William H. Seward

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William H. Seward
William Henry Seward - edited.jpg
24th United States Secretary of State
In office
March 5, 1861 – March 4, 1869
PresidentAbraham Lincoln
Andrew Johnson
Preceded byJeremiah S. Black
Succeeded byElihu B. Washburne
United States Senator
from New York
In office
March 4, 1849 – March 3, 1861
Preceded byJohn A. Dix
Succeeded byIra Harris
12th Governor of New York
In office
January 1, 1839 – December 31, 1842
LieutenantLuther Bradish
Preceded byWilliam L. Marcy
Succeeded byWilliam C. Bouck
Personal details
Born(1801-05-16)May 16, 1801
Florida, New York
DiedOctober 10, 1872(1872-10-10) (aged 71)
Auburn, New York
Political partyAnti-Masonic, Whig, Republican
Spouse(s)Frances Adeline Seward
ChildrenAugustus Henry Seward
Frederick William Seward
Cornelia Seward
William Henry Seward, Jr.
Frances Adeline "Fanny" Seward
Olive Risley Seward (adopted)
Alma materUnion College
ProfessionLawyer, Land Agent, Politician
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This article is about the U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and Governor of New York. For his son, the Civil War Brigadier General, see William H. Seward, Jr..
William H. Seward
William Henry Seward - edited.jpg
24th United States Secretary of State
In office
March 5, 1861 – March 4, 1869
PresidentAbraham Lincoln
Andrew Johnson
Preceded byJeremiah S. Black
Succeeded byElihu B. Washburne
United States Senator
from New York
In office
March 4, 1849 – March 3, 1861
Preceded byJohn A. Dix
Succeeded byIra Harris
12th Governor of New York
In office
January 1, 1839 – December 31, 1842
LieutenantLuther Bradish
Preceded byWilliam L. Marcy
Succeeded byWilliam C. Bouck
Personal details
Born(1801-05-16)May 16, 1801
Florida, New York
DiedOctober 10, 1872(1872-10-10) (aged 71)
Auburn, New York
Political partyAnti-Masonic, Whig, Republican
Spouse(s)Frances Adeline Seward
ChildrenAugustus Henry Seward
Frederick William Seward
Cornelia Seward
William Henry Seward, Jr.
Frances Adeline "Fanny" Seward
Olive Risley Seward (adopted)
Alma materUnion College
ProfessionLawyer, Land Agent, Politician

William Henry Seward (May 16, 1801 – October 10, 1872) was an American politician from the state of New York. He served as the 12th Governor of New York, United States Senator and the United States Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. A determined opponent of the spread of slavery in the years leading up to the American Civil War, he was a dominant figure in the Republican Party in its formative years, and was widely regarded as the leading contender for the party's presidential nomination in 1860.

Denied the nomination, he became a loyal member of Lincoln's wartime cabinet, and played a role in preventing foreign intervention early in the war.[1] On the night of Lincoln's assassination, he survived an attempt on his own life. As Johnson's Secretary of State, he engineered the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia in an act that was ridiculed at the time as "Seward's Folly". His contemporary Carl Schurz described Seward as "one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints."[2]

Early life[edit]

Seward was born in Florida, New York, in Orange County, on May 16, 1801, the third son of Samuel Sweezy Seward and his wife Mary Jennings Seward.[3] A wealthy landowner and slaveowner (in New York State, slavery would not be fully abolished until 1827),[4] Samuel Seward had been appointed postmaster of Florida in the first decade of the 19th century by President Thomas Jefferson. A Jeffersonian Republican and of Welsh descent, Samuel Seward held that position over thirty years.[5]

Florida, located some 60 miles (97 km) from New York City and west of the Hudson River, was then a small village of perhaps a dozen homes. Young Seward attended school there, and also in the nearby county seat of Goshen.[6] He was a bright student, and enjoyed his studies—in later years, one of the former family slaves would relate that instead of running away from school to go home, Seward would run away from home to go to school. One exception was during the solar eclipse of June 16, 1806: startled by the darkness, Seward expected to see his class consumed by ghosts, and fled the room, crying loudly.[7]

At the age of 15, Henry (he was known by his middle name as a boy) was sent to Union College in Schenectady, New York. Admitted to the sophomore class, Seward did well, engaging in activities, and becoming a star student, elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Samuel Seward kept his son short on cash, and in December 1818, in the middle of Henry's final year at Union, the two quarreled about money. The younger Seward returned to Schenectady as planned in January 1819, but soon left school in company with a fellow student, Alvah Wilson. The two took ship from New York to Georgia, where Wilson had been offered a job in developing Putnam County, as rector, or principal, of a new academy. En route, Wilson took a job as rector at another school, leaving Seward to go on to Eatonton in Putnam County. The trustees interviewed the 17-year-old Seward, and found his qualifications acceptable, as advertisements soon appeared proclaiming the opening of the Union Academy, with the male students taught by Seward, "late from Union College, New-York, from which institution he comes highly recommended".[8]

Seward enjoyed his time in Georgia, accepted as an adult for the first time in his life. He recalled being treated with hospitality, but also witnessed the ill-treatment of slaves.[9] This youthful stay was often discussed in the press in later years. One Southerner wrote in 1855 to Seward, by then an abolitionist senator, informing him that a "mulatto" born nine months after Seward's sojourn in Georgia could be bought at a reduced price. In 1866, a newly freed slave woman, born on a Putnam County plantation where Seward had boarded, wrote to him, stating that she had been told he was her father, and asking for financial assistance.[10]

Seward was persuaded to return to New York by his family through letters, and did so in June 1819. As it was too late for him to graduate with his class, he remained at home for the fall term, studying law at an attorney's office in Goshen, before returning to Union College, securing his degree with highest honours in June 1820.[9]

Lawyer and state senator[edit]

Early career and involvement in politics[edit]

Seward's wife Frances Adeline Seward.

