/ Lincoln and Seward in Civil War Diplomacy: Their Relationship at the Outset Reexamined

Most historians know William Henry Seward as one of the most eminent American secretaries of state. In his appraisal of the incumbents of that office, Alexander De Conde ranks Seward second in performance only to John Quincy Adams.[1] If ever an American political leader had a record of consistently working for territorial and commercial expansion entirely by peaceful means, that man was Seward.

Yet, according to practically every historian and biographer who has written at any length about him, one striking blemish appears on his record. During an interval of several months early in 1861, a bellicose Seward invented a "foreign war panacea" for solving the problem of Southern secession and was barely thwarted by President Abraham Lincoln from bringing about such a conflict. Either Seward was possessed of an almost insane truculence or he had anticipated John Foster Dulles's brinkmanship at the worst possible time. This apparent aberration in Seward's long record of constructive statesmanship is sometimes given more emphasis in textbooks than any of his other activities in the field of diplomacy. The impression thus created is one of instability, irresponsibility, and political ambition to the point of madness.

In 1976 I wrote Desperate Diplomacy: William Henry Seward's Foreign Policy, 1861, a volume which demonstrated how absurd was the traditional portrayal of Seward as a warmonger and which showed the myth's inception in the near-paranoia of the British minister at Washington—and in machinations against Secretary Seward by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and other political opponents. [2] Page  [End Page 21]

Yet references still abound in histories and biographies to Seward's so-called "anglophobic outbursts," [3] his "hair-trigger temper," his "rantings," his lack of "sobriety," and his "wild eccentricity" early in the war years, as well as his alleged plan "to bring on a world war," which Lincoln—"to his enduring credit, quietly filed away—and allowed Seward time to return to his senses." [4]

A recent edition of a popular college-level survey textbook refers to Seward's alleged "attempts to dominate Lincoln" and to the Secretary's "initial blunders," [5] while Thomas A. Bailey, in the tenth edition of his famous Diplomatic History of the American People, included the same imaginative version of Seward's "'wrap-the-world-in-fire policy'" and "'foreign war panacea'" that appeared in the third edition, published in 194 [6].6

Alexander De Conde's History of American Foreign Policy relates the familiar story of Seward allegedly attempting to relegate Lincoln to a figurehead in his own administration, while pressing in a momentous memorandum for "a policy of hostility or war" against four European nations in order to "win back the loyalty of the seceded states and avoid civil war."[7]

It should therefore be apparent that the Seward foreign war panacea myth still flourishes. [8] Why is this untrue story still being repeated by historians? In part, I think, because many of them have merely echoed their predecessors rather than "going to the documents."

The greatest obstacle of all, however, to a sober, unbiased rethinking of the meaning and intent of Seward's diplomacy is, I believe, what I tend to call "the Lincoln factor." As Paul Holbo declared of Desperate Diplomacy, my "passing suggestions that Abraham Lincoln Page  [End Page 22] was hesitant or lacking in understanding" of foreign relations, and my "general neglect of the President detracted] from the book."

Exactly. Historians remain imbued with the notion that Lincoln must have been the central figure in, or at least the main influence on, American foreign policy during the Civil War years. This erroneous conception, advanced explicitly in some four hundred and thirty-three pages by Jay Monaghan in Diplomat in Carpet Slippers, a book still cited frequently in bibliographies, is rendered implicitly in many specialized monographs that deal with Civil War diplomacy. [9]

Lincoln's greatness should not blind historians to the fact that, during his presidency, high officials in his administration (a majority of whom were hardly admirers of Seward), reputable journalists, well-informed diplomats, and leaders in Congress all repeatedly testified to their common belief that Seward was the chief executive's éminence grise. Were all of these eyewitnesses deluded when they assumed that Seward was in fact a kind of prime minister?

The Lincoln-Seward relationship during the entire Civil War period is a topic too complicated for thorough examination here. This discussion therefore is limited to the association of the two men in the early days of the administration, as they dealt with U.S. foreign relations. Lincoln himself depicted the nature of his relationship with his secretary of state in words clearly indicating a disposition to allow Seward to conduct foreign policy with a minimum of interference. As the President-Elect told a European diplomat two days before his inauguration: "I don't know anything about diplomacy. I will be very apt to make blunders." And to a visitor who tried to influence him on a foreign policy issue, Lincoln asserted: "It does not so much signify what I think; you must persuade Seward to think as you do." [10]

Throughout the war years, Seward, while remaining a faithful subordinate to Lincoln, enjoyed the President's complete confidence. If Seward was in any sense a prime minister, it was because the chief executive desired him to play that role. Yet a myth persists to the contrary.

In 1890 Lincoln's two wartime private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, published a massive biographical eulogy of their former Page  [End Page 23] chief, Abraham Lincoln: A History, in volume three of which appeared the chapter "Premier or President?" [11] The purpose of this chapter was to show how "the first real question of the Lincoln Cabinet ..., 'Who is the greatest man?'" was solved by the President. Seward, who for almost four weeks had played "the leading part in the new Cabinet," was, it seems, overly ambitious. Allegedly he presented Lincoln on April 1 with a memorandum proposing that the President not only "by an arbitrary act plunge the nation into foreign war," but also "ask his rival [Seward] to rule in his stead." [12]

William Henry Seward, Secretary of State
William Henry Seward, Secretary of State

What had Seward said in this document? Nicolay and Hay reproduced his "Thoughts for the President's Consideration" verbatim. First, the New Yorker had asserted, "We are at the end of a month's administration, and yet without a policy, either domestic or foreign." Although this had perhaps been "unavoidable" because of the need to fill crucial offices with loyal appointees while the Senate remained Page  [End Page 24] in session, further delay in giving attention "to other and more grave matters" might be dangerous. [13]

