The Cabinet: William H. Seward (1801-1872)

William H. Seward
William H. Seward
William H. Seward
William H. Seward
William H. Seward
William H. Seward

William H. Seward seemed destined to be elected President in 1860. That’s what he and his supporters thought, so it came as a rude awakening when the Republican presidential nomination was rudely robbed from them from a country rube from Illinois. Seward “may have felt that his failure to secure [the presidential nomination] was due to an accident rather than to Mr. Lincoln’s fitness for the place to which he was installed,” journalist Noah Brooks wrote in a biography of his friend Abraham Lincoln. “We cannot say what was the estimate which Lincoln put on the qualifications of Seward for the Presidential office; but we may be sure that Seward once thought himself the greater man of the two. Undoubtedly he was not alone in holding that opinion. Many patriotic and intelligent men thought Seward was not only the greatest man in the new administration, but they expected and believed that he would be the author and director of its policy.”1

The last months of the Administration of President James Buchanan presented a perfect opportunity for Senator Seward to project his pivotal position in national life. Attorney General Edwin M. Stanton confidentially explained Buchanan Administration actions to Seward. Seward’s political confident Thurlow Weed conferred with President Lincoln on patronage policy. And the nation listened carefully to Seward’s public pronouncements on the Senate floor and worried about what they meant to the secession crisis. “From his seat in the Upper House the Senator became, in certain respects, the eyes and ears, as well as the tongue, for the coming administration,” wrote Lincoln biographer Alonzo Rothschild. His utterances were eagerly scanned by the people for indications of its policy, while the President-elect was no less keen for the confidential letters in which his prospective Secretary kept him informed as to the temper of parties and persons in the Capital.”2

President-elect Lincoln had quickly settled on Seward as his choice to be Secretary of State – and resisted an attempt by Seward to withdraw from that post on the eve of Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration. “I cannot afford to let Seward take the first trick,” said Mr. Lincoln.3 Seward had been one of Mr. Lincoln’s first visitors when he arrived in Washington on February 22, 1861 and his advice was sought frequently over the next four years. Seward and Mr. Lincoln first met during the 1848 presidential campaign when both were campaigning in New England. Seward recalled a “rambling, storytelling speech, putting the audience in good humor, but avoiding any extended discussion of the slavery question.”4 Unlike Mr. Lincoln, however, Seward’s anti-slavery convictions (which spurred his opposition in the Senate to the Compromise of 1850) weakened rather than strengthened with age. When they met in 1848 and shared a hotel room in Worcester, Seward recalled: “We spent the greater part of the night talking, I insisting that the time had come for sharp definitions of opinion and boldness of utterance. Before we went to sleep Mr. Lincoln admitted that I was right in my anti-slavery position and principles.”5

Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward enjoyed a well-turned phrase – albeit with less economy and elegance than Mr. Lincoln aspired to. New York journalist Charles Dana wrote: “Mr. Seward was an admirable writer and an impressive though entirely unpretentious speaker. He stood up and talked as though he were engaged in conversation, and the effect was always great. It gave the impression of a man deliberating ‘out loud’ with himself.”6 Like Mr. Lincoln , Seward had a natural self-confidence in his own abilities but that self-confidence was interpreted as egotism by his enemies. Like Mr. Lincoln, he suffered a mid-career bout of depression. Like Mr. Lincoln, he tended to assume the best in others. Although charming and gregarious, Seward, unlike Mr.Lincoln, did not attract or create an enduring political team of the kind that Mr. Lincoln’s friends built in Chicago in 1860. Unlike Mr. Lincoln, Seward treasured good food, fine wine and fine cigars. Like Mr. Lincoln, he loved good stories.

Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward had a striking but not handsome face. Like Mr. Lincoln, he was careless in dress and sparing in his use of a comb. Like Mr. Lincoln (Simeon Francis), Seward early found an editor (Thurlow Weed) as his political sponsor. Weed and Seward had met when Weed helped fixed Seward’s broken carriage in Rochester in 1824. Like Mr. Lincoln, he cultivated editors – like the New York Times’ Henry Raymond. Like Mr. Lincoln, he was careful to make sure that copies of his speeches were distributed to important people.