After graduation from Union in 1820, Seward spent much of the following two years studying law with local attorneys in Goshen and in New York. He took the bar examination in late 1822, after his 21st birthday, and was successful. He could have practiced in Goshen, but disliked the town, and sought a practice in growing Western New York. He decided upon Auburn, in Cayuga County, about 150 miles (240 km) west of Albany.[11] He joined the practice of retired judge Elijah Miller, whose daughter Frances Adeline Miller was a classmate of his sister Cornelia at Emma Willard's Troy Female Seminary. Seward married Frances Miller on October 20, 1824.[12]

In 1824, while Seward was journeying with his wife to Niagara Falls, one of the wheels on his carriage was damaged while they passed through Rochester. Among those who came to their aid was a local newspaper publisher, Thurlow Weed.[13] At first making only an acquaintance, Seward and Weed would become closer in the years ahead as they found they shared a belief that government policies should favor development of the country.[14] Weed, deemed by some one of the earliest political bosses, would become a major ally of Seward. Despite the benefits to Seward's career of such a supporter, perceptions that Seward was too much controlled by Weed were a factor in the former's defeat for the Republican nomination for president in 1860.[15] Seward recognized this feeling, and liked to tell a story of a journey by stagecoach while governor. As Seward was still in his thirties, a fellow passenger denied that the young-looking Seward could be governor, and the two men agreed to ask the next innkeeper. That individual denied Seward's office, and the angry incumbent asked who was governor if not he, receiving the reply, "Why—Thurlow Weed."[16]

Almost from the time he settled in Auburn, Seward involved himself in civic affairs, and in politics. At that time, the political system was in flux as new parties evolved centered on issues such as the federal role in national development. In New York State, there were generally two factions, which went by varying names, but were characterized by the fact that Martin Van Buren led one element, and the other opposed him. Van Buren, over a quarter century, held a series of senior posts, generally in the federal rather than state government, culminating in his presidency from 1837 to 1841. His allies, who dominated politics in New York State, were dubbed the Albany Regency, as they governed for Van Buren while he was away.[17]

Seward originally supported the Regency, but by 1824 had broken from it, concluding it was corrupt.[18] He then became part of the Anti-Masonic Party, which became widespread in 1826 after the disappearance and death of William Morgan, a Mason in Upstate New York; Morgan's likely killers were fellow Masons who disapproved of his publishing a book revealing the order's secret rites.[19] Since the leading candidate in opposition to President John Quincy Adams was General Andrew Jackson, a Mason who mocked opponents of the order, Anti-Masonry became closely associated with opposition to Jackson, and to his policies once he was elected president in 1828.[20]

Governor DeWitt Clinton had nominated Seward as Cayuga County Surrogate in late 1827 or early 1828, but as Seward was unwilling to support Jackson, he was not confirmed by the state Senate. During the 1828 campaign, Seward made speeches in support of President Adams's re-election, renewing support the New Yorker had given in 1824.[21] Seward was nominated for the federal House of Representatives by the Anti-Masonics, but withdrew when he was unable to gain the support of another faction, deeming a three-way battle with the candidate allied with Jackson and Van Buren to be hopeless.[22] In 1829, Seward was offered the local nomination for New York State Assembly, but again felt there were no prospects of winning. In 1830, with Weed's aid, he gained the Anti-Masonic nomination for state senator for the local district. At that time, the Senate consisted of 32 legislators from eight districts, with one man elected every year from each for a four-year term. Seward had appeared in court throughout the district, and had spoken in favor of government support for infrastructure improvements, a position popular in the district. Weed had moved his operations to Albany, where his newspaper the Albany Evening Journal, advocated for Seward, who was elected by about 2,000 votes.[23]

State senator and gubernatorial candidate[edit]

Seward was sworn in as state senator in January 1831, the youngest of the seven Anti-Masonic members. He left Frances and their children in Auburn, and wrote to her of his experiences, including meeting former vice president Aaron Burr, reduced to making a living as a somewhat shady attorney. The Regency (or the Democrats, as the national party led by Jackson and supported by Van Buren was becoming known) controlled the Senate. Seward and his party were able to ally with others and with dissident Democrats to pass some legislation, including on penal reform, for which Seward would become known.[24][25]

During his term as state senator, Seward traveled extensively, not only going to visit other anti-Jackson leaders, including former president Adams, but also accompanying Samuel Seward on a trip to Europe, where they met the political men of the day.[26] Seward hoped that the Anti-Masons would nominate Supreme Court Justice John McLean for president against Jackson's re-election bid in 1832, but the nomination fell to former Attorney General William Wirt. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, an opponent of Jackson, was a Mason, and thus unacceptable as party standard-bearer.[27] In the aftermath of Jackson's easy victory, many of those who opposed him believed a united front necessary to defeat the Democrats, and the Whig Party gradually came into being. The Whigs believed in legislative action to develop the country, and opposed Jackson's unilateral actions as president, which they deemed imperial.[26] Many Anti-Masons, including Seward and Weed, sought government by laws, rather than through back room deals, and readily joined the new party.[28]

In preparation for the 1834 election, the Whigs met in Utica to determine a gubernatorial candidate. Democratic Governor William Marcy was heavily favored to be re-elected, and few prominent Whigs were anxious to run a campaign which would most likely be lost. Seward's wife and father wanted him to retire from politics to increase the income from his law practice, and Weed urged him to seek re-election to the state Senate. Nevertheless, the reluctance of others to run, and the fact that some leading candidates were unacceptable to opposing elements in the new party, caused Seward to emerge as a major candidate. Weed procured Seward's victory at the Utica convention. Although the Democrats mocked the youthful Seward, suggesting he was only 22 years old, the election turned on national issues, most importantly President Jackson's policies. These were then popular, and in a strong year for Democrats, Seward was defeated by some 11,000 votes by Marcy—Weed wrote that the Whigs were overwhelmed by illegally-cast ballots.[29]

Defeated for governor and with his term in the state Senate having expired, Seward returned to Auburn and the practice of law at the start of 1835. That year, William and Frances Seward undertook a lengthy trip, going as far south as Virginia. Although they were hospitably received by the Southerners, the Sewards saw scenes of slavery which confirmed them as its opponents.[30] The following year, Seward accepted a position as agent for the new owners of the Holland Land Company, which owned huge tracts of land in Western New York, upon which many settlers were purchasing real estate on installment. The new owners were viewed as less forgiving landlords than the old, and when there was unrest, they hired Seward, popular in Western New York, in hopes of adjusting the matter. He was successful, and when the Panic of 1837 began, persuaded the owners to avoid foreclosures where possible. He also, in 1838, arranged the purchase of the company's holdings by a consortium which included himself.[31]

Van Buren had been elected president in 1836; even with his duties, Seward had found time to campaign against him. The economic crisis came soon after the President's inauguration, and threatened his party's control of New York politics.[32] Seward had not run for governor in 1836, but with the Democrats unpopular, saw a path to victory in 1838 (the term was then two years). Nevertheless, other prominent Whigs also sought the nomination. Weed persuaded delegates to the convention that Seward had run ahead of other Whig candidates in 1834; Seward was nominated on the fourth ballot.[33] Seward's opponent was again Marcy, and the economy the principal issue. The Whigs argued that the Democrats were responsible for the recession though their policies.[34] As it was thought improper for candidates for major office to campaign in person, Seward left most of that to Weed.[35] With recorded turnout up a third from two years previously, Seward was elected by a margin of about 10,000 votes out of 400,000 cast.[36] The victory was the most significant for the Whig Party to that point,[37] and put the Albany Regency permanently out of power in New York State.[38]

Governor of New York[edit]

Gubernatorial portrait of William H. Seward.

