William H. Seward

“Letter to William H. Seward”

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To William H. Seward

Private & Confidential Springfield Ills. Dec. 8. 1860

My dear Sir: In addition to the accompanying, and more formal note, inviting you to take charge of the State Department, I deem it proper to address you this. Rumors have got into the newspapers to the effect that the Department, named above, would be tendered you, as a compliment, and with the expectation that you would decline it. I beg you to be assured that I have said nothing to justify these rumors. On the contrary, it has been my purpose, from the day of the nomination at Chicago, to assign you, by your leave, this place in the administration. I have delayed so long to communicate that purpose, in deference to what appeared to me to be a proper caution in the case. Nothing has been developed to change my view in the premises; and I now offer you the place, in the hope that you will accept it, and with the belief that your position in the public eye, your integrity, ability, learning, and great experience, all combine to render it an appointment pre-eminently fit to be made.One word more. In regard to the patronage, sought with so much eagerness and jealousy, I have prescribed for myself the maxim, “Justice to all”; and I earnestly beseech your co-operation in keeping the maxim good.

Your friend, and obedient servant

A. Lincoln.

“Mr. Lincoln’s unselfish magnanimity”

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Executive Mansion
April 1, 1861

Hon. W. H. Seward

My dear Sir:
Since parting with you I have been considering your paper dated this day, and entitled “Some thoughts for the President’s consideration.” The first proposition in it is, “1st. We are at the end of a month’s administration, and yet without a policy, either domestic or foreign.”

At the beginning of that month, in the inaugeral, I said “The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties, and imposts.” This had your distinct approval at the time; and, taken in connection with the order I immediately gave General Scott, directing him to employ every means in his power to strengthen and hold the forts, comprises the exact domestic policy you now urge, with the single exception, that it does not propose to abandon Fort Sumpter.
Again, I do not perceive how the re-inforcement of Fort Sumpter would be done on a slavery, or party issue, while that of Fort Pickens would be on a more national, and patriotic one.
The news received yesterday in regard to St. Domingo, certainly brings a new item within the range of our foreign policy; but up to that time we have been preparing circulars, and instructions to ministers, and the like, all in perfect harmony, without even a suggestion that we had no foreign policy.
Upon your closing propositions, that “whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prossecution of it”
“For this purpose it must be somebody’s business to pursue and direct it incessantly”
“Either the President must do it himself, and be all the while active in it, or”
“Devolve it on some member of his cabinet”
“Once adopted, debates on it must end, and all agree and abide” I remark that if this must be done, I must do it. When a general line of policy is adopted, I apprehend there is no danger of its being changed without good reason, or continuing to be a subject of unnecessary debate; still, upon points arising in its progress, I wish, and suppose I am entitled to have the advice of all the cabinet.
Your Obt. Servt.

  On April 1, Secretary of State Seward handed Lincoln a memorandum setting forth a number of most extraordinary propositions. ……. but the principal points for which it had evidently been written and presented can be given in a few sentences. A month has elapsed, and the administration has neither a domestic nor a foreign policy. The administration must at once adopt and carry out a novel, radical, and aggressive policy. It must cease saying a word about slavery, and raise a great outcry about Union. It must declare war against France and Spain, and combine and organize all the governments of North and South America in a crusade to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. This policy once adopted, it must be the business of some one incessantly to pursue it. “It is not in my especial province,” wrote Mr. Seward; “but I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility.” This phrase, which is a key to the whole memorandum, enables the reader easily to translate its meaning into something like the following:

  After a month’s trial, you, Mr. Lincoln, are a failure as President. The country is in desperate straits, and must use a desperate remedy. That remedy is to submerge the South Carolina insurrection in a continental war. Some new man must take the executive helm, and wield the undivided presidential authority. I should have been nominated at Chicago, and elected in November, but am willing to take your place and perform your duties.

  Why William H. Seward, who is fairly entitled to rank as a great statesman, should have written this memorandum and presented it to Mr. Lincoln, has never been explained; nor is it capable of explanation. Its suggestions were so visionary, its reasoning so fallacious, its assumptions so unwarranted, its conclusions so malapropos, that it falls below critical examination. Had Mr. Lincoln been an envious or a resentful man, he could not have wished for a better occasion to put a rival under his feet.
  The President doubtless considered the incident one of phenomenal strangeness, but it did not in the least disturb his unselfish judgment or mental equipoise. There was in his answer no trace of excitement or passion. He pointed out in a few sentences of simple, quiet explanation that what the administration had done was exactly a foreign and domestic policy which the Secretary of State himself had concurred in and helped to frame. Only, that Mr. Seward proposed to go further and give up Sumter. Upon the central suggestion tliat some one mind must direct, Mr. Lincoln wrote with simple dignity:
  “If this must be done, I must do it. When a general line of policy is adopted, I apprehend there is no danger of its being changed without good reason, or continuing to be a subject of unnecessary debate; still, upon points arising in its progress I wish, and suppose I am entitled to have, the advice of all the cabinet.”
  Mr. Lincoln’s unselfish magnanimity is the central marvel of the whole affair. His reply ended the argument. Mr. Seward doubtless saw at once how completely he had put himself in the President’s power. Apparently, neither of the men ever again alluded to the incident. No other persons except Mr. Seward’s son and the President’s private secretary ever saw the correspondence, or knew of the occurrence. The President put the papers away in an envelop, and no word of the affair came to the public until a quarter of a century later, when the details were published in Mr. Lincoln’s biography. In one mind, at least, there was no further doubt that the cabinet had a master, for only some weeks later Mr. Seward is known to have written:”There is but one vote in the cabinet, and that is cast by the President.” This mastery Mr. Lincoln retained with a firm dignity throughout his administration. When, near the close of the war, he sent Mr. Seward to meet the rebel commissioners at “the Hampton Roads conference, he finished his short letter of instructions with the imperative sentence: “You will not assume to definitely consummate anything.”

Quoted in John G. Nicolay, A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 184-187.

“If He had been Alive”

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News of Lincoln’s death was withheld from Seward. The doctors feared that he could not sustain the shock. On Easter Sunday, however, as he looked out the window toward Lafayette Park, he noticed the War Department flag at half-mast. “He gazed awhile,” Noah Brooks reported, “then, turning to his attendant,” he announced, “The President is dead.” The attendant tried to deny it, but Seward knew with grim certainty. “If he had been alive he would have been the first to call on me,” he said, “but he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there’s the flag at halfmast.” He lay back on the bed, “the great tears coursing down his gashed cheeks, and the dreadful truth sinking into his mind.” His good friend, his captain and chief, was dead.
“The history of governments,” John Hay later observed, “affords few instances of an official connection hallowed by a friendship so absolute and sincere as that which existed between these two magnanimous spirits. Lincoln had snatched away from Seward at Chicago the prize of a laborious life-time, when it seemed within his grasp. Yet Seward was the first man named in his Cabinet and the first who acknowledged his personal preeminence…. From the beginning of the Administration to that dark and terrible hour when they were both struck down by the hand of murderous treason, there was no shadow of jealousy or doubt ever disturbed their mutual confidence and regard.”   

Noah Brooks, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington, pp. 458-59 (quotes p. 459).“Hay’s Reminiscences of the Civil War,” in Hay, At Lincoln’s Side, pp. 128-29. By Doris Kearns Goodwin,“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”,pp. 744,Goodwin-743-507-10