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"Lincoln's Hundred Days" and "Seward"

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While Masur rarely asserts his personal opinions, when he does, it’s always thought-provoking: “Union was a condition; liberty, an idea. The Emancipation Proclamation remade the war into a new cause. It gave meaning to lives lost, and it gave purpose to a conflict that seemed fatally directionless – a battle here, a battle there, but no vision beyond restoring the Union, which was no vision at all. This is not to say that Union was not an important ideal – only that it was a restorative rather than a transformative idea.”

Walter Stahr’s biography of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man, takes a while to attract. Though Seward was personally energetic, though he fully documented his own life with letters and dispatches from his political career, Stahr proceeds cautiously, as if he were Lincoln’s slowpoke General George B. McClellan assembling his myriads of troops but rarely advancing. In Stahr’s defense, William Henry Seward (1801-1872) is and was not, from a distance, easy to like or admire. Once we know him, however, just as it happened with his contemporaries, his depth and high spirits win us over; he sparkles, pleases, and charms. A sharp politician of great skill, always clever, never resentful, Seward, through persistent compromising, before, during and after the Civil War helped steer the United States forward.

Though the first half of "Seward" narrative is slow going, the cumulative effect is interesting enough. The book-loving upstate New York lawyer rose to serve in the state legislature and married an adamant abolitionist-sympathizer. Before the war, abolitionists were mocked and loathed by most of America, and – don’t ask me why – they still earn sneers from historians. They were right, the rest of America was wrong. Because the one percent of one percent of those times wanted to hold millions of people with dark skins in bondage, America went to war. Five years before secession began in 1860, Seward spoke on “how the ‘privileged class’ – a few thousand southern slaveholders – had dominated American politics from the very outset, and managed still to control all three branches of the federal government.” Those who had conspired to enslave other human beings were able to paint the abolitionists as rabble-rousers.

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