A sympathetic, evenhanded reappraisal of President Lincoln’s secretary of state as a statesman who practiced effective preventive strategies.
Stahr (John Jay, 2005) takes issue with some of the previous “hostile” criticism of his subject as being formed after the Civil War (e.g., by Gideon Welles) and thus lending an imbalanced portrait, which the present historian aims to correct. Neither Seward nor Lincoln kept a diary of events during the era, and the author often searches for answers in the historical record by returning to contemporary sources. One question was whether Seward tried to dissuade Lincoln from issuing his Emancipation Proclamation or merely questioned its timing. (Stahr comes down on the former.) Wading through the maelstrom of congressional criticism of Seward during the war, Stahr finds that he played his diplomatic cards toward England and Russia exceedingly well. Seward was able to convince Lincoln and the cabinet to surrender the two Confederate ministers bound for England aboard the Trent in November 1861, arguing that to not do so was to risk Britain’s declaring war on the U.S. Stahr considers the full life of this energetic, devoted, certainly not flawless public servant, from his one term as Whig governor of New York, to his years in the U.S. Senate and beyond. The author amply shows how his loss to Lincoln for the first Republican presidential nomination of 1860 only spelled the nation’s gain, as Seward then campaigned tirelessly for his opponent and never lagged in his devotion to the Union.
A thorough, refreshing biography by an independent-minded historian.