American history, biographies, book reviews, Secretary of State, Team of Rivals, Walter Stahr, William Seward
Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man
by Walter Stahr
Simon & Schuster
Published: September 2012
“Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man” by Walter Stahr was published in 2012. Stahr spent twenty-five years as a lawyer before turning his attention to writing. His first biography “John Jay: Founding Father” was published in 2005 and his most recent book “Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary” was published in 2017. He is currently working on a biography of Salmon Chase.
Avid fans of American history – particularly those enthralled by great presidential biographies – will recognize William Seward as a core member of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet which was marvelously depicted in Doris Goodwin’s 2005 Lincoln-focused biography “Team of Rivals.” Seward was Lincoln’s primary competitor for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860 and later became one of his most important advisers. Seward is widely regarded as one of the best Secretaries of State in U.S. history.
As an important but comparatively under-covered politician, Seward holds great promise for a biographer. Unfortunately, an apparent lack of information regarding his early life and a methodical but often dry writing style prevents Stahr’s biography from reaching its full potential. And while this lengthy and often detailed review of his life succeeds admirably as history, it is unexceptional judged as biography.
This book is clearly meritorious in several respects, however. From its introduction, which does a good job teasing out Seward’s essence and explaining why readers should care about his legacy, to Stahr’s assessment of Seward’s twelve-year Senatorial career, this book contains many nuggets of wisdom and insight.
Arguably the most valuable section of the book: the ten chapters covering Seward’s tenure as Lincoln’s (and, subsequently, President Johnson’s) Secretary of State. Though this period accounts for just eight of Seward’s seventy-one years, it consumes more than half the book. Stahr carefully reconstructs nearly everything Seward said or did of importance during this time and, although these pages are rarely captivating, they are extremely informative.
But as commendable as the book is documenting Seward’s (mostly public) life, readers will quickly identify several shortcomings. Relatively little is offered of Seward’s early years; he is a senior in college after just a dozen pages, and the first half of his life is covered in fewer than 60 pages.
In addition, Stahr almost completely fails to humanize his subject. Part of this may be attributed to Seward himself – he would never be described as the life of any party. But throughout the book he feels like an inert two-dimensional character observed from afar. And while readers periodically see his wife and children, their occasional presence does little to illuminate the man.
Important supporting characters such as the incomparable Thurlow Weed fail to receive adequate introductions…or sufficiently integral involvement in the story line. And, in general, Stahr’s narrative feels like a carefully-assembled collection of facts glued together with little in the way of vibrancy or verve.
Overall, Walter Stahr’s “Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man” provides a solid review of the life of a consequential 19th-century political figure. But if a great biography combines meticulously rendered history with a colorful, animating narrative then this book falls short. As political history it is often excellent, but as a literary experience it is unsatisfying.
Overall rating: 3½ stars