William Seward was sworn in as New York's governor on January 1, 1839, inaugurated in front of a crowd of jubilant Whigs. In that era, the annual message by the New York governor was published and discussed to an extent that only a president's would be today.[39] Seward biographer Walter Stahr wrote that his address "brimmed with his youth, energy, ambition, and optimism".[40] Seward took note of America's great unexploited resources, and stated that immigration should be encouraged in order to take advantage of them. He urged that citizenship and religious liberty be granted to those who came to New York's shores.[39] At the time, New York City's public schools were run by a Protestant group, and used Protestant texts, including the King James Bible. Seward believed the current system was a barrier to literacy for immigrants' children, and proposed legislation to change it.[41] Education, he stated, "banishes the distinctions, old as time, of rich and poor, master and slave. It banishes ignorance and lays axe to the root of crime".[40] Seward's stance was popular among immigrants, but was disliked by nativists; their opposition would eventually help defeat his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.[42]

Although the Assembly had a Whig majority, at the start of Seward's first term as governor, the party had only 13 legislators out of 32 in the state Senate. The Democrats there refused to co-operate with Governor Seward except on the most urgent matters, and he initially found himself unable to advance much of his agenda.[43] Accordingly, the 1839 legislative elections were crucial to Seward's legislative hopes, and to advancing the nominations of many Whigs to state office whose posts required Senate confirmation. Both Seward and President Van Buren gave several speeches across New York State that summer. Henry Clay, one of the hopefuls for the Whig nomination for president in 1840, spent part of the summer in Upstate New York, and the two men met by chance on a ferry, but Seward refused to formally visit Clay at his vacation home in Saratoga Springs in the interests of neutrality, beginning a difficult relationship between the two men. After the 1839 election, the Whigs had 19 seats, allowing the party full control of state government.[44]

Following the election, there was unrest near Albany among tenant farmers on the land owned by Dutch-descended patroons of the van Rensselaer family. These tenancies allowed the landlords privileges such as enlisting the unpaid labor of tenants, and any breach could result in termination of tenure without compensation for improvements. When sheriff's deputies in Albany County were obstructed from serving eviction writs, Seward was asked to call out the militia, and after an all-night cabinet meeting, did so, though quietly assuring the tenants that he would intervene with the legislature. This mollified the settlers, though Seward proved unable to get the legislature to pass reforming laws, and this question was not settled until after Seward had left office.[45]

In September 1839, a ship sailing from Norfolk, Virginia to New York City had been discovered to have an escaped slave on board. The slave was returned to his owner pursuant to the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution, but Virginia also demanded that three free black sailors, said to have concealed the fugitive aboard ship, also be surrendered. This Seward would not do, and the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation inhibiting trade with New York, while in Albany the legislature passed acts protecting the rights of African-Americans against Southern slavecatchers. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, such clashes as what came to be called the Virginia Case, predicted as "new irritation" by former president Jefferson in 1820, helped widen the chasm between North and South.[46]

Both Seward and Van Buren were up for re-election in 1840. Seward did not attend the December 1839 Whig National Convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but Weed did on his behalf. They were determined to support General Winfield Scott for president, but when Weed concluded he could not win, he threw New York's support to the eventual winner, General William Henry Harrison, to the outrage of supporters of the third contender, Senator Clay. These grievances would not be quickly forgotten—one supporter of the Kentuckian wrote in 1847 that he was intent on seeing the "punishment of Seward & Co. for defrauding the country of Mr. Clay in 1840".[47]

Seward himself was renominated for a second term by the Whig convention against Democrat William Brock, a former state legislator. Seward did not campaign in person, as was customary at the time, but ran affairs with Weed behind the scenes and made his views known to the voter through a Fourth of July speech and lengthy letters declining invitations to speak, printed in the papers. In one, Seward expounds upon the importance of the log cabin—in which Harrison was famously born—where Seward had always found a far warmer welcome than in the marble palaces of the well to do (evoking the aristocratic Van Buren). Both Harrison and Seward were elected.[48] The New York governor, nevertheless, was distressed at running well behind Harrison, winning by only 5,000 to the President-elect's statewide margin of 14,000. This was ascribed to opposition to his pro-immigrant stances. Although Seward would serve another almost thirty years in public life, his name would never again pass before the voters.[49]

In his second term, Seward was involved with the trial of Alexander McLeod, who had boasted of his supposed involvement in the 1837 Caroline Affair, in which Canadians came across the Niagara River and sank the Caroline, a steamboat being used to supply William Lyon Mackenzie's fighters during the Upper Canada Rebellion. McLeod was arrested, and the British Foreign Minister, Lord Palmerston demanded his release as McLeod, who was part of the colonial militia, could not be held responsible for actions taken under orders. Although the Van Buren Administration had agreed with Seward that McLeod should be tried under state law, its successor did not, and urged that charges against McLeod be dropped. There was a series of testy letters between Seward and Webster, and also between the governor and the new president, John Tyler, who had succeeded after Harrison's death after a month in office. McLeod was tried and acquitted in late 1841. Stahr points out that Seward got his way in having McLeod tried in state court, and the diplomatic experience served him well as Secretary of State.[50]

Out of office[edit]

As governor, Seward incurred considerable debt not only because he had to live beyond his salary to maintain the lifestyle expected of the office, and because he could not pay down his obligation from the land company purchase. At the time he left office, he owed $200,000. Returning to Auburn, he absorbed himself in an increasingly profitable and prestigious law practice. He did not abandon politics, and received former president Adams at the Seward family home in 1843.[51]

According to his biographer, John M. Taylor, Seward picked a good time to absent himself from electoral politics, as the Whig Party was in turmoil. President Tyler, a former Democrat, and Senator Clay each considered himself the head of the Whig Party, and as the two men differed over such issues as whether to re-establish the Bank of the United States, Whig support was divided. The nascent abolitionist movement attracted those who did not want to be part of a party led by slavery-supporting Southerners, and in 1844, Seward was asked to run for president by members of the Liberty Party; he declined and reluctantly supported the Whig nominee, Clay. The Kentuckian was defeated by Democrat James K. Polk. The major event of Polk's administration was the Mexican-American War; Seward did not support this, feeling that the price in blood was not worth the expansion of territory, which might result in an expansion of slavery.[52]

In 1846 Seward became the center of controversy in his hometown when he defended, in separate cases, two felons accused of murder. Henry Wyatt, a white man, was charged in the stabbing death of a fellow inmate; William Freeman, of African American ancestry, was accused of breaking into a home after his release and stabbing four people to death. In both cases the defendants were likely mentally ill and had been abused while in prison. Seward, having long been an advocate of prison reform and better treatment for the insane, sought to prevent both men from being executed by using a relatively new defense of insanity. Seward gained a hung jury in Wyatt's first trial, though he was subsequently convicted in a retrial and executed despite Seward's efforts to secure clemency; Freeman was convicted, though Seward gained a reversal on appeal. There was no second Freeman trial, as officials were convinced of his insanity and the man died in prison in late 1846.[53] In the Freeman case, involving mental illness with heavy racial overtones, Seward argued, "he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race—the image of our Maker. Hold him then to be a Man."[54]