Like Mr. Lincoln, he saw the virtues in Edwin Stanton even when he didn’t get along with him. Indeed, Seward sponsored his inclusion in the cabinet. Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward had a natural self-confidence in his own abilities but that self-confidence was interpreted as egotism by his enemies. Like Mr. Lincoln, Seward was more tolerant of his enemies than his enemies were of him. Unlike Lincoln, Seward never had a close identification with the Republican Party even when he was perceived as “Mr. Republican” in 1859-1860. He once said in a Senate debate: “I know nothing, I care nothing, I never did, I never shall for party.”7

David M. Potter wrote Lincoln and his Party in Secession: “Seward had been the leader of the Republican Party, and especially of the Republicans in Congress, for nearly six years. He held this pre-eminence by qualities which peculiarly fitted him for a position of influence in a parliamentary body. Though he lacked the erudition and grandiose pedantry of Charles Sumner, he was probably the most intelligent member on the Republican side of the Senate. Keen insight, balanced judgment, and a capacity for thinking in broad terms characterized his mind. Moreover, his intellect was free from the rigid moral dogmatism which hardened the mental arteries of many anti-slavery men. Because of this, he was quick to sense the trend of events and to alter his own course according to circumstances. This quality may be regarded as tactical skill or as conscienceless opportunism, but it made him, in either case, a dangerous antagonist, for he strove only for objectives which he might hope to win.”8

Clearly, President Lincoln developed respect for Seward’s judgments – showing him drafts of the First Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address in advance. On the night before the Gettysburg address, Governor Andrew Curtin said Mr. Lincoln took his speech and said, “I will go and show it to Seward” at a nearby house.”9 Seward’s suggestions for revisions of the First Inaugural speech had been substantial and he had made a major contribution to the final paragraph.

Mr. Lincoln’s respect for Seward was also evident during the first major foreign policy crisis of the Civil War in December 1861 after the U.S. Navy had seized a British ship, the Trent, and war with Great Britain threatened. President Lincoln said to his Secretary of State: “Governor Seward, you will go on, of course, preparing your answer, which, as I understand, will state the reasons why they ought to be given up. Now I have a mind to try my hand at stating the reasons why they ought not to be given up. We will compare the points on each side.” After an attempt to put his position on paper, Mr. Lincoln told Seward: “I found I could not make an argument that would satisfy my own mind, and that proved to me your ground was the right one.” Seward’s son, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick W. Seward, later wrote: “This was characteristic of Lincoln. Presidents and kings are not apt to see flaws in their own arguments. But fortunately for the Union, it had a President at this time who combined a logical intellect with an unselfish heart.”10

Seward biographer John M. Taylor wrote: “James Scovel, a New Jersey-born newspaper reporter who enjoyed Lincoln’s confidence, had excellent access to the White House; on occasion he was even admitted on Sunday mornings, a period normally reserved for Seward and the presidential barber. Scovel could not forget the sight of Lincoln discussing recent developments with his secretary of state. ‘Mr. Seward in conversation was slow and methodical till warmed up, when he was one of the most eloquent of talkers,’ Scovel recalled. But he thought the two made an odd couple. ‘The impression following an hour with Seward and Lincoln was surprise that the two men seemingly so unlike in habit of thought and manner of speech could act in such perfect accord.’ Even in the early months of his administration Lincoln had deferred to his secretary of state in a way that irritated men like Chase and Welles. Now, with Seward’s adroit handling of the Trent affair, Lincoln believed that his original judgment had been fully vindicated.”11