Let us analyze this much of the memorandum. Any historian who examines contemporary periodicals and manscripts for the period knows that Seward was correct, both in suggesting that there was no perception—either in the nation or abroad—that the Lincoln administration had a coherent domestic or foreign policy, and in recognizing that practically all the President's time had been devoted to dispensing loaves and fishes to job applicants. Regarding this matter, Thornton Lothrop, hardly an apologist for the secretary of state, conceded that "Seward's paper only repeated the common talk of the time—the language of the newspaper press and the opinions contained in the private letters not merely of ordinary observers, but of well-informed and sensible persons."[14]

In his memorandum, Seward had next suggested that the new administration needed to demonstrate to the country that it was more concerned with preserving the Union than with the narrow party question of what to do about slavery. This was the only basis on which the North—Democrats, Constitutionalists, and Republicans alike, not only from the antislavery regions of New England and the upper Midwest, but also from the former Know-Nothing urban centers and the border states—could unite to combat the threatened slaveholders's rebellion. Many Americans regarded the military occupation of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor as a symbol of antislavery policy, hence, Seward advocated that Lincoln should order the evacuation of that post. At the same time, however, Lincoln should prepare for the outbreak of civil war, both by reinforcing every other "fort and possession in the South" and by readying a blockade of the Southern coastline.[15] Historians have debated whether Lincoln should have followed Seward's advice to evacuate Fort Sumter. There does appear to be almost unanimous acceptance of the wisdom of his remaining suggestions, all of which were eventually carried out with the President's approval.

Next, Seward offered recommendations under the heading "For Foreign Nations." The great powers of Europe were showing clear signs of a desire, if not an immediate intention, to intervene in Western Hemispheric affairs, both to help establish the Southern Page  [End Page 25] slave Confederacy amid the ruins of the federal Union and to restore European rule in Mexico and Central America. [16] How should the threat be met? Seward advised:

I would demand explanations from Spain and France, categorically, at once.

I would seek explanations from Great Britain and Russia, and send agents into Canada, Mexico, and Central America, to rouse a vigorous continental spirit of independence ... against European intervention.

And, if satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France,

Would convene Congress and declare war against them.[17]

Was this "extreme belligerence," as Kinley Brauer has written, designed to provoke "a foreign crisis" to "reunite the American nations?"[18] Of course not. There is no real evidence, taking the memorandum in context, that Seward had anything of the kind in mind.

Seward had simply sought Lincoln's sanction for asking European envoys in Washington whether their governments intended to take advantage of the slaveholders's rebellion to intervene in American affairs, even as the great powers, acting in concert or in holy alliance, had been prone to do in diverse parts of the world earlier in the century. The French and Spanish seemed already to be mobilizing for armed incursions into Latin America. If the governments of France and Spain were already embarked on a policy of intervention and admitted this in their "explanations," then the U.S. government would of course have to defend its territory and its nearby vital interests. Otherwise, what use was the Monroe Doctrine? But a defensive war could not be waged constitutionally without the sanction of Congress. Meanwhile, it was only prudent to try to undermine movements already underway in Latin America to procure diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy, [19] and also to seek throughout Page  [End Page 26] the hemisphere for friends and allies who had a common revulsion "against European intervention."

All of Seward's foreign policy recommendations contained in his April 1 memorandum were carried out. His demands for explanations from all four European powers helped to persuade their leaders to exercise greater caution in dealing with the "American question" than they had at first exhibited.

Seward's agents and envoys in Canada and Latin America were so successful in seeking support for the cause of the American Union that no Western Hemispheric government ever recognized or overtly aided the Southern insurrection.

There was, of course, no need to "convene Congress and declare war" against Spain and France because the explanations of those two governments proved to be, if not entirely reassuring, at least sufficiently "satisfactory."

The final sentences of Seward's "Thoughts" of April 1 have inspired historians to emit accusations so intemperate that they would be laughable if they were not so universally accepted.

whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prosecution of it.

For this purpose it must be somebody's business to pursue and direct it incessantly.

Either the President must do it himself, and be all the while active in it, or

Devolve it on some member of his Cabinet. Once adopted, debates on it must end, and all agree and abide.

It is not in my especial province. But I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility. [20]

Anyone who troubles to examine the text of the April 1 memorandum ought to see how obvious it is that this portion of it applies only to the category distinctly labeled "For Foreign Nations," clearly set off from the remainder of the document. To suggest, as so many historians have, that Seward was here trying to "take over the direction of government policy" [21] in general is to exhibit an inability to see what is plainly there. What the Secretary of State was maintaining to a president who had already shown great diffidence to his opinions, especially on foreign policy questions, is not difficult to discern. Page  [End Page 27]

American foreign relations were in a perilous state and required full-time attention by a single directing force. Lincoln had little interest in foreign policy and many other problems with which to deal. The Cabinet, consisting of long-time political rivals, was not cohesive. In meeting the threat from abroad, haste was requisite. Seward wanted two things: Lincoln's sanction for a concerted effort to prevent foreign war, and authority to make that effort without having it undermined by Cabinet colleagues or jeopardized by the kind of vacillation already shown in regard to the Fort Sumter problem. Continued indications of weakness and indecisiveness on the part of the administration would tempt foreign adventurers. Seward wanted to show unity and strength; soon, with Lincoln's approval, he did.

