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William Henry Seward, the American Secretary of State

The Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1142, p. 460 .

May 3,1862

The most remarkable character whom the recent turn of events in the United States has brought into the foreground is undoubtedly W. H. Seward. President Lincoln's star waxes pale beside that of the brilliant New Yorker. The American cataclysm, though it has produced no great General able to educe order from the universal wreck of things, has at least brought forth a Minister of Foreign Affairs worthy of the occasion. Earl Russell has recognised in a signal manner the ability of the man with whom he has already broken several lances, and exchanged as many vows of amity by republishing and laying before Parliament the entire congressional public document containing the correspondence between Mr. Seward and the representatives of the Federal Government in all parts of the world. We venture to believe that no candid mind can turn from the perusal of this voluminous correspondence without acknowledging that it is a lasting monument of Mr. Seward's industry and genius. With what a dexterous and happy art he expatiates on the same theme to each Ambassador without once suggesting to the reader the idea of a repetition! How prodigally he scatters gems of political philosophy, quaint apothegms, felicitous appeals to the nobler sentiments of our nature, dashed here and there (but very rarely) with a tinge of resentment and menace! Let us imagine Edmund Burke or William Gladstone at the Foreign Office privileged to disregard the fetters which tradition, routine, and the proprieties and conventionalities of office impose upon our Ministers of Foreign Affairs, and further privileged to open a new account in the national ledger with each foreign nation, dependency, and colony. The position would be analogous to that of Mr. Seward in 1861, and the literary result in the line of essay, disquisition, and rhetoric would probably be far from dissimilar. The American Secretary seems to have thought the official style of British diplomatists and of his immediate predecessors in office too hard and dry to suit his purposes, and to have hit on a medium between that and the florid sententiousness which characterises the choicest effusions of the Chanceries of the Celestial Empire.

The verbose, flimsy, and inconsequential despatch in which Mr. Seward announced his compliance with the British demand for the surrender of Messrs. Mason and Slidell is that by which, unfortunately for his reputation, the American Secretary is best known in England; but this despatch was exceptional in two respects—firstly, in that it was the joint production of Mr. Lincoln's Cabinet; and, secondly, because it was written, not in perfect freedom, as were the others, but under the terrible constraint which bade him steer clear of the Scylla of a British fleet on the one hand, and the Charybdis of American indignation on the other.

A truer estimate of Mr. Seward's ability as a diplomat may be gathered by a few specimens culled almost at random from the afore aid [sic] aforesaid Blue Book. That highly-wrought and highflown letter of instructions to Mr. Charles Francis Adams contains an argument against the recognition of the Confederate States, in which Mr. Seward finds occasion to work in passages like these:—"Great Britain has within the last forty-five years changed character and purpose. She has become a Power for production rather than a Power for destruction. She is committed, as it seems to us, to a policy of industry, not of ambition—a policy of peace, not of war. One has only to compare her present domestic condition with that of any former period to see that this new career on which she has entered is as wise as it is humane and beneficent. Her success in this career requires peace throughout the civilised world, and nowhere so much as on this Continent. . . . Humanity has indeed little to hope for if it shall in this age of high improvement be decided without a trial that the principle of international law, which regards nations as moral persons, bound so to act as to do to each other the least injury and the most good, is merely an abstraction too refined to be reduced into practice by the enlightened nations of Western Europe."

In the letter to Mr. Dayton, Minister to France, Mr. Seward thus quaintly suggests the rationale of the Secession movement:—"The insurrection proves, in fact, nothing else except that eighty years of peace is as much as human nature has the moderation to endure under circumstances the most conducive to moderation." The Minister to Spain is told that, "Unhappily, in the present conditions of society, nations are, to say the least, neither wiser nor more just or generous than individual men." With admirable candour he moralises upon Bull Run to the Minister to Italy. "The lesson that war cannot be waged successfully without wisdom as well as patriotism has been received at a severe cost; but perhaps it was necessary." In the sane vein he acknowledges to Mr. Adams that "It has been necessary for us to learn—perhaps the instruction has not come too soon—that vicissitudes are incident to our system and our country, as they are to all others." The instructions to the Minister to Russia begin thus:—"Nations, like individuals, have three prominent wants—first, freedom; secondly, prosperity; thirdly, friends. The United States early secured the two first objects by the exercise of courage and enterprise. But, although they have always practised singular moderation, they nevertheless have been slow in winning friends." Mr. Seward's muse takes an eagle-like flight as it approaches the Alps. He tells the Minister to Switzerland—"Human nature must lose not only the faculty of reason which lifts it above the inferior beings, but also the benevolence which lifts it up to commune with superior orders of existence when the security, welfare, and happiness of the United States shall have become even a matter of indifference to Italy or Switzerland. I salute Switzerland last among the European nations, only because we esteem and confide in her most."

