William Seward: ‘Just enough virtue’ (part 1)

November 9, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: Civil War, history, journalism.

William Seward’s modern biographer, Walter Stahr, subtitled his excellent book, “Lincoln’s Indispensable Man.” That sobriquet is hard to argue with when you examine how the Lincoln Administration navigated through the shoals of secession and the fierce opposition of the unionist Democrats. There was no guarantee that Lincoln, Seward, and the Republicans would prevail.

But Seward (and many others) was there, and Seward himself could be thought the object of his famous quote:

“There was always just enough virtue in this republic to save it; sometimes none to spare, but still enough to meet the emergency.”

So the case of William Seward and the virtue that he brought to the republic during its most dangerous crisis is certainly worth remembering. An incident in his career more than a decade before that crisis exemplifies the “virtue in the republic.”

In the first half of the 19th century, Seward was the rising star of New York state politics, and by 1839 he was elected to the first of two terms as governor. He was only 37 years old. His tenure as governor was an eventful one in which he championed reform of public education so that all children could be included (including children of immigrants). 

He also favored laws that gave African-Americans more rights. That included the repeal of the “nine-month law,” which allowed slaveholders to bring their slaves to New York for nine months without losing title to them. The repeal meant that slave brought into New York were automatically considered free, and it made the state a destination for fugitive slaves and earned for Seward the special enmity of many Southerners.

After two terms as governor, Seward left office and entered a political wilderness. In addition, he was deeply in debt because the lifestyle that he felt he must maintain as governor was far beyond his means. So, for the next few years, he returned to the town of Auburn and built a lucrative law practice.

Even there, Seward’s progressivism manifested itself. He used an insanity defense for a client accused of a heinous murder, gaining for his client a hung jury. That led to a second case also involving a man likely mentally ill in 1846. The man was William Freeman, an African-American accused of breaking into a house and stabbing four people to death. In that case, Seward boldly tackled both mental illness and racial issues, arguing that Freeman was  “still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race—the image of our Maker. Hold him then to be a Man.”

Freeman was convicted, but his conviction was overturned on appeal. He was not tried a second time because officials were by then convinced of his insanity. He later died in prison.

Freeman’s trial was reported on throughout the nation, and Seward’s defense placed him squarely in the middle of a rising anti-slavery tide was that form in the Northern states. By 1848 Seward was ready to re-enter the political area, and he did so by supporting the winning Whig ticket for the presidency that year. The next year, the New York state legislature sent him to Washington as a U.S. Senator.

Seward entered the Senate in what was to be its most tumultuous decade.

Next: Becoming Lindon’s indispensable man.

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