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Steve Haycox: Seward was more than movie's portrayal

  • Author: Steve Haycox
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published March 21, 2013

Monday is Seward's Day, commemorating the signing of the proposed Alaska purchase treaty by American Secretary of State William Seward and Russian diplomatic minister Edouard de Stoeckl. Coinciding as it does this year with Easter, the commemoration likely will get lost in public consciousness, despite David Strathairn's effective portrayal of Seward in the blockbuster film "Lincoln." That's unfortunate. Seward is not significant just for Alaska; he was one of the most important political figures in 19th century America.

Strathairn's rendering of Seward in Spielberg's film was a bit too good. As Lincoln's right hand and political lieutenant, Spielberg's Seward orchestrates the disbursement of money and favors needed to secure the votes to pass the 13th Amendment through Congress, to guarantee the abolition of slavery. Strathairn is fully convincing as the consummate political apparatchik, directing unsavory operatives and providing deniability. But it's an incomplete portrait, prejudicial to Seward's true character and achievement.

Seward constructed his life around two principles: the fundamental equality of all human beings, and the necessity of tailoring politics to the exigencies of the moment in order to achieve lasting good. As an aspiring attorney and politician in upstate New York, Seward, with his wife, harbored escaped slaves in their home, a stop on the "underground railroad." He worked through the New York legislature a law guaranteeing blacks who were identified as fugitive slaves a trial to verify their status; free blacks were often falsely fingered as escapees and sold South into slavery. Both activities were potentially damaging to Seward's future career at a time when majority opinion in the North regarded abolitionists as dangerous extremists.

When he went to the U.S. Senate in 1850, Seward spoke against the new Fugitive Slave Act, a part of the Compromise of 1850 on slavery constructed by Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Arguing for black equality, Seward argued there is a higher law than the Constitution. In a sentiment Hubert Humphrey would echo nearly 100 years later at the start of the modern civil rights revolution, Seward insisted that compromise on the issue of slavery manifested "a want of moral courage." Humphrey urged the 1948 Democratic National Convention "to walk out of the shadow of states' rights and into the sunshine of human rights."

A founder of the Republican Party, Seward expected to be elected president in 1860, but ironically, considering his later willingness to temporize, his uncompromising abolitionist views were seen as too extreme. The story of his initial expectation to "manage" a Lincoln he imagined to be a naïve rube, and then his growing respect for, admiration of and service to the new strong, independent president, is well known. So too is his collaboration on Lincoln's first inaugural address, whose belligerent tone he urged the president to soften. Also familiar to most is Seward's counsel that Lincoln delay announcing the Emancipation Proclamation until after a Union battlefield victory so as not to appear to be acting from a position of weakness. Probably less familiar is Seward's critical role in soothing British anger over the botched capture of two of its diplomats during the Civil War, thereby helping to keep Britain from recognizing the Confederacy.

When he assumed the presidency and appointed Seward his secretary of State, Lincoln told Seward he would have to look after foreign affairs, about which Lincoln said he knew so little. This Seward did with great aplomb. Then, after the war, he was able to implement much of the global, even imperial vision for the United States he had long harbored, acquiring Alaska and laying the groundwork for Hawaii and the Panama Canal Zone.

In his new biography, Walter Stahr calls Seward "Lincoln's Indispensable Man." Stahr does not mean this in the sense of apparatchik, nor even as irreplaceable secretary of State. He means friend and fellow statesman, equally and fully committed to the same values and national aspirations. It's not quite the picture that emerges from David Strathairn's fine but limited portrayal.

In his will, Anchorage homesteader Andy Muldoon left money for a Seward statue. It's at the main entrance of the Loussac Library. Next time you're there, take a moment to contemplate this most important American.

Steve Haycox is professsor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox


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