To call someone a traitor could quite possibly be the harshest charge ever to be leveled against a citizen of the state. The only thing that could be worse than the charge of treason is actually committing treason. In the spring of 1861, a member of Lincoln’s Cabinet committed just such an act. William Henry Seward, a rival of Lincoln’s in the 1860 election and then chosen by Lincoln the Secretary of state, pursued a course of action designed to undermine the authority of the presidency and cause the loss of United States property.
The day after Lincoln took office he was presented with a communiqué from Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina advising the President of the dire supply situation and the reality that if not resupplied the fort would have to be abandoned. After receiving an assessment for General Winfield Scott that it would require four to six months, a large naval fleet, and up to 20,000 men to relieve Ft. Sumter, Lincoln convened his cabinet and asks for their opinion on whether Sumter should be supported. It should be noted here that Scott was heavily influenced by Seward who believe the United States should not go to war to save the union.
When Seward became aware that Lincoln had decided to relieve Fort Sumter he became incensed. Not only did he not believe this is the proper course of action but unknown to others he was concerned about the relief and what it would do to his personal honor. Seward had received several flattering letters from people of the south, Mr. Frederick Roberts of North Carolina particular. In these letters Seward was referred to as “the Hector or Atlas of not only his cabinet But the giant intellect of the whole north”. He was also told that “Unionists look to yourself and only you, Sir as a member of the cabinet to save the country” After being showered with praise by the enemy’s of his country, Seward began to believe that he and not Lincoln was in charge and it was only he who could save the country. This is a typical trick of those who are trying to convince someone to betray their country. This also gives us some insight to his personality and his ego.
When Lincoln refused to meet with emissaries of the Confederacy, Seward unbeknownst to Lincoln acted through Alabama’s John Campbell, who still served on the United States Supreme Court, to hold high level discussions with the Confederacy. Seward even went so far as to inform the Confederacy that Sumter “Would be evacuated within in the next five days” Once Lincoln had chosen to relieve Fort Sumter, Seward even attempted to interfere with the preparations for the relief mission. The delays in the Naval Warship component of the expedition resulted in failure of the mission.
Based upon the facts presented, one can come to no other conclusion but that Seward was engaging in traitorous activity against the Government of the United States. It was not only his ego which prompted him to consider himself, and not Lincoln, the true leader of the United States but his desperation to save his personal honor interfered with a military operation. A traitor is a man who puts personal gratification or personal glory in place of one’s duty to his country. Whether in time of war or time of peace there’s no one more despicable than traitor. Seward was lucky he able to hide his traitorous activities from the President. Had I been Lincoln and discovered Seward’s treachery, he would have faced a traitor’s fate. He would be found by his Confederate admirers hanging from the gallows.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 334-346.