But although Mr. Lincoln respected Seward’s judgement, he did not blindly follow his recommendations. On April 1, 1861, Secretary Seward presented “Some Thoughts for the President’s Consideration.” The was a rather insensitive infringement upon the Presidents rights and duties. Lincoln biographer Alonzo Rothschild commented: “Never before had an American cabinet minister penned a document so extraordinary. Its unwisdom – wild as some of the suggestions were – did not exceed its effrontery.”12 Contemporary biographer William H. Herndon noted that Mr. Lincoln’s reply combined “his keenness of analysis and lack of rancor with a prophecy of the mastery he was later to assert over his cabinet.”13 President Lincoln exerted an important moderating impact on Seward during this period. Historian Allan Nevins wrote of the April 1 letter and a second bellicose letter of instructions on relations with the British government in May: “Seward’s impetuosity, if known, would twice have ruined him in the eyes of all sober Northerners.”14 Nevins wrote that President Lincoln was a realist. In particular, he was a realist about associates like Seward.15

But Seward’s judgment of and confidence in the President swiftly improved. Seward wrote his wife within a few months of taking office: “There is but one vote in the Cabinet, and that is cast by the President.”16 New York journalist-politician Henry J. Raymond went to a dinner part at Seward’s and reported in his diary: “Of President Lincoln he spoke in the strongest terms of praise. With all his defects, he said, he seemed just the man for the crisis. Patient, capable of endurance, just and tolerant beyond example, he said that Providence had raised him up for this emergency as signally as He raised up Washington for the necessities of our struggle for independence.”17

Mr. Lincoln had a reputation for letting the Secretary of State run foreign policy without much interference – although he interfered when he thought it necessary. “One part of the business, Governor Seward, I think I shall leave almost entirely in your hands; that is, the dealing with those foreign nations and their governments,” said President Lincoln early in his Administration.18 Seward himself had to preside over a large block of patronage appointments, for which many Republicans hungered. According to historian Harry J. Carman and Reinhard H. Luthin, “The numerous consulships in Europe, the Americas, and Asia proved to be virtual life-savers to Lincoln in caring for those who had been loyal to the party. It was apparent that these positions abroad were ardently sought by those who desired travel in foreign lands and by those who were disappointed in their quest for other positions.”19 Although Seward had the major say in these appointments, Mr. Lincoln also placed political considerations on the final decisions. Many appointments were payoffs for political obligations. But at least one decision – that of Massachusetts Congressman Charles Francis Adams to be Minister to England was Seward’s decision alone.

Seward’s presumed influence with the President caused him trouble, however. Radical Republicans blamed Seward for policies initiated by the President with which they disagreed. They openly sought Seward’s dismissal in December 1862 and Seward provided duly provided it to President Lincoln The President pocketed and waited until Salmon P. Chase provided his resignation as well before he rejected both. Speaking of the delegation of Republican Senators who sought Seward’s dismissal, Mr. Lincoln said: “While they seemed to believe in my honesty, they also appeared to think that when I had in me any good purpose or intention Seward contrived to suck it out of me unperceived.”20

Historian John M. Taylor wrote: “While it was clearly in Lincoln’s interest to stand up to the Radicals, it was also in his interest to retain Seward’s services. The secretary of state was not only the premier intellect of the cabinet but had proved himself totally loyal to the president as well. Had Seward departed, who might have succeeded him as ‘premier’? Would Lincoln have been comfortable with the ambitious, contemptuous Chase or the mercurial Stanton?”21

Radicals never removed Seward from their sights. They made “another drive at Seward” the following spring. Journalist Noah Brooks, who often had President Lincoln’s confidence, wrote in May 1863: “The President is exceeding loth to give up his wise and conservative counsels, and retains him against the wishes of a respectably large fraction of his own party friends, merely because he believes that to his far-seeing and astute judgment the Administration has owed more than one deliverance from a very tight place. Moreover, Seward’s policy has always been of a character to avoid all things which might result in a divided North, and though it may have been too emollient at times, it has resulted in retaining to the Administration its cohesive strength, when it would have driven off its friends by following the more arbitrary and rash measures of Stanton.”22

