Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party

By Thomas Brown | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
William Seward and the Politics of Progress

A SEEMING PARADOX has dogged the reputation of William Henry Seward. His name may sometimes evoke the image of an idealistic statesman, who defied the South in the name of a "higher law" and the "irrepressible conflict." Yet it may also bring to mind a less flattering picture, that of a manipulator and temporizer, prone to trimming his ideological sails to the winds of public opinion. Both portraits of Seward are preserved in the historiography of the antebellum period, and the contrast between the two has provoked a lively debate on their respective merits. 1

Few historians, however, seem to have appreciated the significance of the fact that Seward was well aware that he had to perform a difficult public role. Very early in his political career, for example, Seward wrote to his wife:

I shall, from the force of constitutional bias, be found always mingling in the controversies which agitate the country. Enthusiasm for the right and ambition for personal distinction are passions of which I cannot divest myself, and while every day's experience is teaching me that the former is the very agent which must defeat the latter, I am far from believing that I should be more happy were I to withdraw altogether from political action. 2

Even at the height of his influence as a member of the United States Senate, Seward wrote to a close personal friend:

As for personal considerations I do not often speak of them[,] because no man can speak wisely and perhaps no man need expect to be believed if he speak sincerely-- I am buoyant in the conviction that henceforth the cause

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