The Inscrutable William Seward
It has been said that antebellum Southern politics were for the most part honest and ruled by responsible statesmen, but Reconstruction forced Southern leaders to unfortunately descend into the mud in order to successfully oppose carpetbag regimes and Radicals. The high-toned sense of serving the public good can be seen in Jefferson Davis, who acted from conviction alone; while William Seward was more interested in manipulating public opinion and serving his own twisted ends. The former was an American patriot who struggled to save the Constitution and Union of the Founders, the latter was an enemy of the Republic.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
The Inscrutable William Seward:
“It was on one of these visits that (William Seward) said a most remarkable thing to me. We were speaking of the difficulty men generally had in doing themselves justice (in speaking), if not cheered on by the attention and sympathy of the audience. Mr. Seward said, :…it is rather a relief to me to speak to empty benches.” I exclaimed, “Then, whom do you impersonate?” (Seward replied) “The (news)papers…I speak to the papers, they have a much larger audience than I, and can repeat a thousand times if need be what I want to impress upon the multitude outside; and then there is the power to pin my antagonists down to my exact words, which might be disputed if received orally.”
Another day he began to talk on the not infrequent topic among us, slavery….I said, “Mr. Seward, how can you make, with a grave face, those piteous appeals for the Negro that you did in the Senate; you were too long a schoolteacher in Georgia to believe the things you say?” He looked at me quizzically, and smilingly answered: “I do not, but these appeals, as you call them, are potent to affect the rank and file of the North.” Mr. Davis said, very much shocked by Mr. Seward’s answer, “But Mr. Seward, do you never speak from conviction alone?” “Nev-er,” answered he. Mr. Davis raised up his…head, and with much heat whispered, “As God is my judge, I never spoke from any other motive.”
After this inscrutable human moral, or immoral, paradox left us, we sat long discussing him with sincere regret, and the hope that he had been making a feigned confidence to amuse us. He (Seward) frankly avowed that truth should be held always subsidiary to an end, and if some other statement could sub serve that end, he made it. He said, again and again, that political strife was a state of war, and in war all stratagems were fair.
About this time Mr. (William) Seward came forward into greater prominence, and became the most notable leader of the Republican party. Mr. (James) Buchanan said: “He was much more of a politician than a statesman, without strong convictions; he understood the art of preparing in his closet and uttering before the public, antithetical sentences, well-calculated to both inflame the ardor of his anti-slavery friends and exasperate his pro-slavery opponents….he thus aroused passions, probably without so intending, which it was beyond his power to control.”
(Jefferson Davis, A Memoir By His Wife Varina, N&A Publishing, 1990, excerpts, pp. 580-652)