Although contentious locally, the trials boosted Seward's image across the North. He gained further publicity from handling, in association with Ohioan Salmon P. Chase, the unsuccessful appeal in the Supreme Court of John Van Zandt, an anti-slavery advocate sued by a slaveowner for assisting African Americans in escaping on the Underground Railroad. Chase was impressed with Seward, writing that the former New York governor "was one of the very first public men in our country. Who but himself would have done what he did for the poor wretch Freeman?"[55]

The main Whig contenders in 1848 were Clay again, and two war hero generals with little political experience, Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor. Seward supported the winner, General Taylor, though he was less enthusiastic about the vice presidential nominee, a rival of his from Buffalo, New York Comptroller Millard Fillmore. Nevertheless, he campaigned widely for the Whigs against the Democratic presidential candidate, former Michigan senator Lewis Cass. The two major parties did not make slavery an issue in the campaign, and the Free Soil Party, mostly Liberty Party members and some Northern Democrats, nominated former president Van Buren. The Taylor/Fillmore ticket was elected, and the split in the New York Democratic Party allowed the Whigs to capture the legislature, which until 1913 elected United States Senators—one of New York's senatorial seats would be filled by the new legislature. Seward, with Weed's counsel, had considered an attempt to gain the seat, and when legislators convened in January 1839, he was spoken of as the favorite. There was opposition to him: some deemed him too far to the left on slavery issues, and intimated that he would not support the slaveholding President-elect Taylor, a Louisianan. Weed and Seward worked to dispel these concerns, and when the vote for Senate took place, the former governor received five times the vote of the nearest other candidate, gaining easy election on the first ballot.[56]

Personal life[edit]

The Sewards raised five children:

In 1870, some years after his wife Frances' death, Seward adopted his 26 year old companion Olive Risley.[57]

Seward developed his views about slavery while still a boy. His parents, like other Hudson Valley residents of the early 19th century, owned several slaves. (Slavery was slowly abolished in New York from 1797 to 1827 through a gradual mandated process.) Seward recalled his preference as a child for the company and conversation of the slaves in his father’s kitchen to the 'severe decorum' in his family's front parlor. He discerned very quickly the inequality between races, writing in later years "I early came to the conclusion that something was wrong…and [that] determined me…to be an abolitionist." This belief would stay with Seward through his life and permeate his career,[58] though as Secretary of State under President Johnson he endorsed Johnson's "side-stepping of the demands of more progressive Republicans, who had sought to guarantee far more favorable treatment for freed slaves."[59]

Seward’s wife Frances was deeply committed to the abolitionist movement. In the 1850s, the Seward family opened their Auburn home as a safehouse to fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Seward’s frequent travel and political work suggest that it was Frances who played the more active role in Auburn abolitionist activities. In the excitement following the rescue and safe transport of fugitive slave William "Jerry" Henry in Syracuse on October 1, 1851, Frances wrote to her husband, "two fugitives have gone to Canada—one of them our acquaintance John."[60] Another time she wrote, "A man by the name of William Johnson will apply to you for assistance to purchase the freedom of his daughter. You will see that I have given him something by his book. I told him I thought you would give him more." [61]

U.S. Senator[edit]

First term[edit]

William H. Seward (c. 1850).

William Seward was sworn in as senator from New York on March 5, 1849, during the brief special session called to confirm President Taylor's cabinet nominees. Seward and Vice President Fillmore battled over the patronage appointments from New York. Seward was seen as having influence over Taylor: taking advantage of an acquaintance with Taylor's brother. Seward met with the former general several times before Inauguration Day (March 4), and was friendly with Cabinet officers. Taylor hoped to gain the admission of California to the Union, and Seward worked to advance his agenda in the Senate.[62]

The regular session of Congress that began in December 1849 was dominated by the issue of slavery; torn by sectional distrust, the House of Representatives took weeks and many ballots to choose a Speaker. Senator Clay advanced a series of resolutions, which became known as the Compromise of 1850, giving victories to both North and South. Seward opposed the pro-slavery elements of the Compromise, and in a speech on the Senate floor on March 11, 1850 invoked a "higher law than the Constitution". The speech was widely reprinted, and made Seward the leading anti-slavery advocate in the Senate.[63] Seward opposed the elements of the Compromise that favored the South, arguing for the immediate admission of California, with issues such as the Texas-New Mexico border, an element of the Compromise, to be settled later. President Taylor took a stance sympathetic to the North, but his death in July 1850 caused the accession of the pro-Compromise Fillmore and ended Seward's influence over patronage. The Compromise passed, and many Seward adherents appointed to federal office in New York were replaced by Fillmore.[64]

Seward in 1851

Although Clay had hoped the Compromise would be a final settlement on the matter of slavery that could unite the nation, it divided his Whig Party, especially when the 1852 Whig National Convention endorsed it to the anger of liberal Northerners like Seward. The major candidates for the presidential nomination were President Fillmore, Senator Daniel Webster, and General Scott. Seward supported Scott, who he hoped like Harrison could unite enough voters behind a military hero to win the election. Scott gained the nomination, and Seward campaigned for him. With the Whigs unable to reconcile over slavery, whereas the Democrats could unite behind the Compromise, the Whigs won only four northern states, and former New Hampshire senator Franklin Pierce was elected president. Other events, such as the 1852 publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Northern anger over the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act (an element of the Compromise), widened the divide between North and South.[65]

In January 1854, Democratic Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced his Kansas-Nebraska Bill. This would permit territories to choose whether to join the Union as free or slave states, and effectively repeal the Missouri Compromise forbidding slavery in new states north of 36° 30′ North latitude.[66] Seward was determined to defeat what he called "this infamous Nebraska Bill", and worked to ensure the final version of the bill would be unpalatable to enough senators, North and South, to defeat it. Seward spoke against the bill both on initial consideration in the Senate and when the bill returned after reconciliation with the House;[67] the opposition in the Senate was led by Ohio's Salmon P. Chase. The bill passed into law, but Northerners felt they had found a standard around which they could rally, while those in the South believed they should have an equal stake through slavery in the territories their blood and money had helped to acquire.[68]

Second term[edit]

The political turmoil engendered by the North-South divide not only split both major parties, but led to the founding of new ones. The American Party (better known as the Know Nothings) contained many nativists, and pursued an anti-immigrant agenda. The Know Nothings did not publicly discuss party deliberations (thus, they knew nothing). They disliked Seward and an uncertain number of Know Nothings sought the Whig nomination to legislative seats. Although some made clear their stance by pledging to vote against Seward's re-election, others did not and although the Whigs won a majority in both houses of the legislature, it was not clear how many would actually vote for Seward. When the election was held in February 1855, Seward won a narrow majority in each house, though the opposition was scattered, and a Know Nothing party organ denounced two dozen legislators as "traitors".[69]

