William H. Seward regarded the purchase of Alaska as his greatest achievement and Alaskans are prone to agree. But biographers from Outside say Seward's other accomplishments were far more critical to the continuation of the United States as a whole.
We observe the 150th anniversary of our country's acquisition of Russian America this year. It's worth noting things Seward did that contributed as much to the survival of the Union as the strategies of Abraham Lincoln or the battles of Ulysses S. Grant.
The ‘Secession Winter’
In November 1860, after Lincoln was elected president with less than 40 percent of the popular vote, Southern states declared independence and began arming for war. President James Buchanan was warned that Washington, D.C., was in imminent danger of falling to forces opposed to Lincoln taking office. But no soldiers could be spared; Congress had refused funds to increase the nation's army. The lame-duck president was unable to take action to protect the capital and the president-elect could do nothing until his inauguration the following March.
For four months the seat of the national government was thus exposed to a serious threat of invasion. It would not have taken much of a rabble to seize the Capitol Building, the Treasury and War offices, White House and other buildings.
A prominent senator and agile politician, Seward strove to keep all sides talking and hoping. He floated proposals for conventions, constitutional amendments and concessions to dissuade dissatisfied states from leaving, at least until Lincoln could be sworn in. Although he knew that war was inevitable, he presented a steady voice of calm in a climate of increasing bitterness.
Learning of a plot to kill Lincoln en route to the capital, Seward dispatched his son, Frederick, to find the president-elect and have him change his travel plans. Lincoln arrived in Washington at an unexpected time, thwarting the assassins.
Historians are divided on whether Seward saved the Union during the "Secession Winter." But his footwork kept key border states from immediately joining the rebellion and kept the military powerhouses of Virginia and North Carolina from breaking away until Lincoln was safely in office.
Henry Adams credited Seward with preventing Southern troops from marching down Pennsylvania Avenue during the power vacuum and called his effort "a fight which might go down in history as one of the wonders of statesmanship."
The Trent crisis
As Lincoln's secretary of state, Seward's main job was to keep European powers out of America's war. Anxious to resume trade with the South, Britain and France were particularly skeptical of Seward's arguments.
When the U.S. Navy boarded an English-flagged passenger ship, the Trent, and removed two Confederate envoys to Europe, skepticism turned into fury. Stopping a neutral ship on the high seas violated international law, an act of war.
The British government set a hard deadline for Lincoln to release the envoys. If he refused, a royal warship stood off the coast to evacuate British diplomats.
Public opinion delighted at the capture of two prominent Rebels. But to reject Britain's demand would lead to the Royal Navy blasting through the Union blockade, bringing military supplies to the Confederates. Despite the bluster, there was no way the North could defeat both the South and the biggest navy on Earth. It was, in the words of historian Walter Stahl, the Cuban missile crisis of the 19th century.
Lincoln turned to Seward, who devised the argument that freedom of the seas was one reason for the War of 1812. However distasteful it might be, the country was obliged to abide by the principles for which its soldiers and sailors had died. Lincoln saw that Seward's view would fly with the electorate and agreed to it. With mere hours to spare, the envoys were set free. There were cheers on both sides of the Atlantic as Europe stayed out of America's war.
The Johnson impeachment
When Lincoln was assassinated, Vice President Andrew Johnson became the chief executive. A Tennessean, he butted heads with congressmen bent on punishing the South. By 1868, the rancor led to Johnson's impeachment by the House of Representatives. Seward helped arrange Johnson's defense and the Senate ultimately fell one vote short of removing Johnson from office. Johnson would later return to Washington as a senator, but the impeachment battle spelled the end of Seward's political career.
Seward, who had helped create the Republican Party, was reviled by his fellow Republicans for standing by Johnson, a Democrat.
Why did he do it? Probably because he felt the grounds for impeachment — whether Johnson could dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton — were unconstitutional. Also, he had seen what happened in Central and South American republics when one branch of government abrogated the rights of another: chaos, coups, dictatorships and more civil wars.
Whether that would have happened in this case is hypothetical, but the national situation was far from stable in 1868 and Seward's concerns have been shared by scholars since then. It is arguable that had Seward not come up with the legal counsel, cajoling and outright bribes that saved Johnson's skin, the delicate framework of American democracy would have shattered.
Compared to that possibility, the purchase of Alaska seems like a small trophy indeed.
Former ADN reporter Michael Dunham is the author of "The Man Who Bought Alaska: a short biography of William H. Seward" and "The Man Who Sold Alaska: a short biography of Tsar Alexander II of Russia," published by Todd Communications.
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