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How Lincoln's Fiercest Rival Became His Close Ally

Walter Stahr began writing his first book, <em>John Jay</em>, while working as a lawyer in Hong Kong.
/ Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Walter Stahr began writing his first book, John Jay, while working as a lawyer in Hong Kong.

The race for the Republican nomination of 1860 was one of the great political contests of American history. It was Abraham Lincoln versus Salmon Chase, versus William Seward.

Author Walter Stahr spoke with Weekends All Things Considered host Guy Raz about his new biography, Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man. He describes how a man who was Lincoln's fiercest and most critical opponent eventually became his most loyal and trusted adviser.

Interview Highlights

On Seward losing the election

"[Seward] is disappointed [in losing the election]. He doesn't say much, but you can sort of discern his bitterness from the letters that his friends send to him, and from a period of roughly six weeks, eight weeks, of silence. It's only in early August [that he] meets with some political friends, and he realizes that he's to get out on the campaign trail, he's got to stump for Lincoln."

On Lincoln's ploy to get Seward to be his secretary of state

"He makes the offer in early December and he does it in a very clever way. He writes both a formal letter and an informal letter. In the informal letter he says, 'You know, some newspapers have said I'm going to offer you the position, but merely as a formality. Don't believe them. I really want you as secretary of state. I think you're the best man for the job and the country needs your services.'"

On Seward's changed view of Lincoln

"Not only does he sort of come to respect Lincoln as a leader, but the two of them become close friends, much to the chagrin of some of Seward's Cabinet colleagues. The Cabinet would be gathered for a meeting and who would show up but the president and Secretary Seward would walk through the door together sharing a joke, and the others would know that whatever they were about to discuss had more or less had been decided a few minutes earlier by Lincoln and Seward. Lincoln often would wander over to Seward's house. He lived on Lafayette Square, just a few steps from the White House ... to talk about some issue, share a story. It seems that Lincoln actually sort of enjoys the evening-time company of his secretary of state."

On the attempt to assassinate Seward alongside Lincoln

"He was confined to his bed. He had been in a severe carriage accident a few weeks before. So, in a sense he was an easy target for Booth and the assassins. They knew exactly where he was and his house was not guarded by the Army. The assassin gets into the house, talks his way past the servants, clubs Seward's son Frederick to within an inch of his life, and bursts into the bedroom with a pistol — not working after using it as club — and a knife. [He] slashes Seward about the face and neck, but miraculously doesn't sever an artery."

On Seward's reaction to Lincoln's death

"He was, of course, saddened by the death of his friend. For weeks he would burst into tears at the slightest provocation. He also, as time passed, realized that Lincoln's death secures his place in history and that, to some extent, Lincoln will overshadow him. He tells one friend he should have been permitted to die that night along with Lincoln. ... His own legacy might have been sealed by that, although paradoxically, if that had happened he would not have accomplished the one thing that almost every American knows about him, namely, to purchase Alaska."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff