William H. Seward

William H. Seward
The Honorable
William Henry Seward
24th United States Secretary of State
In office
March 5, 1861 – March 4, 1869
President Abraham Lincoln
Andrew Johnson
Preceded by Jeremiah S. Black
Succeeded by Elihu B. Washburne
12th Governor of New York
In office
January 1, 1839 – December 31, 1842
Lieutenant Luther Bradish
Preceded by William L. Marcy
Succeeded by William C. Bouck
United States Senator
from New York
In office
March 4, 1849 – March 4, 1861
Preceded by John A. Dix
Succeeded by Ira Harris
Personal details
Born May 16, 1801(1801-05-16)
Florida, New York
Died October 10, 1872(1872-10-10) (aged 71)
Auburn, New York
Political party Whig, Republican
Spouse(s) Frances Adeline Seward
Children Augustus Henry Seward
Frederick William Seward
Cornelia Seward
William Henry Seward, Jr.
Frances Adeline Seward
Olive Risley Seward (adopted)
Alma mater Union College
Profession Lawyer, Land Agent, Politician
Religion Episcopalian

William Henry Seward, Sr. (May 16, 1801 – October 10, 1872) was 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 – yet his very outspokenness may have cost him the nomination. Despite his loss, 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 life in the conspirators' effort to decapitate the Union government. As Johnson's Secretary of State, he engineered the purchase of Alaska from Russia in an act that was ridiculed at the time as "Seward's Folly", but which somehow exemplified his character. 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 and career

Seward was born in Florida, New York, on May 16, 1801, one of five children of Samuel Sweezy Seward and his wife Mary Jennings Seward. Samuel Seward, described as "a prosperous, domineering doctor and businessman,"[3] was the founder of the S. S. Seward Institute, today a secondary school in the Florida Union Free School District.[4]

Seward served as president of the S.S. Seward Institute after the death of his father, even while serving as Secretary of State during the Lincoln and Johnson administrations.

Seward studied law at Union College, graduating in 1820 with highest honors, and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.[5] He was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1821.[6] In that same year, he met Frances Adeline Miller, a classmate of his sister Cornelia at Emma Willard's Troy Female Seminary and the daughter of Judge Elijah Miller of Auburn, New York. In 1823, he moved to Auburn where he entered into law partnership with Judge Miller, and married Frances Miller on October 20, 1824. They raised five children:

  • Augustus Henry Seward (1826–1876)
  • Frederick William Seward (1830–1915)
  • Cornelia Seward (1836–1837)
  • William Henry Seward, Jr. (1839–1920)
  • Frances Adeline "Fanny" Seward (1844–1866)
  • Olive Risley Seward (1841–1908), adopted

Seward entered politics with the help of his friend Thurlow Weed, whom he had met by chance after a stagecoach accident.[7] In 1830, Seward was elected to the state senate as an Anti-Masonic candidate, and served for four years. In 1834, the 33-year-old Seward was named the Whig party candidate for Governor of New York, but lost to incumbent Democrat William Marcy who won 52% of the vote to Seward's 48%.

From 1836 to 1838, Seward served as agent for a group of investors who had purchased the over 3-million-acre (12,000 km2) western New York holdings of the Holland Land Company. He moved the land office from Mayville, NY to Westfield, New York, where he was successful in easing tensions between the investors and local landowners. On July 16, 1837, he delivered to the students and faculty of the newly formed Westfield Academy a Discourse on Education, in which he advocated for universal education.[8]

In 1838, Seward again challenged Marcy, and was elected Governor of New York by a majority of 51.4% to Marcy's 48.6%. He was narrowly re-elected to a second two-year term in 1840. As a state senator and governor, Seward promoted progressive political policies including prison reform and increased spending on education. He supported state funding for schools for immigrants operated by their own clergy and taught in their native language. This support, which included Catholic parochial schools, came back to haunt him in the 1850s, when anti-Catholic feelings were high, especially among ex-Whigs in the Republican Party.

Seward's wife Frances Adeline Seward.

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.[9]

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. 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."[10] 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." [11]

In 1846 Seward became the center of controversy in his hometown when he defended, in separate cases, two convicts accused of murder. Henry Wyatt, a white man, was charged in the stabbing death of a fellow prison inmate; William Freeman, of African American and Native American ancestry, was accused of breaking into a home and stabbing four people to death. In both cases the defendants were mentally ill and had been severely 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. In a case involving mental illness with heavy racial overtones Seward argued, "The color of the prisoner’s skin, and the form of his features, are not impressed upon the spiritual immortal mind which works beneath. In spite of human pride, 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."[12]

Later, Seward quoted Freeman’s brother-in-law, praising his eloquence: "They have made William Freeman what he is, a brute beast; they don’t make anything else of any of our people but brute beasts; but when we violate their laws, then they want to punish us as if we were men."[13] In the end both men were convicted. Although Wyatt was executed, Freeman, whose conviction was reversed on Seward's successful appeal to the New York Supreme Court, died in his cell of tuberculosis.