The Republican Party had been founded in 1854, in reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Its anti-slavery stance was attractive to Seward, but he needed the Whig structure in New York to get re-elected.[70] In September 1855, the New York Whig and Republican parties held simultaneous conventions that quickly merged into one. Seward was the most prominent figure to join the new party, and was spoken of as a possible presidential candidate in 1856. Weed, however, did not feel that the new party was strong enough on a national level to secure the presidency, and advised Seward to wait until 1860.[71] Nevertheless, when Seward's name was mentioned at the 1856 Republican National Convention, a huge ovation ensued.[72] In the 1856 presidential election, the Democratic candidate, former Pennsylvania senator James Buchanan defeated Republican and former California senator John C. Frémont and the Know Nothing candidate, former president Fillmore.[73]

The 1856 campaign played out against the backdrop of "Bleeding Kansas", the violent efforts of pro- and anti-slavery forces to control the government in Kansas Territory and determine whether it would be admitted as a slave or free state.[74] This violence spilled over into the Senate chamber itself after Republican Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner delivered an incendiary speech against slavery, making personal comments against South Carolina Senator Andrew P. Butler. Sumner had read a draft of the speech to Seward, who had advised him to omit the personal references. Two days after the speech, Butler's nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks entered the chamber and beat Sumner with a cane, injuring him severely. Although some Southerners feared the propaganda value of the incident in the North, most lionized Brooks as a hero. Many Northerners were outraged, though some, including Seward, felt that Sumner's words against Butler had unnecessarily provoked the attack.[75][76] Some Southern newspapers felt that the Sumner precedent might usefully be applied to Seward; the Petersburg Intelligencer, a Virginia periodical, suggested that "it will be very well to give Seward a double dose at least every other day".[77]

In a message to Congress in December 1857, President Buchanan advocated the admission of Kansas as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution, passed under dubious circumstances. This split the Democrats: the administration wanted Kansas admitted; Senator Douglas demanded a fair ratification vote.[78] The Senate debated the matter through much of early 1858, though few Republicans spoke at first, content to watch the Democrats tear their party to shreds over the issue of slavery.[79] The issue was complicated by the Supreme Court's ruling the previous year in Dred Scott v. Sandford that neither Congress nor a local government could ban slavery in the territories.[80] Seward had broken with his party over an army bill urged by Buchanan, though he had sponsored amendments closer to the Republican position,[81] and may have sought to reaffirm his party credentials.[82] In his speech on March 3, Seward "delighted Republican ears and utterly appalled administration Democrats, especially the Southerners".[83] Discussing Dred Scott, Seward accused Buchanan and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of conspiring to gain the result, and threatened to reform the courts to eliminate Southern power.[83] Taney later stated to a friend that had Seward been elected in 1860, he would have refused to administer the oath of office, while Buchanan reportedly denied the senator access to the White House.[84] Seward predicted slavery was doomed:

Free labor has at last apprehended its rights, its interests, its power, and its destiny; and is organizing itself to assume the government of the Republic. It will henceforth meet you boldly and resolutely here; it will meet you everywhere—in the Territories or out of them—wherever you may go to extend slavery. It has driven you back in California and in Kansas; ít will invade you soon in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Missouri, and Texas. It will meet you in Arizona, in Central America, and even in Cuba. The invasion will be not merely harmless, but beneficent, if you yield seasonably to its just and moderated demands. … The interest of the white races demands the ultimate emancipation of all men. Whether that consummation shall he allowed to take effect, with needful and wise precautions against sudden change and disaster, or be hurried on by violence, is all that remains for you to decide.[85]

Southerners saw this as a threat by the man deemed the likely Republican nominee in 1860 to force change on the South, whether it liked it or not.[86] Statehood for Kansas failed for the time being,[87] but Seward's words were repeatedly cited by Southern senators as the secession crisis grew.[88] Nevertheless, Seward remained on excellent personal terms with Southerners such as Mississippi's Jefferson Davis and gave dinner parties, where those from both sides of the sectional divide mixed and mingled, that were a Washington legend.[89]

With an eye to a presidential bid in 1860, Seward tried to appear a statesman, who could be trusted by both North and South were he to be elected.[90] Seward did not believe the federal government could mandate emancipation; this would come by action of the slave states as the nation urbanized and slavery became uneconomical, as it had in New York. Nevertheless, Southerners construed his words as threatening the forced end of slavery.[91] While campaigning for Republicans in the 1858 midterm elections, Seward gave a speech at Rochester which proved divisive and quotable, alleging that the United States had two "antagonistic system [that] are continually coming into closer contact, and collision results. Shall I tell you what this collision means? … It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become entirely either a slave-holding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation."[92] White Southerners saw the "irrepressible conflict" speech as a declaration of war, and Seward's vehemence ultimately damaged his chances of gaining the nomination.[93]

In 1856 Seward introduced and secured the passage of the Guano Islands Act, which allowed the US to take control of islands with heavy guano deposits (used as fertilizer) if they were not under the jurisdiction of another nation.[94]

Election of 1860[edit]

Candidate for the nomination[edit]

In 1859, Seward was advised by his political supporters that he would be better off avoiding additional controversial statements, and left the country for an eight-month tour of Europe and the Middle East. Before he departed, he visited Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and met with Senator Simon Cameron. Seward wrote that Cameron assured him of his support, though the Pennsylvania delegation at the 1860 Republican National Convention might want to vote for Cameron on the first ballot only, as a favorite son. Seward spent two months in London, meeting with the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, and was presented at Court to Queen Victoria.[95] In Beirut, Seward bought three fine Arabian horses for himself, and one for Cameron.[96] Seward returned to Washington in January 1860.[97]

Seward returned to find controversy: that some Southerners blamed him for his rhetoric, which they believed had inspired John Brown to try to start a slave insurrection. Brown was captured and executed; nevertheless, Mississippi representatives Reuben Davis and Otho Singleton each stated that if Seward or another Radical Republican was elected, he would meet with the resistance of a united South.[97] To rebut such allegations, and to set forth his views in the hope of receiving the nomination, Seward made a major speech in the Senate on February 29, 1860, which most praised, though white Southerners were offended, and some abolitionists also objected because the senator, in his speech, said that Brown was justly punished. The Republican National Committee ordered 250,000 copies in pamphlet form, and eventually twice that many copies were printed.[98]

Weed sometimes expressed certainty that Seward would be nominated; at other times he expressed gloom at the thought of the convention fight.[99] He had some reason for doubt, as word from Weed's agents across the country was mixed. Many in the Midwest did not want the issue of slavery to dominate the campaign, and with Seward as nominee, it inevitably would. The Know Nothing Party was still alive in the Northeast, and was hostile to Seward for his pro-immigrant stances, creating doubts as to whether Seward could win Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the general election. These states had been won by Buchanan in 1856, though Fillmore, the Know Nothing candidate, had done well, and were crucial to a Republican nominee faced with a Solid South. Conservative factions in the evolving Republican Party opposed Seward.[100]