Yet, Frederic Bancroft, one of Seward's principal biographers, has characterized his memorandum of April 1 as "a reckless invention of a mind driven to desperate extremes," a mind "zealous to do what would be most certain to foment ... a foreign war as the main-spring of his policy." [22] And Glyndon Van Deusen, Seward's most recent biographer, has declared that the New Yorker "was still clinging to the illusion that conflict with foreign nations could bring the South back into the national fold."[23]

What is the evidence supplied by historians to substantiate the presumption that the Secretary of State actually "proposed to Lincoln a foreign war as a panacea for the country's ills?" [24]

In the face of his own awareness of Seward's lifelong aversion to foreign war, "except on the ground of necessary defence,"[25] Ban- Page  [End Page 28] croft declares that, nevertheless, "Seward's theory of the unifying effect of foreign war had long revolved in his mind." Bancroft then offers two examples of this alleged theory: a speech in New York City on December 22, 1860, and a Senate address on January 12, 1861.[26] But close scrutiny of those two orations reveals nothing that justifies such an interpretation. As I related in The Trent Affair, [27] Seward's extemporaneous December 22 speech centered on the theme of American patriotism, which he claimed knew no sectional boundaries. He only mentioned a hypothetical foreign invasion to make the point that Northerners and Southerners, no matter how great their differences over slavery, would support each other in the face of an assault from abroad. As for the January 12 Senate speech, it requires a wild imagination indeed to read into that appeal for compromise and conciliation during the secession crisis any hint of a "foreign war panacea."

What evidence has been adduced by other historians for what Ephriam D. Adams declared was Seward's "insane scheme for saving the Union by plunging it into a foreign war?" [28] Van Deusen merely affirms that the Secretary of State's reasons for desiring a foreign conflict "must remain, at least in part, a matter of conjecture." [29] And David Paul Crook, who writes that the "facts best fit the theory of brinkmanship," provides few "facts" beyond the speculations of Allan Nevins to back up his contention that what Seward desired was "a scare over war with Spain" to enable the U.S. Navy to reassert "federal authority over the Union forts on the Gulf of Mexico."[30]

But Nevins's theory (which he appears to have appropriated from Page  [End Page 29] Henry Temple) is not backed by reliable evidence. In the first volume of his War for the Union, Nevins claims that "it was war with Spain that Seward had primarily in mind.... The moment Washington opened war on Spain, Seward believed, the Cotton States would tremble lest Cuba become free soil.... To avert such a calamity, he hoped that Southerners would join the attack.... If France entered the war, the United States would also seize the French Islands."[31]

Where had Seward "disclosed these views?" Why, "in a number of confidential talks with Lord Lyons," the British minister. But Nevins actually bases his whole theory on a single document, a despatch from Lord Lyons to the British Foreign Office which reveals no such "views" af Seward's. For supplementary documentation, Nevins confined himself to Bancroft, Nicolay and Hay, and James Ford Rhodes's History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (1912). Rhodes's book indeed describes the Secretary of State's alleged plan to use a foreign war to reunite "the alienated sections" as "egregious folly," but Rhodes offers no documentation of the socalled "plan" other than a quotation from William Howard Russell's famous Diary. Russell, in turn, had accused Seward of "bombast," but, in no sense, warmongering.[32]

Allan Nevins, therefore, actually provides not a shred of real evidence in primary sources for his declaration that Seward's alleged proposal "that the North provoke a war with Spain and France to extricate itself from its difficulties, as criminal as it was stupid, must make Americans blush that they had a foreign minister capable of such an act." [33] And Nevins's contemporary Bruce Catton, in dismissing Seward's April 1 memorandum as "fantastic," an irritating imposition on a "busy" president by "an infatuated power seeker," shows equal powers of imagination. Like Nevins, Catton cites Nicolay and Hay among his authorities for the spurious story. [34]

Years earlier, in a biography of Seward published in the American Statesman series, Thornton Lothrop used such words as "wild" and Page  [End Page 30] "mad" to characterize what he called Seward's "incomprehensible" scheme which "came from the belief that a foreign war, or the prospect of one, would unite all our people, divert the attention of the South, ... and put an end for the moment to all schemes of secession." What were Lothrop's sole sources for this idea? Nicolay and Hay. [35]

Lyons, British Minister to the United States
Lord Lyons, British Minister to the United States

The source of the foreign war panacea interpretation of Seward's April 1 memorandum must now be apparent. Printing that document for the first time, Nicolay and Hay attributed its authorship to the Secretary of State's desire to "smother a domestic insurrection in the blaze and glory of a war which must logically be a war of conquest.... [Seward] would change a threatened dismemberment of the Union into the triumphant annexation of Canada, Mexico, and the West Indies." [36]

Except for the bare text of the memorandum, however, these Page  [End Page 31] authors provided not an iota of substantiation for their imaginative scenario, so inconsistent with Seward's well-known ideas, character, and history as a public man. In previous pages, however, Lincoln's biographers had cited as sources some articles by wartime Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who had been a vehement political opponent of Seward's for some forty years. These articles had appeared in The Galaxy magazine after Seward's death and were largely devoted to a measured attack on his reputation. It was here that Nicolay and Hay, who (as they conceded) were trying in their biography to establish who in the Lincoln administration was "the greatest man," discovered how they might demonstrate Lincoln's superiority over Seward, whom they labeled his "rival."[37]

In Welles's articles, later expanded into a book entitled Lincoln and Seward, the former secretary of the Navy drew on his padded, sanitized diary and his own sour recollections, as well as upon the reminiscences of fellow Jacksonian Democrats who had also been bitter political enemies of Seward's in the antebellum decades. The "first promoter of the Lincoln legend," according to John Niven, Welles's biographer, accused Seward of entering "upon his duties with the impression ... that he was to be the de facto President." But Lincoln had exercised continuously "intelligent supervision" of Seward, even to the point, on one occasion, of having "expurgated, corrected, and improved" an "objectionable" instruction to Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister at London.[38]

On and on go Welles's accusations and distortions, filling more than two hundred pages. Clothed in a paean of praise for Lincoln, Page  [End Page 32] the assault almost made it appear as if the real rivalry had not been between Welles and Seward, but rather between the President and his secretary of state. Welles's insidious polemic accomplished its purpose—to diminish the historical reputation of the only other man to serve eight years with him in the cabinets of both Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Historians ever since have reflected the interpretations and parrotted the unsubstantiated assertions contained in Lincoln and Seward, used as a source by Nicolay and Hay, by Charles Francis Adams, Jr., in his biography of his father and in influential articles in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and by many other writers near the turn of the century. The impact of these works on later books and articles can be traced not only in footnotes and bibliographies but also in the language used to treat historical episodes. Thus did Lincoln's secretary of the Navy, whose ideas and opinions had been so frequently rejected by the chief executive for those of Seward, have his ultimate revenge.

Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, by Thomas
Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, by Thomas Nast

As an example of how Lincoln curbed the impetuosity of an irresponsible secretary of state, Welles had referred to the President's Page  [End Page 33] editing of a diplomatic instruction. This document had probably been brought to Welles's attention by his friend Charles Sumner. It was soon to be published by Allen Thorndike Rice as a means of settling "the question of ascendency" among Lincoln and his advisers during "the war of the Rebellion." [39]

According to Rice, who as editor of the North American Review had built circulation for his magazine by publishing such documents of questionable authenticity as the Diary of a Public Man, he was in a position to reveal, for the first time, how Lincoln's corrections on Seward's draft instruction number ten to Adams, dated May 21, 1861, had "without question ... saved the nation from a war with England, which, at that period, would probably have resulted in the establishment of the Southern Confederacy!" Those who still "claimed pre-eminence" for Seward over Lincoln, stated Rice, might now read convincing proof that the Secretary of State had discovered in the President "a master who knew when to exact implicit obedience," as well as one who possessed "an insight into foreign affairs,... and a discrimination in methods of diplomatic dealing which entitle[d] the President," in comparison with Seward, "to the honors." [40]

To examine Lincoln's emendations in the facsimile provided in Rice's publications is to discover, however, nothing that justifies such extravagant language. One finds merely a few cautious but relatively unimportant alterations of terminology and several suggestions for omissions of material which Seward retained anyway. The most important passages which Lincoln suggested be left out were two. One began with the declaration "We are not insensible of the grave importance of this occasion. We see how ... a war may ensue between the United States, and one, two, or even more European nations...." The other passage, referring to the threat of British intervention in behalf of the Southern insurrectionists, declared that "when this act of intervention is distinctly performed, we, from that hour, shall cease to be friends and be forced to be enemies of Great Britain." [41]

Seward retained both of these warnings substantially as he had first drafted them in the instruction he sent to Adams, an instruction also published (minus one sentence) in volume 1 of the Foreign Page  [End Page 34] Relations series of U.S. diplomatic documents that Seward instituted later that year. [42]

According to Nicolay and Hay, however, Lincoln made a decisive change in the impact of this document on the British by ordering Seward to omit a "direction to deliver a copy of it to the British foreign minister without further explanation" and commanding instead that Seward write to Adams that "this paper is for your own guidance only, and not to be read or shown to anyone." Although it is true that Seward acquiesced in the President's wish in this regard, it is also a fact that he directed Adams to "keep back nothing" contained in the instruction. It is therefore difficult to justify statements by historians, reflecting those originally made by Rice and taken up eagerly by Nicolay and Hay, to the effect that Lincoln somehow had a great impact on U.S. foreign relations by censoring Seward's May 21 instruction to Adams.[43]

The truth is, as Nicolay and Hay admitted, that it was Seward's "ordinary habit" to read his most important diplomatic instructions "to the president before sending them." [44] Even as Lincoln frequently sought Seward's advice about the wording of such documents as his inaugural addresses and the emancipation proclamation, so Seward welcomed the President's concurrence before issuing important state papers. On the occasion discussed here, Seward accepted some of Lincoln's editorial glosses and refrained from adopting others, even as Lincoln had done in regard to his first inaugural address, the most frequently quoted passage (the "mystic chords of memory" peroration) of which was urged on him by Seward.

It is, therefore, absurd to assert, as many historians have, that Seward's "reckless and inflamatory" instruction of May 21 was a "challenge" to Great Britain, which indicated "that the United States desired war" until Seward had his "teeth skilfully drawn" by Lincoln.[45]

Such an assertion makes as much sense as to say that Lincoln exhibited in the uncompromising tone of his draft 1861 inaugural address, which ended with the question, "Shall it be peace or a sword?"—a belligerent attitude toward the South which, through Page  [End Page 35] a long series of editorial alterations suggested by Seward and accepted by Lincoln, was transformed by Seward into a conciliatory act of statesmanship.[46]

While subscribing to the myth of Seward's jingoism, historians also seem to accept the idea that he was generally subdued for the rest of the Civil War, kept under close rein by President Lincoln. Nicolay and Hay provided an enduring impression. In dealing with Seward's April 1 memorandum, they wrote, Lincoln had "armed himself with his irresistible logic, his faultless tact, his limitless patience, his kindest but most imperturbable firmness." With a "hand of iron in a glove of velvet," he had written a reply which showed Seward "how serious a fault he had committed," after which the Secretary of State had remained properly loyal and deferential "for four long years to his chief, not only without reserve, but with a sincere and devoted personal attachment." Thus, as E. D. Adams later put it, Lincoln's firm guidance had not only restrained his erratic underling, but had also induced him to make "a complete face-about in policy." As Page  [End Page 36] Brian Jenkins has written: "The daydream of a reunifying foreign war ... faded from his mind."[47]

Charles Sumner's biographer David Donald has even suggested that this salubrious alteration of behavior was owing to the influence exerted through Lincoln by the senator from Massachusetts—that "under Sumner's watchful eye" Seward "grew mild and gentle in his conduct toward foreign powers." [48]

