-- Initial Problems at Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens --

Commentary: Seward's Advice

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"Voluntary Reconstruction"

Seward's recommendation to abandon Sumter was based on the notion that unionist sentiment in the South remained strong, and that secession was a temporary emotional frenzy that would subside so long as conflict with the North was avoided. This idea, called "voluntary reconstruction," saw the upper South as a key to the restoration of Union. So long as these states remained loyal, the concept of a southern nation lacked legitimacy, and eventually the secessionist deep South would return to the Union. Abandoning Sumter would provide time for unionist forces to take the initiative and hold the border states in the Union, without sacrificing a position of any military value.

Throughout the Sumter crisis Seward promoted the idea of voluntary reconstruction. Considering himself the dominant power in the administration, he pressed for the abandonment of Sumter, encouraged Lincoln to negotiate with Virginia unionists to exchange the fort for Virginia's continued loyalty, and provided assurances to the Confederate commissioners via intermediaries that Sumter would, in fact, be abandoned.

Seward's activities during this period have been variously interpreted. David M. Potter offers a generally positive assessment of Seward's actions and motives. His so-called "negotiations" with the Confederate commissioners prevented for four weeks a diplomatic crisis that could have erupted in conflict. Potter also argues that Seward's views were similar to Lincoln's until the very last stage of the Sumter crisis. Both men made the same error of grossly exaggerating unionist sentiment throughout the South.

Somewhat more critical of Seward are Richard N. Current and Kenneth M. Stampp. They view Seward's activities as incompatible with Lincoln's determination to hold Sumter if at all possible. Like a loose and loaded cannon, Seward engaged in a series of maneuvers "on his own initiative" which operated "in quite the opposite direction" of Lincoln's policy.

Although these assessments of Seward are conflicting, they are not totally incompatible. Potter, for example, acknowledges that as time went on and Lincoln gravitated towards a riskier policy for holding Sumter, Seward found himself at odds with the President, and grew more and more desperate to counteract Lincoln's policy. In any event, despite whatever differences existed over the Sumter issue in these early days of Lincoln's presidency, strong personal and political ties held Seward and Lincoln together. Particularly important was Seward's ultimate loyalty to the President.

Bibliography: Potter, Lincoln and His Party, pp. 240-41, 251-53, 336-71; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, p. 52; Stampp, And the War Came, pp. 274-78; David Herbert Donald, 'We Are Lincoln Men': Abraham Lincoln and His Friends (New York, 2003), pp. 140-76.

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