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William Henry Seward and the Onset of the Secession Crisis

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 32-66 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0013

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A raucous crowd assembled at New York City’s Palace Garden on Friday, November 2, 1860, after news spread through the metropolis that William Henry Seward planned to speak about the upcoming presidential contest. “Crowds rushed in from the adjoining yard, men rose and stood on the benches, some of which broke down, and there was a constant swaying to and fro among those who were standing” when Seward mounted the podium, one newspaper correspondent reported. The New York senator delighted his listeners with nationalist oratory and casual humor as he explained why Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, would win the election on Tuesday, November 6. Often interrupted by applause and laughter, the fifty-nine-year-old Seward exuded confidence despite his “slouching, slender figure” and his “unorderly hair and clothes.” As he gained momentum, Seward brushed aside any notion that the election of a Republican president would result in the destruction of the Union. So often had these threats come from the slaveholding South that he equated that section with a drunken man who acted impulsively, but when sober realized the error of his ways. Because he had faith in the Constitution, the Union, and the American people, Seward believed the nation would “stand and survive this presidential election, and forty presidential elections afterward.”1

Seward’s premonition proved false in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s victory. During the following four months, secessionists gained momentum in the seven states of the Deep South, led their states out of the Union, and created their own government. Four of the eight slaveholding states that remained in the Union after Lincoln’s election seceded in the aftermath of the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, when the Republican president asked those states to provide the federal government with troops to subdue their southern brethren. As Seward was the leader of the Republican Party in the nation’s capital, many Americans looked to him to provide some solution to the unfolding national crisis. Fate placed Seward at the center of a national debate about whether the Republican victors should stand by the Chicago platform, upon which the party settled in the spring of 1860, which sought to restrict the extension of slavery into the western territories, or offer some form of compromise to arrest the secession movement. During the onset of the secession crisis, the crafty politician avoided public utterances and worked outside of the national spotlight as he carefully trod across a dangerous landscape.

The precarious position Seward occupied has led scholars to diverse conclusions about his motivations and actions during the fateful winter of 1860–61. In Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, David Potter argues that Abraham Lincoln maintained control over the Republican Party throughout the secession winter and portrays Seward as not so much an independent actor, but Lincoln’s proxy in the capital. “Seward was far more active than Lincoln,” Potter writes, “but the ultimate effect of his exertions was only to modify and elaborate Lincoln’s policy.” That policy, according to Potter, rested on Lincoln’s erroneous conviction that latent southern unionism would offset the tactics of a small minority of secessionists in the South. Lincoln’s misguided belief led him to instruct Seward to refrain from brokering a territorial compromise with the South.2

Kenneth M. Stampp renders a much harsher critique of Seward during the secession crisis. He argues that Seward accomplished nearly nothing during the secession winter, and he depicts him as a self-serving solon who cared much more about his own political future than the moral implications of allowing the extension of slavery into the territories. Seward miscalculated when he dangled the possibility of compromise in front of the South, Stampp contends, because by the secession winter, the two sections had alienated each other to the point that war remained the only remedy. “It was only a respite, not salvation, that Seward had achieved,” Stampp asserts. “At best,” he writes, “he deserved a large measure of credit for preserving the peace until the inauguration of Lincoln.” Similar to Stampp, Allan Nevins condemns Seward for flirting with the notion of compromise during the secession crisis. Both see Seward acting...



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