There were no primaries in 1860; no way to be certain how many delegates a candidate might receive. Nevertheless, going into the 1860 Republican National Convention in May in Chicago, Seward was seen as the prohibitive favorite.[101] Others spoken of for the nomination included Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, former Missouri congressman Edward Bates, and former Illinois representative Abraham Lincoln.[102]

Seward stayed in Auburn during the convention and did not attend;[103] Weed was present on his behalf and worked to shore up Seward's support. He was amply supplied with money: business owners had eagerly given, expecting Seward to be the next president. Weed's reputation was not entirely positive; he was believed corrupt by some, and his association both helped and hurt Seward.[15]

Enemies such as former Seward ally and publisher Horace Greeley cast doubts as to Seward's electability in the battleground states of Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Lincoln had worked hard to gain a reputation as a moderate in the party and hoped to be seen as a consensus second choice after Seward. The Illinoisan wanted to be seen as a candidate who might be successful in those critical states, of which the Republicans had to win three to secure the election. Lincoln's men, led by his friend David Davis, were active on his behalf. As Lincoln had not been seen as a major candidate, his supporters had been able to influence the decision to hold the convention in his home state,[104] and surrounded the New York delegation, pro-Seward, with Lincoln loyalists. They eventually were successful in gaining the support of the delegations from the other battleground states, boosting delegates's perceptions of Lincoln's electability. Although Lincoln and Seward shared many views, Lincoln, out of office since 1849, had not excited opposition as Seward had in the South and among Know Nothings. Lincoln's views on nativism, which he opposed, were not public.[105]

On the first ballot, Seward had 173½ votes to Lincoln's 102, with 233 needed to nominate. Pennsylvania, led by Cameron, shifted its vote to Lincoln on the second ballot, and Seward's lead was cut to 184½ to 181. On the third, Lincoln had 231½ to Seward's 180 after the roll call, but Ohio changed four votes from Chase to Lincoln, giving the Illinoian the nomination and starting a small stampede; the nomination was eventually made unanimous.[106] When word reached Seward by telegraph, by the accounts of witnesses, he calmly remarked that Lincoln had some of the attributes needed to be president, and would certainly be elected.[106]

Campaigning for Lincoln[edit]

Despite his public nonchalance, Seward was devastated by his convention loss, as were many of his supporters. The New Yorker was the best-known and most popular Republican, and his defeat shocked many in the North, who felt that Lincoln had been nominated through chicanery. Greeley was widely blamed, and his role in Seward's defeat likely cost him the opportunity to be elected to the Senate in Seward's place when the term expired in 1861. Although Seward sent a letter stating Weed was not to blame, Seward's political manager took the defeat hard.[107] Seward was initially inclined to retire from public life, but received many letters from supporters: distrustful of Lincoln, they urged Seward to remain involved in politics.[108] He was visited in Auburn by Massachusetts congressmen Charles Francis Adams (son of John Quincy Adams) and Israel Washburn. They urged him to remain in public life and campaign for Lincoln,[109] On his way to Washington to return to Senate duties, he stopped in Albany to confer with Weed, who had gone to Lincoln's home in Springfield, Illinois to meet with the candidate, and had been very impressed at Lincoln's political understanding.[110] At the Capitol, he received sympathy even from sectional foes such as Jefferson Davis.[108]

Lincoln faced three major opponents: A split in the Democratic Party had led Northerners to nominate Senator Douglas, while Southerners chose Vice President John C. Breckenridge. The Constitutional Union Party selected former Tennessee senator John Bell. As Lincoln would not even be on the ballot in ten Southern states, he needed to win almost every Northern state to take the presidency.[111] Douglas was said to be strong in some Northern states, including Illinois and Indiana, and if he took those, the election might be thrown into the House of Representatives.[112] Seward was urged not only by Republicans, but by business leaders, to undertake a campaign tour of the Midwest in support of Lincoln and did so for five weeks in September and October, attracting huge crowds. He journeyed by rail and boat as far north as Saint Paul, Minnesota, into the border state of Missouri at St. Louis, and even to Kansas Territory, though it had no electoral votes to cast in the election. When the train passed through Springfield, Seward and Lincoln were introduced, with Lincoln appearing "embarrassed" and Seward "constrained".[113] In his oratory, Seward spoke of the United States as a "tower of freedom", a Union that might even include Canada, Latin America, and Russian America.[114]

New York was key to the election; a Lincoln loss there would deadlock the Electoral College. Soon after his return from his Midwest tour, Seward embarked on another, across New York State, speaking to large crowds. Even then, at Weed's urging he went to New York City and gave a patriotic speech before a large crowd on November 3, only three days before the election.[115] On Election Day, Lincoln carried most Northern states, Breckenridge all Southern, Bell three border states, and Douglas Missouri—the only state Seward campaigned in that Lincoln did not win. Lincoln was elected.[116]

Secession crisis[edit]

Lincoln's election had been anticipated in Southern states, and South Carolina and other Deep South states began to call conventions for the purpose of secession. Opinion in neither section of the country was unanimous: in the South, many in the middle class were reluctant to risk civil war for the sake of retaining slaves they did not own. In the North, there was dissent over whether to offer concessions to the South to preserve the Union, and if conciliation failed, whether to allow the South to depart in peace. Seward favored compromise. He had hoped to remain at home until the New Year, but with the deepening crisis left for Washington in time for the new session of Congress in early December.[117]

At the time, the leader of the political party that had won the White House was often offered the position of Secretary of State, the most senior Cabinet post. The position of Secretary of State was seen as a springboard to the presidency; six of the first fifteen presidents had held that position, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Quincy Adams, with Buchanan the most recent.[a] Seward was almost universally seen as that prominent party leader, and around December 12, the Vice President-elect, Maine Senator Hannibal Hamlin, offered Seward the position on Lincoln's behalf. At Weed's advice, Seward was slow to formally accept, doing so on December 28, 1860, well before Inauguration Day, March 4, 1861.[118] Lincoln remained in Illinois until mid-February, and he and Seward communicated by letter.[119][120]

As states in the Deep South prepared to secede in late 1860, Seward met with important figures from both sides of the sectional divide.[121] Seward introduced a proposed constitutional amendment preventing federal interference with slavery. This was down at Lincoln's private request; the President-elect hoped that the amendment, and a change to the Fugitive Slave Act granting those captured a jury trial, would satisfy both sides. There were many such proposals, and Seward was appointed to a committee of 13 senators to consider them. Lincoln, and many Republicans, would not consider any proposal that would allow slavery to expand from the states that permitted it. Knowing of Lincoln's position against the expansion of slavery, Seward voted against the Crittenden Compromise on December 28, but quietly continued to seek a compromise that would keep the border states in the Union.[122]