Senator Charles Sumner was Seward’s rival for influence on foreign policy and opponent on many other policies. In mid-March, Sumner wrote his friend, John Bright: “A difficulty, amounting almost to calamity, is the want of confidence in Mr. Seward. There is not a senator – not one – who is his friend politically, & the larger part are positively, & some even bitterly against him. It is known that from the beginning he has had no true conception of our case; that he regarded this tremendous event with levity; that he has filled his conversation & his writings with false prophecies; that he has talked like a politician, & that he has said things & kept up relations, shewing an utter indifference to his old party associations. There are some who attribute to him a purpose of breaking down the Republican Party, even at the expense of his country, to revenge his defeat at Chicago. I do not share this judgment, &, when I have heard it pressed upon the Presdt, I have presented a milder theory which is simply this: that he failed at the beginning to see this event in its true character & that, blinded by an illimitable egotism, he has never been able fully to correct his original misapprehensions.23 It was true that Seward was less radical on emancipation and more belligerent on England that was Sumner.

Noah Brooks described Seward’s manner in public as ‘elegant and courtly, and he was one of the few men I ever knew in Washington who made a practice of bowing to apparent strangers who looked at him as if they knew who he was. He usually wore a dark-colored frock-coat and light trousers, and his figure was erect and alert. He was affable and courteous in address, and was seldom excited or outwardly ruffled. Like Lincoln, he was fond of good stories, and he was himself a capital story-teller as well as a good smoker; and his cigars were famous for their high quality. Rightly or wrongly, he was popularly regarded as friendly to [General George B.]McClellan, and for that and other reasons, he was disliked by Mrs. Lincoln.”24 Mrs. Lincoln had little use for Seward. They clashed early over who would host the Administration’s first official reception. “It is said that you are the power behind the throne. I’ll show you that Mr. L. is President yet,” Mrs. Lincoln is said to have told Seward.25

According to Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher, “Mr. Lincoln was not well versed in the amenities of life; but I assure you that whenever foreign ambassadors were to meet Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Seward was careful that he should make no mistakes and should appear to the very best advantage. When a foreign minister was to be presented to Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Seward always suggested to him in advance, what he should say, where he should stand, and how he should act. He was a man who would do all that, when the nation was in a manner dissolved.”26

Despite the criticism President Lincoln received, his relationship with Secretary Seward continued unabated and so did his confidence. Frederick Seward claimed that President Lincoln told his father one night that “he now hoped to see him his successor…that the friends who had been so disappointed at Chicago in 1860 would thus find all made right at last.”27 Regardless of Republican criticisms, Mr. Lincoln continued to use “Governor Seward” for his purposes. He sent him Fortress Monroe in early February 1865 to meet with three representatives of the Confederate government. President Lincoln’s instructions, however, were precise and restrictive:

You will proceed to Fortress-Monroe, Virginia, there to meet, and informally confer with Messrs. Stephens, Hunter, and Campbell, on the basis of my letter to F.P. Blair, Esq. of Jan.18. 1865, a copy of which you have.
You will make known to them that three things are indispensable, towit:

  1. The restoration of the National authority throughout all the States.
  2. No receding by the Executive of the United States, on the Slavery question, from the position assumed thereon, in the late Annual Message to Congress, and on preceding documents.
  3. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government.

You will inform them that all propositions of theirs, not inconsistent with the above, will be considered and passed upon in a spirit of sincere liberality. You will hear all they may choose to say, and report it to me.
You will not assume to definitely consummate anything.28

Mr. Lincoln chose to trust but verify and eventually followed along down to Fortress Monroe himself to conduct any negotiations in person – and assure that he could not be accused of passing up an opportunity for peace. Furthermore, according to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ account of the meeting, Seward presented a scenario whereby the South would not only be welcomed back into the Union but be in a position to block constitutional reform – so perhaps Seward did require presidential supervision.29

