Saturday, June 08, 2013

What the Hell Happened to William Seward? A Followup

In What the Hell Happened to William Seward? I explored William Seward's pre-Civil War reputation for anti-slavery radicalism in light of his surprisingly conciliatory approach in the years immediately before the war and particularly his frantic attempts to keep the upper South in the Union during the late winter and spring of 1860.  In brief, I wondered whether Seward's earlier radical reputation wasn't overblown:

So where does this leave me? I'm not sure. As this post suggests, I guess I'm inclined to see more continuity than disjunction - more conservatism and caution underlying a radical image from fairly early on. Most people become more conservative as they grow older, but the change tends to be moderate and evolutionary. The evidence, however, is fairly thin and ambiguous, and there's always the concern that I'm reading more in earlier events because I know what will come later.

In his book Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, James Oakes comes at Seward from a somewhat different angle.  Oakes suggests that Seward was prepared to be conciliatory toward the South in the months immediately preceding the war because he, like many Republicans at the time, fervently believed that Lincoln's election meant that slavery was as good as dead.  Since the war against slavery was already won, why engage in needless antagonism?

Even more than most Republicans, Seward was convinced that the mere election of Lincoln signaled the overthrow of the Slave Power and with it the inevitable destruction of slavery. . . . Now that the hour of slavery’s demise was at hand, the only thing Republicans had to do was hold the Union together until Lincoln’s inauguration. There would be no need for any “overt act” against slavery because slavery was doomed anyway.


Republicans in general, and Seward in particular, believed that slavery’s fate was already sealed by their electoral victory. Convinced that slavery could be abolished peacefully, the conciliators urged fellow Republicans to speak as softly as possible – perhaps say nothing at all. Why add fuel to the secessionist fire? . . . There was no need for war because the Slave Power had been dislodged and federal policy was about to shift in a dramatically antislavery direction.

Oakes emphasizes that, although Seward “assumed” a “conciliatory posture,” he steadfastly refused “to compromise basic Republican principles.” If anything, “Seward [was] willing to conciliate because [he was] not willing to compromise."

While Oakes’s broader point that Seward “believed that slavery’s fate was already sealed” may be correct, I do not think it fully explains Seward’s actions in the period. For one thing, although Seward may not have compromised “basic Republican principles,” he came perilously close to doing so.  As I pointed out in my earlier post, as early as November 1860, Seward seems to be have been in cahoots with Thurlow Weed when Weed floated a trial balloon proposing to strengthen the Fugitive Slave Act and extend the old Missouri Compromise line.

More broadly, Oakes fails to account for the frantic desperation that Seward displayed in dealing with the border states and the Confederate commissioners, desperation that was so frantic that he misled the all parties in one way or another - a fact to which Oakes briefly alludes in part but glosses over (emphasis added):

So fervently did Seward believe that war was unnecessary to destroy slavery that he made heroic but misleading efforts cultivate unionists in the Upper South in a desperate attempt to limit the scope of secession to the Deep South.

About the illustration, entitled The Abolition Catastrophe, Or the November Smash-up (1864):

 Lincoln's support of abolition is portrayed here as a liability in his race to the White House against Democratic candidate George B. McClellan. At top a smoothly run train "Union" heads straight for the White House. The engine is labeled "Democracy" and the first car, in which McClellan stands in the role of engineer, flies a flag "Constitution." The other cars are labeled "Union" and are occupied by happy, cheering Democrats. McClellan taunts, "Wouldn't you like to swap horses now? Lincoln?" (probably a reference to Lincoln's replacement of him as commander of the Army of the Potomac). Several of his passengers comment on the wreck of the Republican train below: "H-ll, H ll, I'm used to Railroad accidents but that beats Vibbards all to smash." New York governor Horatio Seymour: "I thought little Mac could take the train through better than I could." "It's no use talking Ben [Union general Benjamin F. Butler]! I told you I was on the right train . . . thunder there's John McKeon [prominent Democrat and New York lawyer ] with us." "Little Mac is the boy to smash up all the Misceganationists." "Politics does make strange bed fellows . . . the d . . . l if there aint Fernandy!" "Fernandy" is Fernando Wood, prominent Peace Democrat and mayor of New York. "Good-bye Horace [Horace Greeley]! Nigger on the brain flummoxed you." "Thus ends the Abolition Party!" "Be the powers the gintleman with his pantaloons in his bootleg is having a high time of it." "Good-bye old Greenbacks!" to Salmon P. Chase, who leaves with a satchel at right. Chase, who resigned his post as secretary of the treasury on June 29, says, "Thank God, I got off that train in the nick of time." In contrast, Lincoln's train, below, is far behind after having crashed on rocks "Confiscation," "Emancipation," "$400,000,000,000 Public Debt," "To Whom It May Concern," and "Abolitionism." Lincoln himself is hurled into the air, and says, "Dont mention it Mac, this reminds me of a . . ." This reference is to Lincoln's rumored penchant for telling humorous stories at inappropriate moments. (See "The Commander-in-Chief Conciliating the Soldier's Votes," no. 1864-30.) "Tribune" publisher and abolitionist Horace Greeley, also in the air, says, "I told you Abe that 'To whom it may concern' would be the death of us." (See "The Sportsman Upset by the Recoil of His Own Gun," no. 1864-31.) A black man crushed in the wreck accuses Lincoln, "Wars de rest ob dis ole darkey? Dis wot yer call 'mancipation'?" Another black man hurtles through the air, retorting, "Lor Amighty Massa Linkum, is dis wot yer call 'Elewating de Nigger'?" Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, hanging out of the train, moans, "Oh! dear! If I could telegraph this to Dix I'd make it out a Victory." Preacher and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher holds a black child to his breast and prays, "Oh! my brethering! Plymouth Church will try to save the Platform." The notorious Union general Ben Butler exclaims, "H--ll! I've Preyed $2,000,000 already!" The four clean-shaven men in the train are identifiable as Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, New York journalist and state political leader Thurlow Weed, Secretary of State William Seward, and John McKeon. Sumner: "Say Seward will praying save us?" Seward: "Oh! I'm a goner! Ask Thurlow, he's my spiritual Adviser." Weed: "Pray! yes, pray Brother, Butler will lead." At left Maximilian, puppet emperor of Mexico, confers with John Bull and Napoleon III of France, saying, "Oh Main Got'vi I vas send over to dis land of Greasers to pe chawed up py de Yankees." John Bull's opinion is ". . . This will never do. The Monroe doctrine must be put down." Napoleon III says, ". . . by Gar, if dat train gets to de White House, its all up with my Mexico." During the Civil War, Napoleon III tried to establish a puppet state in Mexico under Emperor Maximilian. At bottom left are prices and ordering instructions for obtaining copies of the print.

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