Seward gave a major speech on January 12, 1861. By then, he was known to be Secretary of State-designate, and in the absence of any statement from Lincoln—who had not given an address since before the convention—it was widely expected that what he would propound was the new administration's plan to save the Union. Accordingly, he spoke to a crowded Senate, where even Jefferson Davis attended despite Mississippi's secession, and packed galleries.[123] He urged the preservation of the Union, and supported an amendment such as the one he had introduced, or a constitutional convention, once passions had cooled. He hinted that New Mexico Territory might be a slave state, and urged the construction of two transcontinental railroads, one Northern, one Southern. He suggested the passage of legislation to bar interstate invasions such as that by John Brown. Although Seward's speech was widely applauded, it gained a mixed reaction in the border states to which he had tried to appeal, Radical Republicans were not willing to make concessions to the South, and were angered by Seward's speech.[124] Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a radical, warned that if Lincoln like Seward ignored the Republican platform and tried to purchase peace through concessions, he would retire, as too old[b] to bear the years of warfare in the Republican Party that would result.[125]

Lincoln applauded Seward's speech, which he read in Springfield,[126] but refused to approve any compromise that otherwise could lead to an expansion of slavery. Once he left Springfield on February 11, he gave speeches, stating in Indianapolis that it would not be coercing a state if the federal government insisted on retaining or retaking property that belonged to it.[127] This came as the United States Army still held Fort Sumter; the President-elect's words upset moderate Southerners. Virginia Congressman Sherrard Clemens wrote, "Mr. Lincoln, by his speech in the North, has done vast harm. If he will not be guided by Mr. Seward but puts himself in the hands of Mr. Chase and the ultra [that is, Radical] Republicans, nothing can save the cause of the Union in the South."[128]

Lincoln arrived in Washington, without announcement and incognito, early on the morning of February 23, 1861. Seward had been advised by General Winfield Scott that there was a plot to assassinate Lincoln in Baltimore when he passed through the city. Senator Seward sent his son Frederick to warn Lincoln in Philadelphia, and the President-elect decided to travel alone but for well-armed bodyguards. Lincoln travelled without incident, and came to regret his decision as he was widely mocked for it. It is unclear if Seward met him at the station; he may have overslept and met Lincoln at the Willard Hotel. Later that morning, Seward accompanied Lincoln to the White House, where he introduced the Illinoisan to President Buchanan.[129]

Seward and Lincoln differed over two issues in the days before the inauguration: the composition of Lincoln's cabinet, and his inaugural address. Given a draft of the address, Seward softened it to make it less confrontational toward the South; Lincoln accepted many of the changes, though he gave it, according to Van Deusen, "a simplicity and a poetic quality lacking in Seward's draft".[130] The differences regarding the Cabinet revolved around the inclusion of Salmon Chase, a radical. Lincoln wanted all elements of the party, as well as representation from outside it; Seward opposed Chase, as well as Democrats such as Gideon Wells and Montgomery Blair. Seward did not get his way, and gave Lincoln a letter declining the post of Secretary of State, and through Weed publicized the matter.[131] Lincoln felt, as he told his private secretary, John Nicolay, that he could not "afford to let Seward talk the first trick".[132] No reply or acknowledgement was made by Lincoln until after the inaugural ceremonies were over on March 4, when he asked Seward to remain in the public interest, and despite Weed's urging to the contrary, Seward did[133] and was both nominated and confirmed by the Senate, with minimal debate, on March 5, 1861.[134]

Secretary of State[edit]

Lincoln administration[edit]

Running The "Machine"
An 1864 cartoon mocking Lincoln's cabinet depicts Seward, William Fessenden, Lincoln, Edwin Stanton, Gideon Welles and other members.

Shortly after being elected president, Abraham Lincoln selected Seward to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of State.[135] Though harboring a condescending and skeptical attitude toward the president when he joined the cabinet, he and Lincoln became close personal friends.

Seward played an integral role in resolving the Trent Affair and in negotiating the ensuing Lyons-Seward Treaty of 1862, which set forth strong measures by which the United States and Great Britain agreed to enforce an end to the Atlantic slave trade. Seward biographer Walter Stahr wrote: "Seward was the indispensable man in the Lincoln admilnistration: the man who managed to keep the European nations out of the American Civil War; the man who avoided war with Britain during the Trent crisis; the man who advised Lincoln on every aspect of domestic and foreign policy; the man who somehow kept his sense of humor and hope through the darkest days."[136]

Lincoln met with his Cabinet for the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation draft on July 22, 1862.

After Tsar Alexander II crushed the 1863 Polish uprising, French Emperor Napoleon III asked the United States to "join in a protest to the Tsar."[137] Seward declined stating, "defending 'our policy of non-intervention — straight, absolute, and peculiar as it may seem to other nations,'" and insisted that "[t]he American people must be content to recommend the cause of human progress by the wisdom with which they should exercise the powers of self-government, forbearing at all times, and in every way, from foreign alliances, intervention, and interference."[137]

Assassination attempt[edit]

On the night of April 14, 1865, Lewis Powell, an associate and co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth, attempted to assassinate Seward at his Washington D.C. home. Powell's attack on Seward was coordinated with Booth's attack on President Abraham Lincoln and George Atzerodt's aborted attack on Vice President Andrew Johnson in order to maximize the element of surprise and to sever the continuity of the United States government. Another member of the conspiracy, David Herold, led Powell to the Seward home on horseback and was responsible for holding Powell's horse while he committed the attack as well as guiding him out of the city during their escape. Powell was able to gain access to the Seward home by telling the butler that he was delivering medicine for Seward, who had been badly injured nine days earlier in a carriage accident.

Upon entry to the home, Powell began up the stairs, but was stopped at the top of the stairs by Frederick Seward, the Secretary's son. Frederick told Powell that his father was asleep and that he (Frederick) would take the medicine to him. Unsure of what to do, Powell turned around and began descending the stairs, but then suddenly swung back around, drew a pistol, and pointed it at Frederick's head. The pistol misfired. Realizing he needed to act quickly, Powell began beating Frederick over the head with the barrel of his gun. The force of Powell's blows crippled Frederick Seward and left him sprawled on the floor, in a pool of blood. Powell's gun was also rendered useless during the battle, as it had become jammed.

Lewis Powell attacking Frederick Seward after attempting to shoot him.

