while he was still under 40 years old. When he arrived at the U.S. Senate in 1850 he became, almost instantly, the chief proponent of the forces arguing that the proposed Compromise of 1850 was too pro-slavery, too full of provisions facilitating the expansion of that institution. Compromise, Seward argued, was often a valuable instrument of government, but not when a clearly moral issue was at stake. Seward lost that battle, but he predicted that the issue of human bondage could not be pushed aside. The decade of the 1850s provided his point, and the irrepressible conflict, as he famously called it, became the major national question.

But Seward was not, despite the assertions of furious Southerners, a fanatic. During the crucial winter of 1860-61, after the election of Abraham Lincoln, Seward struggled to keep the union together. When he failed, he accepted Lincolns generous (and shrewd) offer to become secretary of state. He remained in that post for eight years, throughout the tenure of Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson. This was the great period of Sewards life, for both presidents left foreign policy pretty much up to him, and his capable work in fending off British and French intervention in the Civil War, the development which more than anything else was the supreme hope of the Confederacy, places him in the category of one of the greatest American diplomatic managers, a worthy successor to Benjamin Franklin. …