William Seward (1801-1872) was a politician who served as governor of New York, as a U.S. senator and as secretary of state during the Civil War (1861-65). Seward spent his early career as a lawyer before winning a seat in the New York State Senate in 1830. An ardent abolitionist, Seward later served as New York’s 12th governor and then as a member of the U.S. Senate, where he established himself as a leading antislavery activist. After failing in an 1860 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Seward was appointed secretary of state in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. He would eventually become one of Lincoln’s closest advisers during the Civil War, helping to ensure that Europe did not recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign nation. Seward continued to serve as secretary of state under President Andrew Johnson and in 1867 negotiated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians. He died in 1872 at the age of 71.
William Seward: Early Life
William Henry Seward was born in Florida, New York, on May 16, 1801. Seward attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, starting in 1816, and in 1819 he spent a brief period as a schoolteacher in Georgia. He graduated from Union College in 1820 and studied law before being admitted to the bar in 1822. Seward moved to Auburn, New York, in 1822 and became a partner in the law practice of Judge Elijah Miller. In 1824 he married Miller’s daughter, Frances Adeline Miller. The two would later have five children and one adopted daughter.
Seward experienced success as a lawyer but found himself drawn toward politics. In 1830 he was elected to the New York State Senate as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, a political faction that opposed the secretive Freemasons. Seward later became a leading member of the Whig Party but was soundly defeated when he ran for governor of New York in 1834. He then withdrew from politics and spent several years practicing law and working for the Holland Land Company, a syndicate of Dutch investors who had purchased vast expanses of land in western New York.
William Seward: Political Career
With the help of Thurlow Weed, a prominent journalist and close political ally, Seward later returned to politics. In 1838 he was elected governor of New York as a Whig. Seward served two terms in office and spent much of his administration engaged in prison reform, infrastructure improvements and enhancing the state’s education system. A staunch abolitionist, he also spoke out against slavery and caused a minor controversy in 1839 when he refused to extradite a group of black fugitives to Virginia.
After leaving office in 1842, Seward found himself deeply in debt and was forced to dedicate himself to his law practice. He returned to politics in 1849, when Whigs in the New York legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. During his tenure in the Senate Seward became a leading antislavery activist. He was one of the foremost critics of the Compromise of 1850, a group of measures that tightened the fugitive slave law and maintained the slave trade in the South. During one speech on the Senate floor, Seward famously stated that slavery was an immoral practice and argued that there existed “a higher law than the Constitution.”
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Seward was reelected to the Senate in 1855 and later joined the Republican Party after the dissolution of the Whigs. While he had ambitions for the presidency, Seward’s outspoken nature and lack of party loyalty often hindered his political progress. Throughout the late 1850s he continued to be vocal in his opposition to slavery, and he alarmed many of his allies when he described the coming Civil War as an “irrepressible conflict.” While he hoped to win the Republican nomination for president in 1860, Seward spent most of 1859 traveling through Europe and the Middle East. His support in the party dwindled, and he lost the nomination to Abraham Lincoln in May 1860.
William Seward: Secretary of State
In December 1860 Seward accepted an appointment to serve as secretary of state in the cabinet of President-elect Abraham Lincoln. While Seward was at first dubious about Lincoln’s political acumen, the two soon forged an effective partnership, and Lincoln later ignored radical Republican calls to remove Seward from office.
Seward spent the early months of his tenure in a desperate effort to preserve the Union and avoid civil war. Hoping to ensure that the precarious border states remained sympathetic to the Union, he cautioned Lincoln against using force during the siege at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. After the start of hostilities and Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, Seward took it upon himself to see that suspected Confederate sympathizers in the North were arrested and detained.
Seward’s primary concern during the war was ensuring that the nations of Europe offered no aid to the rebellion. During what became known as the Trent Affair, he was instrumental in smoothing over tensions with the United Kingdom after the U.S. Navy seized two Confederate envoys from a British ship. Seward later negotiated the Lyons-Seward Treaty of 1862 with British Ambassador Richard Lyons, which helped hinder the Atlantic slave trade by allowing the U.S. and British navies the right to search vessels that appeared to carry African slaves. Seward also had frequent dealings with French Emperor Napoleon III. While Seward narrowly prevented the French from recognizing the Confederacy, he was unable to stop the emperor from establishing a monarchy in Mexico in 1864.
Near the close of the Civil War, Seward was nearly killed as part of the plot that resulted in Lincoln’s assassination. On the night of April 14, 1865, a former Confederate soldier named Lewis Powell attacked Seward—who was in bed recovering from a carriage accident—and stabbed him multiple times with a bowie knife. Seward narrowly survived the attempt on his life and spent several weeks recovering from wounds to his neck and face.
William Seward: Johnson Administration and Later Life
In June 1865 Seward returned to duty as secretary of state under President Andrew Johnson. During this time he was instrumental in efforts to reintegrate the South into the United States. Seward’s eagerness to reunify the country earned him much criticism from his former Republican allies, who believed his stance on Reconstruction was too lenient.
In 1867 Seward pressured the French government into abandoning its occupation of Mexico and later busied himself with increasing American commercial activity abroad. Seward was dedicated to expanding America’s territorial holdings and made a series of abortive attempts to purchase land in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Seward’s only major success in this respect came in 1867, when he negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in gold. While the acquisition of Alaska later proved a remarkable investment, at the time it was often derisively known as “Seward’s Folly.”
Seward left office in 1869 following the inauguration of President Ulysses S. Grant. He would spend his final years traveling, beginning with trips to the western United States, Alaska and Mexico. Seward then journeyed around the world, visiting the Far East and Europe before returning to New York in 1871. He died in 1872 at the age of 71.