United States Senator and Presidential Candidate

William H. Seward (c. 1850)

Seward supported the Whig candidate, General Zachary Taylor, in the presidential election of 1848. He said of Taylor, "He is the most gentle-looking and amiable of men." Taylor was a slaveholding plantation owner, but was friendly to Seward anyway.

William Seward was elected as U.S. Senator from New York as a Whig in 1849, and emerged as the leader of the anti-slavery "Conscience Whigs". Seward opposed the Compromise of 1850, and was thought to have encouraged Taylor in his supposed opposition. More recent scholarship suggests that Taylor was not under Seward's influence and would have accepted the Compromise if he had not died.[citation needed] Seward believed that slavery was morally wrong, and said so many times, outraging Southerners. He acknowledged that slavery was legal under the Constitution, but denied that the Constitution recognized or protected slavery. He famously remarked in 1850 that "there is a higher law than the Constitution". He continued to argue this point of view over the next ten years. He presented himself as the leading enemy of the Slave Power – that is, the perceived conspiracy of southern slaveowners to seize the government and defeat the progress of liberty.

Seward was an opponent of the Fugitive Slave Act, and he defended runaway slaves in court. He supported personal liberty laws.

In February 1855, he was re-elected as a Whig to the U.S. Senate, and joined the Republican Party when the New York Whigs merged with the Anti-Nebraskans later the same year. Seward did not seriously compete for the presidential nomination (won by John C. Frémont) in 1856, but sought and was expected to receive the nomination in 1860. In October 1858, he delivered a famous speech in which he argued that the political and economic systems of North and South were incompatible, and that, due to this "irrepressible conflict," the inevitable "collision" of the two systems would eventually result in the nation becoming "either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation."[14] Like Lincoln, he believed slavery could and should be extinguished by long-run historical forces rather than by coercion or war.[15]

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

In 1859, confident of gaining the presidential nomination and advised by his political ally and friend Thurlow Weed that he would be better off avoiding political gatherings where his words might be misinterpreted by one faction or another, Seward left the country for an eight-month tour of Europe that included a visit to Syria, where Ayub Beg Tarabulsy gave him several Arabian horses.[16] During that hiatus, his lesser-known rival Abraham Lincoln worked diligently to line up support in case Seward failed to win on the first ballot. After returning to the United States, Seward gave a conciliatory, pro-Union Senate speech that reassured moderates but alienated some radical Republicans. (Observing events from Europe, Karl Marx, who was ideologically sympathetic to Frémont, contemptuously regarded Seward as a "Republican Richelieu" and the "Demosthenes of the Republican Party" who had sabotaged Frémont's presidential ambitions.) Around the same time, his friend Horace Greeley turned against him, opposing Seward on the grounds that his radical reputation made him unelectable. When Lincoln won the nomination, Seward loyally supported him and made a long speaking tour of the West in the autumn of 1860.

Secretary of State

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

"Our population is destined to roll its resistless waves to the icy barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific." —William H. Seward, 1846 [17]

Abraham Lincoln appointed Seward his Secretary of State in 1861. 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 pursued his vision of 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."[18] Having argued for taking American possession of vulnerable but useful places such as the Danish West Indies, Samaná, Panama, and Hawaii, Seward oversaw the annexation of only one, that of the Brook Islands in 1867. Despite minimal Congressional support, though, he developed American influence in the Hawaiian Islands, as well as in Japan and China to some extent.

Despite his endorsement of expansionist policies, Seward also strongly advocated non-interventionism. After Tsar Alexander II put down the 1863 January Uprising in Poland, French Emperor Napoleon III asked the United States to "join in a protest to the Tsar."[19] Seward declined, "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."[19]

Assassination attempt

On April 14, 1865, Lewis Powell, an associate of John Wilkes Booth, attempted to assassinate Seward, the same night that Abraham Lincoln was shot. Powell gained access to Seward's home by telling a servant, William H. Bell, that he was delivering medicine for Seward, who was recovering from a recent carriage accident on April 5, 1865. Powell started up the stairs when then confronted by one of Seward's sons, Frederick. He told the intruder that his father was asleep and Powell began to start down the stairs, but suddenly swung around and pointed a gun at Frederick's head. After the gun jammed, Powell panicked, then repeatedly struck Frederick over the head with the pistol, leaving Frederick in critical condition on the floor.

Lewis Powell attacking Frederick Seward after attempting to shoot him.

Powell then burst into William Seward's bedroom with a knife and stabbed him several times in the face and neck. Powell also attacked and injured another son (Augustus), a soldier and nurse (Sgt. George Robinson) who had been assigned to stay with Seward, and a messenger (Emerick Hansell) who arrived just as Powell was escaping.[20] Luckily all five men that were injured that night survived, although Seward Sr. would carry the facial scars from the attack through his remaining life. The events of that night took their toll on his wife, Frances, who died June 1865. His daughter Fanny died of tuberculosis in October 1866.

