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How Lincoln's Fiercest Rival Became His Close Ally

Oct 13, 2012
Originally published on October 14, 2012 11:07 am

The race for the Republican nomination of 1860 was one of the great political contests of American history. It was Abraham Lincoln versus Salmon Chase, versus William Seward.

Author Walter Stahr spoke with Weekends All Things Considered host Guy Raz about his new biography, Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man. He describes how a man who was Lincoln's fiercest and most critical opponent eventually became his most loyal and trusted adviser.


Interview Highlights

On Seward losing the election

"[Seward] is disappointed [in losing the election]. He doesn't say much, but you can sort of discern his bitterness from the letters that his friends send to him, and from a period of roughly six weeks, eight weeks, of silence. It's only in early August [that he] meets with some political friends, and he realizes that he's to get out on the campaign trail, he's got to stump for Lincoln."

On Lincoln's ploy to get Seward to be his secretary of state

"He makes the offer in early December and he does it in a very clever way. He writes both a formal letter and an informal letter. In the informal letter he says, 'You know, some newspapers have said I'm going to offer you the position, but merely as a formality. Don't believe them. I really want you as secretary of state. I think you're the best man for the job and the country needs your services.'"

On Seward's changed view of Lincoln

"Not only does he sort of come to respect Lincoln as a leader, but the two of them become close friends, much to the chagrin of some of Seward's Cabinet colleagues. The Cabinet would be gathered for a meeting and who would show up but the president and Secretary Seward would walk through the door together sharing a joke, and the others would know that whatever they were about to discuss had more or less had been decided a few minutes earlier by Lincoln and Seward. Lincoln often would wander over to Seward's house. He lived on Lafayette Square, just a few steps from the White House ... to talk about some issue, share a story. It seems that Lincoln actually sort of enjoys the evening-time company of his secretary of state."

On the attempt to assassinate Seward alongside Lincoln

"He was confined to his bed. He had been in a severe carriage accident a few weeks before. So, in a sense he was an easy target for Booth and the assassins. They knew exactly where he was and his house was not guarded by the Army. The assassin gets into the house, talks his way past the servants, clubs Seward's son Frederick to within an inch of his life, and bursts into the bedroom with a pistol — not working after using it as club — and a knife. [He] slashes Seward about the face and neck, but miraculously doesn't sever an artery."

On Seward's reaction to Lincoln's death

"He was, of course, saddened by the death of his friend. For weeks he would burst into tears at the slightest provocation. He also, as time passed, realized that Lincoln's death secures his place in history and that, to some extent, Lincoln will overshadow him. He tells one friend he should have been permitted to die that night along with Lincoln. ... His own legacy might have been sealed by that, although paradoxically, if that had happened he would not have accomplished the one thing that almost every American knows about him, namely, to purchase Alaska."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

As I mentioned earlier, Guy Raz is away this week, but he's left us a few good stories, including this one about a one-time political foe of Abraham Lincoln who became one of his greatest allies.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

The race for the Republican nomination of 1860 was quite possibly the greatest political contest in American history: Abraham Lincoln versus Salmon Chase versus William Seward.

WALTER STAHR: It's the accepted wisdom in the early 1860s that Seward would get the nomination.

RAZ: That's Walter Stahr. He's the author of a new biography on William Seward. It's called "Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man." And in his book, Stahr describes how a man who was Lincoln's fiercest and most critical opponent eventually became his most loyal and trusted adviser.

STAHR: Although Lincoln and Seward had very similar ideas on slavery, Seward had been talking about and talking in more quotable terms for a long time. And many of the delegates were concerned that those quotes would be used against them.

RAZ: That he was too radical.

STAHR: That he was too radical.

RAZ: He loses the nomination of 1860, of course, to Abraham Lincoln, a relatively unknown former state senator, one-term congressman from Illinois. He is bitter. I mean, he is - he feels like this is an upstart who took his birthright away from him.

STAHR: He is disappointed. He doesn't say much, but you can sort of discern his bitterness from the letters that his friends send to him and from a period roughly six weeks, eight weeks of silence. It's only in early August, meets with some political friends and realizes that he's got to get out on the campaign trail. He's got to stump for Lincoln.

RAZ: Lincoln, of course, wins that election, and then he picks Seward to be his secretary of state, which is a pretty remarkable choice, I mean, given that these guys - or Seward, certainly, did not like Lincoln, didn't have much respect for him. What was amazing to me reading your book is not just how magnanimous Lincoln was but how sort of a class act Seward was.

I mean, he hated Lincoln. He thought he was an upstart. He didn't respect him, even once they got to the White House. And yet, within a couple of months, he started to turn around. He started to see Lincoln as incredibly gifted and expressed that and basically admit that he was wrong.

STAHR: Yes. And not only does he sort of come to respect Lincoln as a leader, but the two of them become close friends, much to the chagrin of some of Seward's Cabinet colleagues. You know, the Cabinet would be gathered for a meeting and who would show up but the president and Secretary Seward would walk through the door together sharing a joke.

And the others would know that whatever it was they were about to discuss had more or less been decided a few minutes earlier by Lincoln and Seward. Lincoln often would wander over to Seward's house in the evening just to talk about some issue, share a story. It seems that Lincoln actually sort of enjoys the evening time company of his secretary of state.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Walter Stahr. He is the author of a new biography on William Seward. It's called "Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man." Walter, Lincoln is assassinated in 1865. Part of the plot to decapitate the administration included Seward. He was also targeted that night and attacked. And he almost died that night.

STAHR: Yes. He was confined to his bed. He'd been in a severe carriage accident a few weeks before. So in a sense, he was an easy target for Booth and the assassins. They knew exactly where he was. And his house was not guarded by the Army. The assassin gets into the house, talks his way past the servants, clubs Seward's son Frederick to within an inch of his life and bursts into the bedroom with a pistol, not working after using it as a club, and a knife, slashes Seward about the face and neck but miraculously doesn't sever an artery.

RAZ: How did he respond to Lincoln's death?

STAHR: Well, he was, of course, saddened by the death of his friend. For weeks, he would burst into tears, sort of at the slightest provocation. He also, as time passed, realized that Lincoln's death secures his place in history and that, to some extent, Lincoln will overshadow him. He tells one friend that he should have been permitted to die that night along with Lincoln.

RAZ: Because he thought it would also seal his legacy.

STAHR: Yeah, that his own legacy might have been sealed by that, although paradoxically, if that had happened, he would not have accomplished the one that almost every American knows about him, namely to purchase Alaska.

RAZ: He is widely considered by historians to be one of the greatest secretaries of state. Do you think that's a fair assessment?

STAHR: Yeah. You know, he serves eight years, the full two terms, as secretary of state.

RAZ: Under Lincoln, and then, of course, under Andrew Johnson.

STAHR: Right. He actually hopes to continue to serve under Grant, and there was some possibility of that. He creates the intellectual framework upon which people then build in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century to expand the American empire.

RAZ: When he died, do you feel like he was frustrated because he'd never became president, or was he sort of at peace with what he had accomplished and what he managed to achieve?

STAHR: I think, by that point, that he was at peace with what he had achieved, proud of what he'd achieved. He - in one of his speeches in the '50s on the Kansas controversies, he said that heaven cannot grant nor man desire a greater fame than to assist in establishing a great empire. And that's what he did during the course of his life. One of the people summing up his life a decade after his death said, you know, many of the presidents of the 19th century will be forgotten, but Seward can't be forgotten because he's left his mark on the map.

RAZ: That's Walter Stahr. He's the author of a new biography of Secretary of State William Seward. The book is called "Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man." Walter Stahr, thank you so much.

STAHR: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.