Walter Stahr's speaking tour in support of his new biography of Edwin Stanton, "Stanton: Lincoln's War Secretary," will take him to Auburn Sunday. But the talk won't be like others on the tour.
The talk, "Seward & Stanton: Friends, Rivals & Colleagues," will focus not just on Stanton but his relationship with William H. Seward, whom Stahr also biographed in 2013's "Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man." Speaking over the phone from his home in southern Los Angeles Wednesday, Stahr said the only place he will give the talk is Seward's hometown of Auburn. It'll take place at Westminster Presbyterian Church, across the street from the 1816 estate where Seward and his family lived. The Seward House Museum that now occupies the home is sponsoring Stahr's talk.
Though Stahr's biographies of Seward and Stanton share similar titles and cover art, he said he didn't originally plan to follow his book about President Abraham Lincoln's secretary of state with one about his secretary of war. Among Stahr's other ideas was the 1916 election. But on the advice of his agent and editor, he chose Stanton, who also "seemed like he needed a new book," Stahr said.
The book begins with Lincoln's assassination toward the end of the Civil War, Stahr said, as well as the hours Stanton spent running the government while the president succumbed to his wounds. It then goes back to Stanton's birth, proceeding through his education, and law and political careers. Stahr said those who enjoyed "Seward" will enjoy "Stanton" — but the opposite may be true, too.
In Auburn, it's not hard to learn about William Seward.
The author called Stanton "a much darker fellow" than Seward. As war secretary during the Civil War, Stanton wasn't entertaining dignitaries at lavish dinners like Seward, Stahr said. The two didn't know each other well until the war broke out, he continued, though Seward was in some part responsible for Stanton's appointment by Lincoln. As the war raged, they had their disagreements.
However, Stahr said, it wasn't until the presidency of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, that Seward and Stanton seriously butted heads. The root cause was Johnson's Reconstruction policy of allowing Southern states to govern themselves, which Seward supported and Stanton opposed. Stahr recalled an 1866 trip to Auburn by Johnson and Seward promoting the policy as part of a tour called Swing Around the Circle. Stanton stayed home in Washington, Stahr said, writing "angry letters" about how the president and secretary of state were leading the U.S. into another Civil War.
Stahr said his talk in Auburn could also shed light on current events. He first addressed White House chief of staff John Kelly's remark that the Civil War was caused by "lack of ability to compromise," saying, "I think Seward and Stanton on the eve of the Civil War spent a lot of time trying to compromise. It's a little unfair to say they didn't try every which way to Sunday." Stahr also pointed out that Seward and Stanton served the first president to be impeached. While the author didn't weigh in politically, he noted that the process comes up often with respect to the current president.
"If anyone wants to brush up on impeachment, they might consider coming Sunday," he said with a laugh. "It might be relevant again."