Portrait of William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, ca. 1865; photo by Matthew Brady

William H. Seward (1801-1872) is remembered primarily, to the extent anyone but a historian would bother to remember him, for his folly. An ardent opponent of slavery, this staunch Yankee republican might well have received the presidential nomination in 1860 instead of Lincoln, but he went on to serve as Secretary of State to both Lincoln and the first President Johnson. It was in 1867 that he pushed through the purchase of Alaska from Russia for 7,200,000 dollars, a sizeable sum for a nation coming out of a costly civil war. Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune wrote in criticism that Alaska “contained nothing of value but furbearing animals, and these had been hunted until they were nearly extinct.” Little did the man who famously said “Go west, young man” know that one day a young woman named Sarah Palin would come to power in this once Russian icebox. In 1870 Seward left politics and went on a trip around the world with his adopted daughter, who kept a record of the trip and published this in 1873. From New York to San Francisco to Japan and China to the straits of Malacca, Ceylon and British India to Egypt and Palestine and Europe and finally returning home to Auburn, New York in October of 1871: this was the folly the old man followed shortly before his death.

Olive Seward records her father’s remarks, which are well worth looking at for the way they express the tenor of the times. This was the breadth, if not the height, of imperialist hubris. Here is the kind of Orientalist “we-can-best-civilize-the-natives” mentality that Edward Said so rightly critiqued. Listen to the words of Mr. Seward bound on a steamer from Bombay to Aden:

India has a very imperfect and unsatisfactory civilization, but it never had a better one. The native population could never achieve a better one if left to themselves. Their whole hope of a higher civilization depends on the instruction and aid of the Western nations, and, taking circumstances as they are, that hope depends chiefly on the guidance and aid of Great Britain. It is a subject for profound study how it has happened that thus far India has had an experience so different from that of the nations of the West. (pp. 466-467)

A profound study is indeed needed, but Seward is not simply saying that West is best as much as the West has found a secret to success that has evaded the Hindus in India. He continues:

All studious observers have agreed that the Hindoos are not intellectually inferior to the Western nations. They early framed a language, the Sanskrit, which the learned of every nation unite in asserting is superior to every other vehicle of human thought; they have ethics equal to those of Confucius, and his equal are equal to the morals of Plato. They have municipal laws as just as the common law. They have skill in productive art and manufacture, which has made their fabrics objects of cupidity and envy among all nations. Their literature of fiction furnished a model for the ‘Arabian Nights Entertainments’ as well as the poems of Ariosto and Chauncer. They gave to Greece the science of notation, and they have always excelled in mathematics generally, and practical hydraulics. (pp. 466-467)

So, with such achievements, where did they go wrong? Seward continues:

Nevertheless, the Hindoos have never known how to constitute a civil government, or to organize a beneficial ecclesiastical system. They have never even written a history of themselves, unless we accept, as such, fables which cover a chronological period of many millions of years, with four successive ages: first, one of perfect human strength, purity, and happiness; second, one of a slight admixture of weakness, rendering human government necessary; third, an equal admixture of vice and virtue; and, fourth, the predominance of evil, which has only endured five thousand years of its appointed term of four hundred and thirty three thousand. Unable to establish a plausible mythology, they require us, in the nineteenth century of the Christian era, to accept a pantheon of thirty-three millions of gods! (p. 467)

Now here is a note of irony after over a century and a quarter. The civil government that India had failed to produce would be, of course, the beneficent rule of the British raj, although Seward notes later that India has had a stream of such foreign conquerors. And imagine a view of history in millions of years rather than the mere six thousand assumed by most Americans at the time for the creation of Adam. Tsk, tsk, the poor deluded Hindoos are apparently too much like the Greeks in positing a pantheon rather than one unseen triune God. And their view of human history sounds very much like that of Hobbes. So what should be done? Seward has the remedy:

The remedy for India is and can be nothing less than a regeneration of the Hindoo mind. The Mogul conquerors attempted this by teaching the Mohammedan faith, and enforcing their instructions by the sword of the prophet. They failed even to establish a severe despotism. The superior political science and greater toleration of the British nation enable them at least to rule India in peace, but not without a constant exhibition of military power. It is but too apparent that the native population of India have not yet, under British rule, established any firm advance. If the British Government should withdraw itself from Hindostan to-day, the country must inevitably relapse into the wretched condition in which it was found by the Europeans… The work of regeneration must indeed be slow, for it requires nothing less than the destruction of caste, the restoration of women, and the conversion of the natives, if not to Christianity, at least to a religion more rational and practical than the Braminical faith. (p. 469)

Considering that less than a century before the United States was under the thumb of British colonial rule, Mr. Seward seems unable to appreciate the folly of his own prejudices.

To be continued…

Excerpts from Olive Risley Seward, editor, William H. Seward’s Travels around the World (New York: Appleton and Company, 1873).