But Seward went through no such metamorphosis. All of his life he had maintained a strong aversion to war and a disposition to discuss, conciliate, and negotiate, rather than to bluster, boast, confront, and combat. As he explained to Charles Francis Adams, who had heard in London the contemporary rumors of Seward's alleged bellicosity toward England: "It has been an earnest and profound solicitude to avert foreign war—that alone has prompted the emphatic and sometimes, perhaps, impassioned remonstrances I have hitherto made against any form or measure of recognition of the insurgents by the government of Great Britain."[49]

The truth is that Seward realized that a war between the United States and a European power would not only "set the world on fire," but would probably also wipe out democracy forever. His Senate speeches during the 1850s often contained such sentiments. Seward referred frequently to the dangers of foreign war in letters, conversations, and diplomatic instructions. On every occasion when an injudicious word or an ill-thought-out policy might have led to Page  [End Page 37] a severance of diplomatic relations with one or more European governments, Seward was always on the side of peace. Indeed, in the case of the Trent affair, it was the Secretary of State who supplied the decisive counsel that pulled the President, the rest of the Cabinet, and the nation back from the abyss of destruction.[50]

Before taking Seward into his administration, Lincoln had expressed as much admiration for the New Yorker as for any other public man. He had borrowed some of Seward's political ideas and expressions, as he freely acknowledged, and he described his secretary of state to others, even after his own election to the presidency, as still "the generally recognized leader of the Republican party." [51]

Seward, for his part, developed great respect and affection for the ungainly Illinois lawyer. In a frequently misinterpreted passage from a letter to his wife ("The President is the best of us: but he needs constant and assiduous cooperation"), the Secretary of State suggested simply that Lincoln was an admirable but inexperienced man who would be able to make good use of counsel from Seward and other Washington veterans. That Lincoln himself recognized a need for the New Yorker's advice and placed great value on it was reported repeatedly by such contemporaries as Salmon Chase, Sumner, Welles, and the Blairs, who bitterly resented Seward's special influence with the President. Indeed, Lincoln's dependence on Seward was so well known that when John Wilkes Booth shot the President in Ford's Theatre, his confederate Lewis Paine attempted to assassinate Seward that same night.[52]

Almost from the begining of their official relationship, Lincoln took great pleasure in Seward's genial company. On many occasions he summoned Seward to the White House for a tête à tête, or ambled alone across Lafayette Square to the Seward home for a relaxing visit, or took the New Yorker on a carriage ride to visit a military unit or spend a day simply "taking the air." There was indeed a remarkable empathy between the two men, who shared such rare traits among American politicians as utter honesty, magnanimity, compassion, the inability to hold a personal grudge, and good-natured humor. [53]

Certainly, Lincoln would have been the first to agree that an Page  [End Page 38] instance of "Seward's folly" no more occurred in 1861 than it did in 1867. The cause of historical truth has been ill-served by the overreaching of nineteenth-century admirers of Abraham Lincoln, whose gratuitous attempts to elevate the reputation of the sixteenth president by demeaning contemporary statesmen enabled a handful of venomous surviving Jacksonians successfully to undermine the reputation of the great Whig and Republican leader who had eclipsed them all.

I have traced the campaign of defamation against Seward through the surviving papers of Montgomery Blair, Salmon Chase, and Gideon Welles, three former Democrats who served with ex-Whig Seward in Lincoln's cabinet. The campaign began when a friend and political backer of Seward's, Thurlow Weed, published some autobiographical chapters in a popular magazine. Reading them, Welles became amazed at "the extradordinary influence which Seward had over both the Presidents under whom he served." This, Welles thought, had been "calamitous to the country." Both Lincoln and Johnson "were in a degree subject to him ... he was constantly leading his chiefs into error." At once Welles initiated a correspondence with Blair and Chase, and also with Charles Sumner, another former political opponent of Seward's, in order to "interchange views" about Weed's apparently "deliberate design ... to falsify history" and to revenge himself on the four for thwarting Weed's attempt to get Seward elected president in 1860. "To some extent," Welles warned his correspondents, Weed had succeeded in creating "a prejudice against us." Welles needed help in an effort to "put these matters right." [54]

Early in 1872, Charles Francis Adams, former minister to Great Britain and a highly respected statesman, delivered a eulogy on Seward. That speech suggested that many of the ideas and policies for which Lincoln had received sole credit were actually influenced to a large extent by Seward, who had been the strongest intellectual force in the administration. Welles was indignant that what he had earlier condemned as Seward's contant meddling should now be represented as constructive leadership. Adams had implied that Seward "was chief in the [Lincoln] administration, and controlled ... the measures and policy of the President." On the contrary, Welles retorted, Lincoln "was master of the situation, and ... no member Page  [End Page 39] of the Cabinet was, I think, so often overruled and his propositions set aside as the Secretary of State." Welles himself, "more than any other was brought in conflict with Seward ... but in every instance, I believe, the President coincided in my views ... [a statement that undermines the credibility of anything Welles wrote about Lincoln and Seward]. Those of us who know the facts should correct these errors." It was one thing for Welles to complain, in his diary and later in letters to friends, that Seward had dominated Lincoln and Johnson; it was quite another matter for Adams to air the idea for the general public and for the pages of history—at the expense of the reputations of himself, Blair, and Chase. [55]

As the year 1872 passed, Welles became virtually obsessed with the conviction that old Jacksonian Democrats who had served in Lincoln's cabinet with Seward "should not permit history to be falsified," either by Weed's "fictitious memoirs of himself and Seward—magnifying the deeds of each, and slyly traducing and defaming others," or by Adams's suggestion that Seward was "the controlling mind" in the Lincoln and Johnson administrations. Other histories of "our day" coming from the nation's presses he also judged to be "most of them great humbugs." Welles decided to write his own version of history. [56]