Although Mr. Seward has enjoyed a very high local reputation for more then a quarter of a century, his name was known to but a few in England or the Continent two years ago. His present position is a well-earned guerdon of talents perseveringly employed and of principles faithfully adhered to. Beginning public life at an early age, he chose not the dominant and popular Democratic party, but that of the Opposition which, while it could hold out no speedy prospect of high office to the young aspirant, yet commanded the adhesion of a great majority of the best educated and most substantial citizens cf the Northern States. The Whigs of New York made him Governor of the State for two terms (1838-42), and in the regular course of promotion he ought to have been translated to Washington either as a Federal Senator or at the head of some executive department under a Whig administration. But at this point his strong antislavery principles stood in the way of his advancement, and Whigs of less brilliant talents, but of more orthodox and quietist opinions on the great question, were preferred before him by party conventions and caucuses. Finding himself too far in advance of the average opinions of the New Yorkers, he withdrew from public life for some years, biding his time, like the English Whigs of a past generation, and trusting that the day would come when the public sentiment of his State would develop itself in such a direction as to admit of his re-entry on a career of public usefulness. It was not until 1849, when he was nearly fifty years of age, that he appeared in Washington as Senator from New York. Here also the overshadowing influence of the slaveowners threw him into the background, and denied him a share of influence commensurate with his talents and ambition. The formation of the Republican organization in 1855 at last gave him a party whose fundamental principles were those with which his name and fame were most closely identified, and opened to him the prospect of Executive preferment. Yet even this party, while ever acknowledging him as their virtual leader, preferred John C. Fremont as their standard-bearer in 1856, and Abraham Lincoln in 1860, though on this last occasion the powerful phalanx of Mr. Seward's friends in the nominating convention literally shed tears at the sacrifice of feeling they were called upon to make. It was thought that Colonel Fremont and Mr. Lincoln, as Southerners by birth, and as comparatively new men, would be less obnoxious to the slaveowning interest than the lifelong champion of the anti-slavery cause. Cherishing no petty pique or jealousy, he threw himself with ardour into the canvass in behalf of his successful competitor, and rendered Mr. Lincoln's election sure by his eloquent public harangues through the Western States—harangues which exhibited the same wonderful fertility of resource in the ever-novel treatment of the one great theme to a score of different audiences, to which his State papers have since borne additional testimony. Though not destined to occupy the Republican throne, he was to become, as Mr. Lincoln's Premier, the power behind the President greater than the President himself. The nation hailed with enthusiasm the elevation of the now sexagenarian statesman to the highest office in the gift of the Federal Executive and Senate, who thirty years


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previously had been deemed too much of a "fanatic" to be presentible [sic] at Washington.

There are other ideas besides that of making freedom national and slavery sectional to which Mr. Seward has been "fanatically" attached, and one of these is, happily for both parties concerned, that a war between "the American and European branch of the British race" would be a fearful crime on the part of those responsible for its occurrence. It is clear as noonday, from a scrutiny of his whole career, that he is anxious that his name shall not be connected in any dishonourable manner with such a catastrophe to the progress of mankind. For three years more he will in all human probability conduct the foreign policy of the Federal Government. Animated as we are sure the British Government is by principles not less humane than those which prevail at Washington, may we not be permitted to see in this combination of Russell and Seward a guarantee of at least three years' peace? But who will succeed Mr. Lincoln? Ask those who elected him, and they will almost unanimously respond, "William Henry Seward." We would fain hope so; yet either one of two contingencies seems at least equally probable—namely, that some lucky man of the sword will thrust aside the man of ideas, or that this great tribune of the people will he sacrificed at the altar of reconciliation by the two now contending sections, leaving the pride of place to become the prey of some uncommitted and unscrupulous democratic politician who may seek to drown the bitter memories of the immediate past in an anti-British crusade. Absit omen!

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