U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Empire of the World? Getting Right with William Seward (Guest Post by David Sim)

[The following is a guest post by David Sim, lecturer in U.S. history at University College London.]

Just over a half-century ago, Walter LaFeber published an expanded version of his doctoral dissertation as The New Empire: an Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898.[i] In it, LaFeber told a story about the evolution of American foreign policy in the late nineteenth century. Summarising his argument for the book’s thirty-fifth anniversary republication, LaFeber emphasised four key contributions. First, he argued that “important continuities marked the years from 1865 to 1898.” Second, “economic transformations” – and the way that policymakers understood them – “were the most important of the continuities.” Third, “officials acted consciously, rationally, and creatively.” And finally, “from [William] Seward [to William] McKinley, U.S. policymakers were pushed and pulled… by their own sophisticated worldviews.”[ii]

The imperial ambitions of William Seward, Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869, frame LaFeber’s narrative. He makes his first appearance in the book’s second paragraph, and it’s with a quotation from the hard drinking, heavy smoking New Yorker that LaFeber closes the book. Lincoln and Johnson’s Secretary of State, LaFeber writes, was his “prince of players,” whose “vision of empire dominated American policy for [a] century.”[iii] In emphasising Seward’s importance, LaFeber was in good company. William Appleman Williams called him a “prophet” of American expansion.[iv] Ernest Paolino, in a detailed study of Seward’s statecraft, argued that he “anticipated” the expansionists of 1898, and that his career “reveals the fundamental continuity of American foreign policy between 1861 and 1900.”[v]

There’s enough in Seward’s career – particularly in his antebellum years – to flesh out these narratives of continuity. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, in particular, Seward spoke the language of exuberant expansionism. “The borders of the federal republic,” he claimed in 1853, “shall be extended so that it shall greet the sun when he touches the tropics, and when he sends his glancing rays toward the polar circle, and shall include even distant islands in either ocean.”[vi] Seward apparently theorised that the future capital of the United States “would be in the City of Mexico.”[vii] British North Americans, Seward argued, were “building excellent states to be hereafter admitted into the American Union.”[viii] The wily Whig-turned-Republican rightly emphasised the future importance of Asian markets, highlighted the primacy of commercial competition in determining global power, and recommended internal improvements and the acquisition of strategic bases in the Pacific and Caribbean to protect and promote American commerce. Talk of “the commerce of the world, which is the empire of the world” and his hopes for “an integrated empire with a great continental base” indicated, for LaFeber and others, a profound prescience and traced the path that his successors at the State Department would follow.[ix]

If we turn from words to deeds, though, Seward looks like a pretty poor patriarch for the genealogy of imperialism that these historians offer. His greatest achievement as Secretary of State was to prevent foreign intervention in the American Civil War. This is not to be slighted; the alignment of domestic fissures and European imperial ambitions had long haunted American statesmen. Seward’s astute use of threats, conciliation and public diplomacy were instrumental in limiting the scope of the conflict. But, with the exception of his 1867 purchase of Alaska, his achievements in securing the “empire of the world” look a little underwhelming. On leaving office, his isthmian canal syndicate was already beginning to fragment; the Colombian government and the US Senate would later reject his treaty regarding a passage across Central America. His grand schemes for multiple intercontinental telegraphs were similarly frustrated. Congress was unmoved by his calls for more investment in the US foreign service. Returns to capital in the American West undermined attempts to invest overseas in order to secure “the commerce of the world.” And his attempts to secure naval bases in the Caribbean – at St Thomas and Samana Bay – came to naught.

Seward’s limited historical utility was apparent to those turn of the century statesmen to whom the Secretary of State offered little. Intriguingly, in an October 1899 speech on Philippine annexation, William McKinley skated over Seward to talk at length about his contemporary and rival, Stephen Douglas, and his ideas about American expansion.[x] Theodore Roosevelt had a little more to say about Seward, though mostly in the context of apportioning blame for the sins of Reconstruction.[xi] Henry Cabot Lodge was rather more positive about Seward, praising him for his anti-slavery radicalism, but passed over any larger political vision he might have had.[xii]

What should we make of this divergence: the prescient architect of empire on the one hand, his rather more limited projection of American power on the other? In part, Seward’s attractiveness to historians is a product of his prolific output. Seward was a talker, and specifically someone who talked the language of expansion at a time when most American statesmen who did so had slavery on their minds. Sure, much of his antebellum exuberance was less a serious programme for empire and rather an inducement to his fellow statesmen to think about the United States as it might be were it absolved of the stain of slavery. But with regard to railroads, the telegraph, the virtues of cultivating international markets and the lure of Asian commerce, Seward’s instincts were good. His antebellum speeches offer ample material for constructing congenial narratives of continuity in US foreign relations. And unlike Douglas, I would suggest, his repudiation of slavery makes him attractive to modern historians seeking the antecedents of turn-of-the-century imperialism.

In addition – and unsurprisingly – context is key. Seward’s Republican Party reshaped the American state during its tenure in office from 1860 through the early 1880s. The United States emerged from Civil War with a new national banking system, a protective tariff, a commitment to construct transcontinental railroads, and a stronger relationship between government, finance and industry than had existed during the antebellum period. We don’t need to subscribe to Charles and Mary Beard’s notion of a “second American Revolution” to think these changes significant for the development of US political economy – and American foreign relations – in the late nineteenth century.