Blair encouraged Welles's venture and persuaded Chief Justice Chase to provide written sanction for Welles's role as spokesman for the trio in correcting Weed's and Adams's alleged misrepresentations. The strategy adopted was indirect rather than forthright. Welles would not openly attempt to vindicate the ideas and opinions of the ex-Democrats versus those of Adams, Weed, and Seward, ideas and opinions which Lincoln, guided by Seward, had so frequently overruled. Rather, the approach was to be an attack on the reputation of the deceased secretary of state, in which all of the latent animosities and frustrations of those who had been thwarted in their desires to control the Lincoln administration and steer it in a state's rights direction in domestic policy and toward a belligerent foreign policy would emerge in such a way that the real quarrel would not seem to be between Seward and them, but between Seward and Lincoln. Thus a historical replay would be concocted in which the nature of the cabinet contest of the early 1860s would Page  [End Page 40] be totally altered. Lincoln would be made the champion of the three disgruntled cabinet survivors. "I would not intentionally do injustice to Seward," wrote Welles piously, "but the truth should not be perverted. We who know the facts owe it to Lincoln, to the country, and to history that the mistakes of such a man as Mr. Adams should be corrected." [57]

Notices were published in the newspapers designed to elicit assistance from others. One former Democrat, Seward's predecessor as secretary of state, Jeremiah Black, responded. Black, described by Senator Henry Wilson as a "soured, disappointed, and vindictive" adviser to former President James Buchanan, whose "imbecile counsels" promoted Southern secession, wrote an emotional, inaccurate article stating that Seward had been personally responsible during the Civil War era for "the general decay of our political institutions." And what William E. Gladstone had described as "the greatest forensic effort in the English language," Seward's argument in the famous Freeman case of 1846, [58] Black labeled as "irrelevant trash" emitted by a lawyer who had disgraced the bar by "the odium of his conduct" in defending a Negro mass murderer in court. As a senator, Black declared, Seward had been "a mere demagogue," with "no convictions whatever." He was "narrow-minded, short-sighted, and destitute of ... magnanimity."[59] Aside from its name-calling, Black's article, as Wilson pointed out, contained lie after lie—yet it was eagerly accepted by Blair and Welles as reinforcing their own attempt to destroy Seward's reputation. And, although former U.S. Senator Truman Smith wrote Welles that "such a tirade of malignant abuse as that introduced by Mr. Black into the columns of the Galaxy" undermined the efforts of others to show that Lincoln was superior in "sagacity and plain common sense" to Seward, I have discerned no indication from Welles or Blair that either derived anything but pleasure from Black's scurrilous diatribe.[60]

The Welles and Blair families met in the summer of 1873 at New-port, Rhode Island, so that the two old politicians could confer in person about tactics while their offspring enjoyed the pleasures of Page  [End Page 41] the fashionable resort. Welles's anti-Seward, anti-Weed, anti-Stanton articles soon followed—also published in the Galaxy magazine. Blair was elated, terming them "a punishing blow to Weed & Adams." He was happy to find that many people agreed with him that the articles had made "a profound impression on the public mind." Seward's "pusillanimity" and "fulsomeness" had been conclusively demonstrated, and Lincoln had been shown to have suffered much from the New Yorker's presence in his cabinet. Best of all, Welles's writings were helping "enormously to perpetuate the principles of true democratic government" to which Blair and Welles had both devoted their lives. Andrew Jackson would have been proud of them. [61]

In his articles, Welles had originated the idea that "Seward intended to be, what Adams says, and I presume supposes he was, the directing and controlling mind of the administration." Seward, said Welles, had "contributed himself so much to that impression." But Lincoln, influenced "quietly" by Welles and Blair, had "never permitted him to go beyond his tether."[62]

Nicolay and Hay had needed a foil for Lincoln in the early chapters of their account of his role in the Civil War before they could bring George McClellan onto the scene. When they read in Welles's treatment of Lincoln and Seward that the Secretary of State had intended to make the President his puppet, they found what they were seeking. They decided to join the cabal of ex-Democrats in putting the usurper in his place. This they accomplished by a careful selection of documents and by interpretations of the meanings of those documents based on the most unfavorable constructions of Seward's alleged motives and thoughts. Thus the mendacious Welles and the overbearing Blair projected their own traits onto the public impression of the dead Seward, and—in the guise of defending Lincoln against an allegation of a usurpation that would have been a joke to both the late president and his favorite adviser had they known about it—they managed to leave Seward's historical reputation in shambles. Page  [End Page 42]


