An Old Union Man

“Did he say anything about politics?”
“Not a word. We talked mostly about books.”
“Books! What does he know about books?”
From Henry Adams, Democracy

One of the more enjoyable aspects of working with old books all day is having the chance to see what past owners have tucked away for safe-keeping in the leaves of those books. Just the other day, I was looking at an 1873 copy of William H. Seward’s Travels Around the World and noticed that someone had inserted several newspaper clippings about the author, William Seward, the Auburn, New York, monument dedicated to him, and the death of one of his family’s former house slaves, “Old Judge.”

It was on this day, March 30, in 1861, that news of Spanish annexation of St. Domingo broke, an event that urged Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, to write a famous memo to Lincoln. Spain had pushed for annexation, believing that internal dissension in the states would keep the U.S. from responding. Over the next few days, Seward prepared and sent to Lincoln his “Some Thoughts for the President’s Consideration.” “Thoughts” criticized Lincoln for having no clear foreign or domestic policy, promoted fortifying gulf ports like Pickens to prepare for a potential war with Spain — a war that would help solidify union of the states — and argued strongly for union. Seward wrote:

“We are at the end of a month’s Administration, and yet without a policy either domestic or foreign…. The policy at home…. My system is built on this idea, as a ruling one, namely: that we must change the question, before the public, from one upon Slavery, or about Slavery, for a question upon Union or Disunion. In other words, from what would be regarded as a party question to one of Patriotism or Union.”

In his reply to Seward, Lincoln defended himself against attacks on his lack of policy and presidential ineffectiveness. He also dismissed Seward’s efforts to defend Pickens which, Seward implied, was more about union than party or slavery.

Seward was not one to slight the issue of slavery. His family had been slaveholders in early nineteenth-century New York, and in his autobiography, Seward expressed his early discontent with slavery and slaveholding:

I early came to the conclusion that something was wrong, and the ‘gradual emancipation laws’ of the State, soon after coming into debate, enabled me to solve the mystery, and determined me, at an early age, to be an abolitionist.

But Seward was not forward-thinking enough to call for full integration of the races. The clippings, which showcase how well-behaved and submissive Seward’s valet and loyal servants were, indicate Seward’s contentment with the subordinate status of blacks. His Travels, which lauds the U.S for abolishing slavery, became one of D. Appleton & Co.’s bestsellers. Appleton published the book, which was probably authored by Seward’s adopted daughter, Olive Risley Seward, by subscription only in the months after Seward’s death in October of 1872 (click here for the AAS catalog record for the salesman’s sample). This was at a time when subscription publishing was making more and a greater variety of books available in the hinterland. It is unfortunate, or perhaps only inevitable, that Seward’s message of American freedom, so widely disseminated, was thought by at least one reader to be inseparable from the vestiges of American slavery.

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