In Secretary Seward's bedroom was his daughter, Fanny Seward. Hearing the loud noises coming from the second floor hallway, Fanny opened the door to see her brother slumped on the floor and a wide-eyed Powell charging directly towards her, a dagger in his hand. Powell burst through the door, threw Fanny Seward to the side, and jumped on the Secretary's bed, repeatedly stabbing him in the face and neck area. Powell also attacked and injured another son (Augustus), and a soldier and nurse (Sgt. George Robinson) who had been assigned to stay with Seward. Outside the home, David Herold, who could hear the screams coming from the house, fled with both horses, leaving Powell to fend for himself. Powell, convinced that he had mortally wounded the Secretary, fled down the stairs, and stabbed a messenger, Emerick Hansell, who had arrived just as Powell was escaping; Hansell was rendered permanently paralyzed from the stabbing.[138] All five men that were injured that night survived, although Secretary Seward would carry facial scars from the attack for the rest of his life. The events of that night took their toll on his wife,[139][140] whose health rapidly declined after the attack.[141] She died just months later, on June 21, 1865.[141] His daughter Fanny died of tuberculosis in October 1866.[140]

Powell was captured the next day at the boarding-house home of Mary Surratt, and was executed on July 7, 1865, along with David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mrs. Surratt, three of the seven others convicted as conspirators in the Lincoln assassination.

Johnson administration[edit]

Although it took Seward several months to recover from his wounds, he emerged as a major force in the administration of the new president, Andrew Johnson. He frequently defended his more moderate reconciliation policies towards the South, to the point of enraging Radical Republicans who had once regarded Seward as their ally.

In the fall of 1866, Seward joined Johnson, as well as Ulysses S. Grant and the General George Armstrong Custer, along with several other administration figures, on the president's ill-fated "Swing Around the Circle" campaign trip.

At one point Seward became so ill, probably from cholera, that he was sent back to Washington in a special car. Both Johnson and Grant, as well as several members of the Seward family, thought the Secretary was near death. But as with his April 1865 stabbing, Seward surprised many by making a recovery.

Seward's support for Andrew Johnson extended to behind the scenes scheming for the President's acquittal during his 1868 Impeachment trial. Historian David O. Stewart sums up Seward's involvement this way:

Though he kept some distance from the grimy details of the campaign to save Johnson by all possible means, Secretary of State Seward plainly inspired and set in motion much of the effort. Many of the schemers who planned the political deals, bribes, and patronage payoffs were Seward men, from Thurlow Weed to Wiliam Evarts, from Sheridan Shook to Erastus Webster to Ransom Van Valkenburg. Seward, who had accepted Johnson as Lincoln's true heir, drew no ethical lines in the desperate battle to preserve Johnson's presidency.[142]

Territorial expansion[edit]

Seward pursued American expansion. "Give me only this assurance, that there never be an unlawful resistance by an armed force to the ... United States, and give me fifty, forty, thirty more years of life, and I will engage to give you the possession of the American continent and the control of the world."[143] Seward argued for acquiring places such as British Columbia, the Danish West Indies, the Samaná Peninsula of the Dominican Republic, Panama, and the Hawaiian Islands, and succeeded in annexing the Brook Islands (now called the Midway Islands) in 1867. Despite minimal Congressional support, he developed American influence in the Hawaiian Islands, as well as in Japan and China to some extent. The United States eventually annexed the Danish West Indies (now the US Virgin Islands), and the Hawaiian islands after Seward's death.

The signing of the Alaska Treaty of Cessation on March 30, 1867.

Seward's most famous achievement as Secretary of State was his successful acquisition of Alaska from Russia. On March 30, 1867, he completed negotiations for the territory, which involved the purchase of 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 km2) of territory (more than twice the area of Texas) for $7,200,000, or approximately two cents per acre (equivalent to $121 million in today's dollars). The purchase was variously mocked by the public as Seward's Folly, "Seward's Icebox," and Andrew Johnson's "polar bear garden." Alaska celebrates the purchase on Seward's Day, the last Monday of March. When asked what he considered to be his greatest achievement as Secretary of State, Seward replied "The purchase of Alaska—but it will take the people a generation to find it out".[144]

Later life[edit]

Seward retired as Secretary of State after Ulysses S. Grant took office as president. During his last years, Seward traveled and wrote prolifically. Most notably, he traveled around the world in fourteen months and two days from August, 1870 to October, 1871. On October 10, 1872, Seward died in his office in his home in Auburn, New York, after having difficulty breathing. He was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, with his wife and two children, Cornelia and Fanny.

His son, Frederick, edited and published his memoirs in three volumes.

Homes in New York[edit]

Seward and his family owned a home in Auburn, New York which is now a museum; it was built in 1816 by Seward's father-in-law, Judge Elijah Miller. Seward married the Judge's daughter, Frances, in 1824 on the condition that they would live with Miller in his Auburn home. Seward made many changes to the home, adding an addition in the late 1840s and another one in 1866. When he died, Seward left the home to his son, William Seward, Jr.; it passed on to his grandson, William Henry Seward III, in 1920. At his death in 1951, it became a museum that opened to the public in 1955. Four generations of the family's artifacts are contained within the museum, located at 33 South Street in Auburn.

Southern patio of the Seward House Museum located in Auburn, NY.

Seward's birthplace in Florida, New York was bought by the village in 2010, with the purpose of refurbishing it. The property actually contains two houses: one in back—Seward's actual birthplace—which was converted into a barn; and one in front, built in the 1890s, used by the family that lived there for many years. The property is expected to be turned into a museum and opened to the public by 2013.[dated info]

Memorials and namesakes[edit]

Statues of Seward are located in Seward Park in Auburn, in Madison Square Park in New York City, on the grounds of the Z. J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage, Alaska, and in Volunteer Park in Seattle.

Statue of William H. Seward in New York City; by Randolph Rogers, 1876
Statue of Seward in Volunteer Park, Seattle, Washington.
Bust depicting William H. Seward in Seward, Alaska.
New York
Other states



  1. ^ Buchanan remains the most recent president to have been Secretary of State.
  2. ^ Stevens was then 68 years old.
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  27. ^ Hale, pp. 99–101.
  28. ^ Stahr, p. 41.
  29. ^ Taylor, pp. 34–35.
  30. ^ Goodwin, pp. 77–78.
  31. ^ Taylor, pp. 39–40.
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  33. ^ Goodwin, pp. 80–81.
  34. ^ Stahr, pp. 54–57.
  35. ^ Goodwin, p. 81.
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  57. ^ Stahr, Walter (2012) Seward:Lincoln's Indispensible Man. New York, Simon and Schuster, Kindle location 9633 of 15675 "...by adopting Olive as his daughter." ISBN 978-1-4391-2794-0.
  58. ^ Seward, Frederick. William H. Seward an Autobiography from 1801–1834 with a memoir of his life and selections from his letters 1831-1846 Derby and Miller, New York 1891 Page 28.
  59. ^ "Out of the shadow". The Economist. September 29, 2012. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 
  60. ^ Frances Seward to William Seward Oct. 16 [1851] University of Rochester Rush Rhees Library Special Collections
  61. ^ Frances Seward to William Seward July 1, 1852 University of Rochester Rush Rhees Library Special Collections
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