Seward never lost his ability to embroil the President in controversy. Lincoln biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: “One of the earliest speeches of the autumn [1864 campaign] was made by Mr. Seward at his home in Auburn, New York. He spoke avowedly without authority from the President; yet, as well from his intimacy with Mr. Lincoln as from his commanding place in the Administration, his speech demanded and received great attention. He said: ‘While the rebels continue to wage war against the Government of the United States, the military measures affecting slavery, which have been adopted from necessity to bring the war to a speedy and successful end, will be continued, except so far as practical experience shall show that they can be modified advantageously, with a view to the same end.”30

In mid-October, Mr. Lincoln gave what Hay and Nicolay called the “most important utterance of the President during the campaign.” Mr. Lincoln ‘thought the distorted and unjust conclusions which had been drawn from Seward’s remarks had gone far enough, and that the time had come to put an end to them, and he seized, for that purpose, the occasion of a serenade from a party of loyal Marylanders who were celebrating in Washington the victory which the party of emancipation had gained in the elections in their State.”31 He specifically rejected any construction of Seward’s remarks that suggested “a threat that if I shall be beaten at the election I will, between then and the end of my constitutional term, do what I may be able to ruin the Government.” The President unequivocally said: “I am struggling to maintain the government, not to overthrow it.”32

When John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, an accomplice also stabbed Seward, already bedridden from a carriage accident, nearly to death. He eventually recovered and served through the end of Andrew Johnson’s administration. A few days after the 1864 election, Seward had addressed a group of serenaders outside his house: “The election has placed our President beyond the pale of human envy or human harm, as he is above the pale of ambition. Henceforth all men will come to see him as you and I have seen him – a true, loyal, patient, patriotic, and benevolent man.” He added: “Abraham Lincoln will take his place with Washington and Franklin and Jefferson and Adams and Jackson, among the benefactors of the country and of the human race.”33

Seward biographer Walter Stahr concluded that “although Seward was far from perfect, his talents and accomplishments more than entitle him to be called a statesman. Indeed, other than presidents, Seward was the foremost American statesman of the nineteenth century.”34


  1. Noah Brooks, Abraham Lincoln: The Nation’s Leader in the Great Struggle Through Which was Maintained the Existence of the United States, p. 427-428.
  2. Alonzo Rothschild, Lincoln, Master of Men: A Study in Character, p. 133.
  3. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume III, p. 371.
  4. John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand, p. 73.
  5. John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand, p. 73.
  6. Charles A. Dana, Recollections of the Civil War, p. 155-156.
  7. John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand, p. 106.
  8. David M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, p. 81-82.
  9. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 197.
  10. Frederick W. Seward, Reminiscences of a War-Time Diplomat, p. 190.
  11. John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand, p. 187.
  12. Alonzo Rothschild, Lincoln, Master of Men: A Study in Character, p. 147.
  13. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 436.
  14. Allan Nevins, The Statesmanship of the Civil War, p. 127.
  15. Allan Nevins, The Statesmanship of the Civil War, p. 117.
  16. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 300.
  17. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 69.
  18. Frederick Seward, Seward at Washington, p. 511.
  19. Harry J. Carman and Reinhard H. Luthin, Lincoln and the Patronage, p. 82-83.
  20. Alonzo Rothschild, Lincoln, Master of Men: A Study in Character, p. 189.
  21. John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand, p. 211.
  22. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 53 (May 20,1863).
  23. Charles Sumner, The Selected Letters of Charles Sumner, Volume II, p. 148-149 (Letter to John Bright, March 13, 1863).
  24. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 35-36.
  25. Herndon’s Informants, p. 374 ((Interview with Elizabeth Todd Edwards, ca. 1865-1866)).
  26. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 374.
  27. Frederick W. Seward, Seward at Washington, as Senator and Secretary of State: A Memoir of His Life, with Selections from His Letters, 1861-1872, p. 196 (New York: Derby & Miller, 1861).
  28. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 250-251 (Letter to William H. Seward, January 31, 1865).
  29. John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand, p. 236.
  30. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IX, p. 353.
  31. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IX, p. 352-353.
  32. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 52 (Response to Serenade, October 19, 1864).
  33. John M. Taylor, William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand, p. 234.
  34. Walter Stahr, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man, p. 547.