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William Henry Seward was one of the most interesting American politicians of the 19th century--governor of New York, senator, and lastly Secretary of State during the Lincoln and A. Johnson administrations (the author says that he's considered to have been the second best secretary of state of all, after John Quincy Adams). He was also a principled and tireless opponent of slavery, who not only fought for its end but who risked his political career to represent victimized blacks in court.
Since this is the first full-fledged Seward biography in many years, I had high hopes for it. While Stahr delivers on what he chooses to tell, his interests are too narrow to do justice to the man. He's really only interested in Seward's eight years as secretary of state. The events of these momentous years, which of course include the Civil War, are carefully set out and thoughtfully discussed, but he ignores a large part of what makes Seward so interesting.
I first read about Seward's earlier life and career in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, and that made me eager to learn more about him. But Stahr disappoints here--the early portions of the book give a pretty perfunctory account of his first 60 years. Unlike Goodwin, Stahr doesn't seem to care how Seward's life before 1861 made him into the man who helped save the Union and guide it through the post-war years. He doesn't really appear to be interested in the man at all as much as the events he was involved with. I wonder why he didn't just write a book about Seward's years as secretary of state.
He's also surprisingly uninterested in Seward's personal relationship with Lincoln, which was as close as Lincoln allowed others to get. Lincoln valued Seward as an advisor, but they also shared a similar sense of humor and an interest in drama and poetry, and would often escape the intense pressure of the war years by reading or going to the theater together.
If he's uninterested in Seward's earlier political and professional life, he ignores the man's personal life almost completely. Seward's wife, Frances, was a very interesting woman, a feminist ahead of her time, and the two shared a close bond despite all the time they spent apart. Stahr hardly mentions Frances from the time of her marriage to the time of her death. This is the conventional masculine approach to history, one that relegates a subject's personal life to footnotes, but it's one that's receding into the past, thanks in part to the work of historians like Goodwin. I couldn't help wishing that she had written the book.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
Walter Stahr’s biography of William Henry Seward is well researched and well written. Stahr has gone into detail about Seward’s life and he has done a good job presenting an unbiased view. He has pointed out common reports and proves they are false or true. Stahr also has gone into detail about opposing viewpoints about Seward, tells us what he can prove and what he cannot thereby allowing the reader to make up their own minds on the issue. Seward was an interesting man. He was a successful lawyer in Auburn, New York he appeared to be interested in politics from an early age. He was a New York state senator in 1830, was governor of New York in 1869 and a Federal Senator. In 1860 he became Lincoln’s Secretary of State. I found it interesting that he was so involved in domestic issues as the Secretary of State. Of course, he did work hard on foreign issues such as working to keep England and France from recognizing the Confederacy. He kept the U.S. from being involved with fighting in Mexico to kick out the French and Austrians. He helped remove them by diplomacy. I was unaware that there were other attempted assassinations when Booth killed Lincoln. Seward was injured in a horse carriage accident and had a fractured jaw and shoulder and was home in bed when the assassin stabbed him in neck and jaw. Family members pulled the man off him before he was able to complete his job. Seward is famous as the man who bought Alaska but most of the information provided in the book was new knowledge for me. William Dufris did a good job in narrating the book. If you are interested in history this is a book for you.
7 of 8 people found this review helpful