William H. Seward was a potential candidate for the President of the United States in 1860, but his strong abolitionist beliefs motivated the Republican Party to nominate Abraham Lincoln for the presidency instead.

However, Abraham Lincoln selected him to be the United States Secretary of State, and he faced the challenge of trying to prevent the Civil War. Seward was a practical person, and he knew that the majority of Americans, North and South, were hostile to abolitionists and the abolition and slavery. So, to prevent the Civil War he worked to appeal to the Unionists of the North and South by downplaying slavery as the cause of the conflict.

Seward wrote in 1861, “The policy at home. I am aware that my views are singular, and perhaps not sufficiently explained. My system is built upon this idea as a ruling one, namely that we must change the question before the public from one upon slavery, or about slavery, for a question upon union or disunion. In other words, from what would be regarded as a party question, to one of patriotism or union.”

President Abraham Lincoln agreed with Seward’s plan. Lincoln stated in a July 4, 1861, address to Congress that the leaders of the secession movement of the Confederacy knowingly had violated the law and were engaged in treason against the United States.

He said: “It might seem at first thought, to be of little difference whether the present movement of the South be called ‘secession’ or ‘rebellion.’ The movers, however well understand the difference. At the beginning they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude by any name which implies violation of law. They knew their people possessed as much of a moral sense, as much pride in and reverence for the history and government of their common country as any other civilized and patriotic people. They knew they could make no advancement directly in the teeth of these strong and noble sentiments. Accordingly, they commenced by an insidious debauchery of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps, to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is that any State of the Union may consistently with the national Constitution, and therefore lawfully and peacefully withdraw from the Union without the consent of the Union or of any other State.”

William H. Seward and President Abraham Lincoln sought to be practical in their approach to preventing the Civil War, as they focused their appeals to the American public, both North and South, on saving the Union in 1861.

The effort worked well in the North, and even in the South Pro-Union Southerners agreed that the Union must be preserved. Sadly, Seward and Lincoln could not prevent the Civil War from occurring, but their choice to focus on saving the Union as the primary goal was a wise choice in 1861.

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

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