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  • William H. Seward in the World
  • Jay Sexton (bio)

When William Henry Seward returned to Auburn, New York, in 1871 after nearly two years of travel, he intended to write his political memoirs. “It would seem to me that I might be able to tell a story that would contain some instruction for my fellow men,” Seward informed George Bancroft, who had encouraged him to write his autobiography.1 But then Seward did something unexpected. He shelved his memoirs and instead coauthored a book about his recent world travels with Olive Risley Seward, his travel companion and adopted daughter. The project consumed them in the final year of William Henry’s life—indeed, he was editing the manuscript the day he died, in October 1872. The posthumous and commercially successful William H. Seward’s Travels around the World (1873) informed its many readers of the era’s accelerating processes of global integration.2 Both an account of Seward’s world tour and an affirmation of the nationalist principles and practices he promoted throughout his political career, Travels is a key text in the transnational history of the Civil War era.

The significance Seward—the most notable U.S. public figure to that point to complete a world tour—accorded to his travels stands in contrast to scholars’ neglect, if not dismissal, of them. “Its historical interest is slight,” Glyndon Van Deusen declared of Travels.3 This essay disagrees. Seward’s travels provide one of the best opportunities to examine how a leading U.S. nationalist of the Civil War era understood and interacted with an early phase of the phenomenon historians now call “modern globalization.”4 Seward’s travel writings and speeches constituted an early intervention in what became a protracted discussion concerning how the reunified United States should relate to a world entering an era of rapid integration conditioned by imperial power, particularly that of Great Britain. Seward’s embrace of U.S. nationalism and expansion, his celebration of Anglo-American rapprochement and unity, his championing of technological innovation and infrastructure development, his “civilizationist” vocabulary—all these helped establish the terms in which his successors [End Page 398] conceptualized and pursued America’s world role. Most important of all was how Seward fused an understanding of global “civilization” with the nationalism that had defined his era and political career.

Seward was at once one of his era’s leading nationalists and foremost cosmopolites. This accomplished secretary of state possessed a profound knowledge of events around the globe; yet his understanding of the world was conditioned—indeed, often distorted—by the nationalist prism through which he looked. This entwinement of nationalism and cosmopolitanism is evident in his “civilization,” a keyword of the era that was foundational to his worldview. Often contrasted with “barbarism” or “savagery,” it denoted a developmental process in which the “uncivilized” worked toward the pinnacle of “civilization.” This versatile term has attracted scholarly attention, most recently from Frank Ninkovich, whose multifaceted definition is worth quoting: “Civilization was, inter alia, a universalizing historical process, a geographic designation, an anthropological category, a value-laden binary distinction usually paired in opposition to ‘barbarism,’ a term connoting evolutionary differences in social structure and the life of the mind, a word that could carry class and regional meanings. … Depending on the context, its purport could be hierarchical or egalitarian, pacific or belligerent, Euro-American or global, faux-cosmopolitan or genuinely ecumenical.”5 Seward appears not to have defined “civilization”; to him its meaning self-evidently flowed from the practices and values he associated with the United States. “Civilized” peoples exchanged goods and technologies, rather than retreating into isolation; they embraced Western ideas and religious tolerance, eschewing anachronistic and illiberal belief systems; they celebrated economic modernization; they moderately pursued incremental reform.

Seward’s conception of “civilization” embodied the paradox examined in this essay: it was at once global in scope and the product of his U.S. nationalism. This essay examines Seward’s travel writings, the speeches he gave abroad, and, crucially, the accounts of his foreign interactions documented by those who observed him during his travels, most notably those found in the records of British and U.S. consuls.6 These sources...


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pp. 398-430
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