Does Seward’s limited charge sheet mean we should write him out of narratives of American imperialism? No. But the dissonance between his words and deeds suggests two things. First, we should be more attentive to the relationship between empires, and less hung up on telling a unilateral story of the rise and rise of American power through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Seward and his contemporaries were well aware of both the contingent nature of the American Union and the relationship between American power and other, European imperialisms. In the late nineteenth century, in China, South Africa, the Ottoman Empire, Central America, Japan and elsewhere, American commerce, expertise and influence were intertwined with European – and often British – imperial projects. Second, perhaps historians of US foreign relations should to be a bit more attentive to contingency – even to irony – and should worry less about sanding off the rough edges in order to tell a smooth story about the lineage of the turn-of-the-century American empire. As Seward himself suggested in 1850, “states, nations, and empires, are apt to be peculiarly capricious…not only as to the time, but even as to the manner, of their being born… They are not accustomed to conform to precedents.”[xiii]


[i] Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: an Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963).

[ii]Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: an Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998 ed.), xix

[iii] LaFeber, The New Empire (1963), 24-5.

[iv] William Appleman Williams, The Roots of the Modern American Empire: a Study of the Growth and Shaping of Social Consciousness in a Marketplace Society (St. Helens: Wood Westworth & Co., 1970), 136.

[v] Ernest Paolino, The Foundations of the American Empire: William Henry Seward and U.S. Foreign Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973), xi.

[vi] William H. Seward, ‘The Destiny of America’, speech at Columbus, Ohio, 14 Sept 1853, in George Baker (ed.), The Works of William H. Seward (Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 5 vols., 1884), 4:122.

[vii] Charles A. Dana quoted in Frederic Bancroft, ‘Seward’s Ideas of Territorial Expansion’, The North American Review, 167:500 (Jul. 1898), 80.

[viii] Seward, ‘Political Equality the National Idea’, speech at St. Paul, 18 Sept 1860, in Baker (ed.),Works, 4:333.

[ix] Seward quoted in LaFeber, The New Empire, 30-1.

[x] William McKinley, ‘Speech at Madison, Wisconsin’, 16 Oct 1899, in McKinley, Speeches and Addresses of William McKinley, from March 1, 1897 to May 30, 1900 (New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1900), 320.

[xi] Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches (New York: Library of America, 2004), 375, 464.

[xii] Henry Cabot Lodge, ‘William Henry Seward’, in idem., Historical and Political Essays (Boston, MA; New York: Houghton & Mifflin, 1884), 1-46.

[xiii]Seward, Speech… on the Admission of California in the Senate of the United States, March 11, 1850 (Washington, D.C., 1850), 8.

4 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. This was a fantastic post, thanks so much for writing it. You make some important points–both about contingency depending on the era, and America’s relationship with other great powers.

    And the argument you made about Seward talking about America’s potential power as a way to critique slavery in the US–good catch there. The intellectual history of the US before the Civil War, especially when it comes to the debate about slavery, hinges greatly on considering how Americans saw themselves as part of a larger world. Seward was no exception, although as you also point out, he was just a tad busy during his two terms as Secretary of State to act on many of them!

  2. Thanks for this treatment of Seward. Can you speak a bit more about Seward’s influence over the language the Republican Party adopted because of him and his intellectual output? Is there something to the idea that while Seward did not direct all that he imagined, his imagination directed the party that shaped a new imperial history for the US and other nations? I do not know how Seward has been seen in more recent diplomatic histories of the period, I don’t think Chris Nichols does much with Seward in his book on anti-imperialism (Seward would seem a good foil if only symbolically).

  3. I really enjoyed this piece and am too intrigued by Seward. Building on Robert and Ray’s questions, I wonder how we should think of Seward’s imperialism in terms of his role as a bourgeois revolutionary waging a war rooted upon, as he put it, “an irresistible conflict between opposing and enduring forces”? Casting Lincoln as the American Lenin–struggling in a war of maneuver to construct and assert the power of a new industrial-capitalist state over that of the slavocracy–then Seward is the Yankee Trotsky theorizing and negotiating what that state’s place would be in the wider world.

  4. Robert, Ray, Kit, thanks for the kind words! One thing that’s really striking about Seward’s antebellum career is how convinced he is of the Union’s resilience, despite his talk about an irrepressible conflict over slavery. As much as his own vanity, I think this conviction plays an important role in his ambitious, unsuccessful attempts to hold north and south together in late 1860 and early 1861.

    On Nichols, my recollection is much the same as yours, Ray. It’s a book I’ll have to return to, though. Seward certainly has anti-imperial utility. In his ‘Union, Nation & Empire’ David Hendrickson devotes a chapter to debunking the Seward-to-the-Philippines myth; I think he’s on the money in pointing to Seward’s opposition to the Mexican War. I’d add that Seward has a cosmopolitan’s sense of purpose: he thinks commerce and, especially, the in-flow of migrants are fundamentally positive, and will define American power in the late nineteenth century.

    As for Seward the bourgeois revolutionary… maybe (can he be a bourgeois revolutionary and cast in the Trotsky role!?), though I think we should be wary of discerning Lincoln et al’s fingerprints so clearly on the protectionist, immigration-restrictionist industrial behemoth of the turn of the century (Marc-William Palen has a great article on this evolution in the next issue of Diplomatic History). Another way to think about Seward would be to look not to the great power players of the twentieth century but to his contemporaries. He’s operating in a world inescapably influenced by the structures and cultures of British power and – despite some reservations – it’s to emulation of Britain that he looks when theorising about the progression and fate of empires.

Comments are closed.