  1. Alexander De Conde, The American Secretary of State: An Interpretation (London: Pall Mall, 1963), 171. return to text
  2. Some reviewers conceded agreement with this thesis, for example, Daniel Carroll in the Journal of American History 64 (June 1977): 159–60; and, by implication, Thomas Farnham in the Journal of Southern History 43 (August 1977): 459–60. return to text
  3. David Pletcher's review of Norman B. Ferris, The Trent Affair, in Civil War History 24 (September 1978): 271–72. return to text
  4. David Donald, The Great Republic: A History of the American People (Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1981) 482–85. return to text
  5. Richard N. Current, T. Harry Williams, and Frank Freidel, American History, A Survey, 5th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 379, 387. return to text
  6. Thomas A. Bailey, Domestic History of the American People, 10th ed. (1946, repr. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1980), 317–18. return to text
  7. Alexander De Conde, History of American Foreign Policy (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978), 1:222. return to text
  8. Additional examples of the prevelance of that myth can be found in three reviews of Desperate Diplomacy: by Howard Kushner in New York History 58 (April 1977): 230–32; by Paul Holbo in History, Reviews of New Books 5 (Nov.–Dec. 1976); and by Ernest Paolino, who deprecated my "foredoomed effort to depict Seward as a pacific man," in the American Historical Review 82 (Feb. 1977): 183. return to text
  9. Jay Monaghan, Diplomat in Carpet Slippers (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945). return to text
  10. Schleiden no. 30 to Bremen Senate, 4 March 1861, Despatches of Rudolf Schleiden, copies in Library of Congress; J. L. Motley, The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, ed. by George W. Curtis (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1900), 2, p. 159. return to text
  11. This chapter was first published in Century Magazine 35 (Feb. 1888): 599–616. return to text
  12. John Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, 10 vols. (New York: Century, 1914), 3:444. return to text
  13. Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, 3:445. return to text
  14. Thornton Lothrop, William Henry Seward (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1899), 279–80. return to text
  15. Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, 3:445–46. return to text
  16. Norman B. Ferris, Desperate Diplomacy: William Henry Seward's Foreign Policy, 1861 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976), 5–11. return to text
  17. Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, 3:446. return to text
  18. Kinley Brauer, "Seward's 'Foreign War Panacea': An Interpretation," New York History 55 (April 1974): 136. In this article Brauer mentions (145–47) Seward's "ungracious and undiplomatic outburst," probably resulting from "too much wine," on March 25, 1861, but I have shown in Desperate Diplomacy (213–14) that this story is not credible. return to text
  19. Lyons to Russell, 26 March 1861, PRO30/22/35. return to text
  20. Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, 3:446–47. return to text
  21. Glyndon Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 283. return to text
  22. Frederic Bancroft, The Life of William H. Seward, 2 vols. (Glouster: Peter Smith, 1967), 2:134–36. return to text
  23. Van Deusen, Seward, 283. return to text
  24. Martin Duberman, Charles Francis Adams, 1807–1886 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1961), 267. return to text
  25. As I have previously written, "Seward abhorred war. He called it 'the bane of republics,' convinced that war,... would inevitably transform them into despotisms. 'A democratic government,' he said, 'has no adaptation to war.... War, however brief its duration, and however light its calamities, deranges all social industry, subverts order, and corrupts public morals.' The first element of the country's happiness and security, then, was peace. War, by contrast, was 'the chiefest of national calamities, [and] so incongruous with the dictates of reason, so ferocious, so hazardous, and so demoralizing, that I will always counsel a trial of every other lawful and honorable remedy for injustice, before a resort to that extreme measure of redress; and, indeed, I shall never counsel it except on the ground of necessary defence....' Nations were often debilitated by their wars; they were 'seldom improverished by their charities.'" See "William H. Seward and the Faith of a Nation," in Traditions and Values: American Diplomacy, 1790–1865, ed. Norman A. Graebner (Lanham: University Presses of America, 1985), 158, 173–74. return to text
  26. Bancroft, Seward, 2:136–37. Bancroft has been chided for not being "satisfied to tell the reader what Seward did or said, but [he] must track the action down to its motive source in the chambers of his soul," Walter Allen, "William Henry Seward," The Atlantic Monthly 36 (Dec. 1900): 850. Bancroft's collusion with Edgar Welles in doctoring the diary of Gideon Welles prior to publication is indicated in the Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson, ed. Howard K. Beale (New York: W. W. Norton, 1960), 1:xxviii–xxxi. return to text
  27. Norman B. Ferris, The Trent Affair (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977), 97–99. return to text
  28. Ephriam D. Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War (New York: Russell and Russell, 1958), 1:120. return to text
  29. Van Deusen, Seward, 281. return to text
  30. David Paul Crook, The North, the South, and the Powers, 1861–1865 (New York: Wiley, 1974), 60, 63. return to text
  31. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: The Improvised War, 1861–1862 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), 61–63; Henry Temple, "William H. Seward," in The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, ed. Samuel F. Bemis (New York: Pageant Book, 1958), 7:29–31. return to text
  32. Nevins, The War for the Union; Lyons no. 5 to Russell, 11 May 1861, FO115/ 260, PRO; James Ford Rhodes, History, 8 vols. (New York: Harper, 1912), 4:341–42; William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South (Boston: T. O. H. P. Burnham, 1863), 61–62. return to text
  33. Nevins, War for the Union, vi. return to text
  34. Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury (New York: Doubleday, 1961), 288–91. return to text
  35. Lothrop, Seward, 278–82. return to text
  36. Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, 3:444–45. return to text
