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Originally published Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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'Seward': a new biography of Lincoln's right-hand man

In "Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man," Walter Stahr examines the colorful career of William Henry Seward, the man who made Thanksgiving a national holiday, bought Alaska for the United States and stood by Abraham Lincoln in his darkest hour. Stahr discusses his book Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Walter Stahr

The author of "Seward" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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'Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man'

by Walter Stahr

Simon & Schuster, 704 pp., $32.50

Next time you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, take a moment to thank William Henry Seward. It was his idea to have a national Thanksgiving holiday, and President Lincoln proclaimed it so.

That may have been Seward's least important accomplishment. One of most influential politicians of the 19th century, he left his mark on some of the most significant events in American history, as thoroughly chronicled in "Seward," a monumental new biography by Walter Stahr.

Though Seward was physically unimpressive, people listened when he spoke, and he managed to get himself elected governor of New York, then senator. He joined the Senate at a time of increasing tensions between North and South over the issue of slavery, and soon won the enmity of Southern senators by his outspoken opposition to the South's "peculiar institution."

His views on slavery weren't confined merely to his speeches. Stahr says Seward also apparently aided runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad and sold a house to antislavery activist Harriet Tubman without ever bothering to collect the money she owed.

Seward's high-profile opposition to slavery probably cost him the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, which went to Lincoln, whose own anti-slavery sentiments were not then so widely known. Stahr's analysis of the election returns indicates that even if Seward had been nominated, he probably would not have won the election.

Swallowing his disappointment over losing the nomination, Seward campaigned loyally for Lincoln, who named him secretary of state and invited him to review a draft of the inaugural address. Seward suggested many changes to the speech, especially the closing, and many were accepted, though it was Lincoln himself who crafted the immortal language of the concluding passage. The two formed a close friendship, and Seward became Lincoln's most trusted counselor during the crucial Civil War years.

On the night of Lincoln's assassination, a knife-wielding henchman of John Wilkes Booth attacked Seward and left him badly wounded, but he recovered to continue as secretary of state and a key adviser to Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor. Seward's support of Johnson's Reconstruction policies angered radical Republicans, however, and made him increasingly unpopular in his own party.

He was still secretary of state in 1866 when the Washington Territorial Legislature petitioned the federal government to negotiate a deal with Russia that would allow Washington fishermen to fish in Alaska waters. This gave Seward the opening to begin talks that led finally to the U.S. purchase of Alaska. But Stahr says Seward may later have perjured himself when he denied knowledge of alleged payoffs to help secure congressional approval of the purchase.

"Seward was not a saint, he was a practical politician, and he was prepared if necessary to use dubious means to achieve great goals," Stahr writes.

After retirement in 1869, Seward toured Puget Sound, visiting Seattle and three other "tiny settlements" before giving a speech in Olympia in which he predicted Washington's destiny would be "as great and glorious as that of any portion of our national domain." This, Stahr says, was in keeping with Seward's "grand vision" for the entire country. Seattle's Seward Park is named after Seward.

The subtitle of this book calls Seward "Lincoln's Indispensable Man." Based on Stahr's exhaustively researched account of his life, Seward might just as easily have been called "The Nation's Indispensable Man."

Whidbey Island author Steve Raymond's latest book is "In the Very Thickest of the Fight: The Civil War Service of the 78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment" (Globe Pequot Press).

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