  37. Ibid., 443; William R. Thayer, The Life of John Hay, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1915), 2:20–21. Hay and Nicolay wrote their ten-volume Lincoln "in a spirit of reverence and regard" for the purpose of enhancing the "fame" of the sixteenth president, Thayer, Hay, 2:25, 45. One of Hay's biographers suggests that "the absence of so many points unflattering to the President" in the book "must have been intentional." Hay's diaries, on which so much of the book was based, "could have been written by a good press agent." See Anne H. Sherrill, "John Hay: Shield of Union," Ph.D. diss., University of California at Berkeley, 1967, 106–8. James F. Rhodes, who relied heavily on the Nicolay-Hay volumes, nevertheless conceded that they were "partisan," with the two authors making "Lincoln out a saint," The McKinley and Roosevelt Administrations, 1897–1909 (New York: Macmillan, 1927), 121–23. And Tyler Dennett noted that Hay's eulogistic writings on Lincoln had made him "the Republican laureate," which aided him in obtaining high political offices in Republican administrations, John Hay: From Poetry to Politics (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1933), 142. return to text
  38. John Niven, Gideon Welles, Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 577; Gideon Welles, Lincoln and Seward (New York: Sheldon, 1874), 76–77, 184–89. return to text
  39. Niven, Welles, 631; A. T. Rice, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time (New York: North American Publishing, 1888), liii–liv. See also A. T. Rice, "A Famous Diplomatic Despatch," North American Review 353 (April 1886): 402–10, and a thirteen-page facsimile supplement. return to text
  40. Rice, Reminiscences, liv. return to text
  41. Ibid., passim. return to text
  42. Senate Ex. Doc. no. 1, 37th Cong., 2d sess., 87–90. return to text
  43. Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, 4:275; Senate Ex. Doc. no. 1, 87–90, facsimile in Rice, "A Famous Diplomatic Despatch." return to text
  44. Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, 4:269–70. return to text
  45. Brian Jenkins, Britain and the War for the Union, 2 vols. (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1974), 1:104; Duberman, Adams, 268; Adams, Great Britain, 1:126–27. return to text
  46. Roy P. Basler, ed., Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap, asst. eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 4:249–71; Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, 3:319–43. Yet historians fondly quote the twenty-five-year-old Henry Adams, ignoring his notorious penchant for hyperbole, as saying that Seward's instruction of May 21 left "no doubt" in his mind "that our Government wishes to face a war with all Europe." He was "shocked and horrified," Henry Adams added, that the secretary of state seemed "guilty of so wicked and criminal a course." Opposed to this panicky exaggeration is the fact that the elder Adams obeyed Seward's instruction faithfully without any response from the British of belligerence or even irritation. Moreover, the American minister at Vienna, who had had many years of experience studying diplomatic documents, found Seward's May 21 instructions to Adams "unobjectionable in every way, dignified, reasonable, and not menacing, although very decided." And if ever an American was an anglophile, John Lothrop Motley qualified that label. I have pointed out in Desperate Diplomacy that the probable causes of Henry Adams's outburst, and likewise of his father's anxious resolution to try to "prevent the mutual irritation from coming to a downright quarrel," were two. First, American newspapers, which arrived at the London legation simultaneously with Seward's instruction, contained reports of great hostility toward Great Britain throughout the United States. Second, the London Times that very morning had published an announcement that "in consequence of events which have convulsed the American Republic," a brigade of infantry was being sent to Canada. In such an atmosphere the two Adamses feared the effect of any remonstrance whatever. Other contemporary testimony that Seward's instruction of May 21 was dangerously bellicose can be traced back to Senator Sumner, who seems to have been present when Lincoln went over the document and may even have himself contributed some of the emendations. Lord Lyons wrote the Foreign Office that Sumner had told him that "means had been found of alarming the President" that Seward's draft instruction had been, in its original form, "all but a direct announcement of war." As part of his campaign of slander against Seward on two continents, Sumner paid regular visits to Lord Lyons, to the French minister, Henri Mercier, and to the minister from the Hanseatic League of German States, Rudolf Schleider, keeping them worried with assorted tales of Seward's alleged bellicosity towards England, which they dutifully transmitted to their governments. But Sumner, who in December 1862, led a Senate cabal in a vain effort to oust Seward from the Cabinet so that he could replace him there, and whose distorted outlook may have actually imagined Seward as dangerously hostile to Great Britain, is hardly a reliable witness. After all, it was Sumner who had pressed for the forcible annexation of Canada, who made speeches in Congress during the Civil War far more anglophobe in character than anything Seward ever spoke or wrote, and who almost scuttled the Alabama claims negotiation with his demands for indirect damages. See Ferris, Desperate Diplomacy, 23–25, 51–52, 217–18; and David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 21. return to text
  47. Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, 3:447–49; Adams, Great Britain, 1:128; Duberman, Adams, 268; Van Deusen, Seward, 300; Jenkins, Britain, 1:224. return to text
  48. Donald, Sumner, 21, 25. For a similar interpretation see Rhodes, History, 3:425, but see my refutation of this theory in Desperate Diplomacy, e.g., 212. return to text
  49. Seward no. 42 to Adams, 21 July 1861, RG59, U.S. State Department archives; see Lyons to Russell, 20 July 1861, PRO30/22/35 for a similar explanation. return to text
  50. Norman Ferris, "William Henry Seward: Nineteenth-Century Advocate for Human Rights," an address delivered to the Chattanooga-area Historical Association, 1982, 12. return to text
  51. Ferris, "William Henry Seward," 12. return to text
  52. Ibid. return to text
  53. Ibid., 12–13. return to text
  54. Weed to M. Blair, 9, 21, 25 Jan., 15 May 1871; 21 April and 18 Nov. 1872, all in Blair Family Papers, folder no. 9, Library of Congress. return to text
  55. Welles to Blair, 21 April 1872, Blair Family Papers, folder no. 9, Library of Congress. return to text
  56. Welles to Blair, 18 Nov. 1872, folder no. 9, and Welles to Blair, 16 Feb. 1872, folder no. 55, both in Blair Family Papers, Library of Congress. return to text
  57. Welles to Blair, 30 April 1873, Blair Family Papers, folder no. 9; Blair to Welles, 12 Dec. 1873, Welles Family Papers, folder no 69, both Library of Congress. return to text
  58. See Henry Cabot Lodge, "William H. Seward," The Atlantic Monthly 53 (May 1884):690. return to text
  59. J. S. Black, "Mr. Black to Mr. Adams," Galaxy (Jan. 1874): 107–21. return to text
  60. Welles to Blair, 19 Sept., 10 Oct., 22 Dec. 1873, 19 March 1874; R. B. Warden to Blair, 10 May 1873, all in Blair Family Papers, folder no. 9; T. Smith to Welles, 22 Dec. 1873, Welles Family Papers, folder no. 69, both Library of Congress. return to text
  61. Blair to Welles, 17 Oct., 9, 22, 28 Nov. 1873, Welles Family Papers, folder 69, Library of Congress. return to text
  62. Welles to Blair, 25 Nov. 1873, 19 March 1874, Blair Family Papers, folder no. 9, Library of Congress, emphasis added. return to text