Powell was captured the next day and was executed on July 7, 1865, along with David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt, the three others convicted as conspirators in the Lincoln assassination.

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, frequently defending 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 young 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 good recovery.

The purchase of Alaska

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 2 cents per acre (equivalent to US$95 million in 2005). The purchase of this frontier land 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".[21]

Later life

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. His last words were to his children saying, "Love one another." He was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, with his wife and two children, Cornelia and Fanny. His headstone reads, "He was faithful."

Statue of Seward in Madison Square Park in New York City

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

In 1967, a century after the Alaska Purchase, the actor, Joseph Cotten, portrayed Seward in "The Freeman Story", a part of his NBC anthology series, The Joseph Cotten Show. Virginia Gregg played Fanny Seward.[citation needed] Popular actor, Richard Mulligan, portrayed William Seward in the 1988 Lincoln mini-series, "Random Letters".

Seward's homes in Auburn and Florida, New York

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. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm.

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

Meanwhile, 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 (after spending an estimated $200,000, to be raised by private donations) is expected to be turned into a museum and opened to the public by 2013.


  • The purchase of Alaska.
  • The Guano Islands Act of 1856
  • The $50-dollar Treasury note, also called the Coin note, of the Series 1891, features a portrait of Seward on the obverse. Examples of this note are very rare and would likely sell for about $50,000 at auction.
  • His house in Auburn, New York is open as a public museum.
  • The house in which he lived in Westfield, New York is now home to a bed and breakfast.
  • He was a name partner of the law firm of Blatchford, Seward & Griswold, today known as Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
  • Was famous in his lifetime for his red hair and energetic way of walking. Henry Adams described him as "wonderfully resembling" a parrot in "manner and profile".[22]


Statue of William H. Seward in New York City
Statue of Seward in Volunteer Park, Seattle, Washington.
Bust depicting William H. Seward in Seward, Alaska



  1. ^ Brian Jenkins (1978) "The "Wise Macaw" and the Lion: William Seward and Britain, 1861-1863" University of Rochester Library Bulletin, Vol. 31 No. 1
  2. ^ Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005) Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, New York: Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-82490-6, p. 14
  3. ^ Glyndon G. Van Deusen, "The Life and Career of William Henry Seward 1801-1872"
  4. ^ Julia Lawlor, "If You're Thinking of Living In/Warwick; Wide Open Spaces and 'Funky Flair' (2003)"
  5. ^ Union Notable: William H. Seward, ‘’Union.edu’’, accessed Oct 9, 2009
  6. ^ William H. Seward Biography, Seward House: A National Historic Landmark
  7. ^ Doris Kearns Goodwin. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 70 (2005).
  8. ^ Seward, William H.. Discourse on Education. (Albany: Hoffman & White, 1837). http://books.google.com/books?id=vmoCKqi3Cx8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=seward+discourse+on+education. 
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Frances Seward to William Seward Oct. 16 [1851] University of Rochester Rush Rhees Library Special Collections
  11. ^ Frances Seward to William Seward July 1, 1852 University of Rochester Rush Rhees Library Special Collections
  12. ^ Seward, William. Works of William H. Seward Vol. I, (New York: Redfield, 1853) 417.
  13. ^ Seward, William. Works of William H. Seward Vol. I, (New York: Redfield, 1853) 471.
  14. ^ Doris Kearns Goodwin. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 191 (2005).
  15. ^ Ibid., p. 192.
  16. ^ American Agriculturist, vol. 19 (1860), p. 330.
  17. ^ Bailey, Thomas A. (1980). A Diplomatic History of the American People (10th ed.). Prentice Hall. pp. 360. 
  18. ^ Farrar, Victor J. (1937). The Annexation of Russian America to the United States. Washington: W.F. Roberts Co.. pp. 113. 
  19. ^ a b Raico, Ralph. America's Will to War: The Turning Point, Mises Institute
  20. ^ Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 736-37 (2005).
  21. ^ "Alaska's History and Value". The New York Times. 20 September 1886. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F50E11FC355410738DDDA90A94D1405B8684F0D3. 
  22. ^ Garry Wills, Henry Adams and the Making of America, 2005; p. 58, citing Adams' letters, vol. 1, p.223

Further reading

  • Bancroft, Frederic (1900). The Life of William H. Seward 2 vol. 
  • Boulard, Garry (2008). The Swing Around the Circle: Andrew Johnson and the Train Ride that Destroyed a Presidency. New York: iUniverse. ISBN 9781440102394. 
  • Donald, David Herbert (2003). We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 140–176. ISBN 0743254686. 
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns (2005). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0684824906. 
  • Hendrick, Burton (1946). Lincoln's War Cabinet. Boston: Little, Brown. 
  • Neely, Mark E., Jr. (1991). The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195064968. 
  • Taylor, John M. (1991). William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0060163070. 
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon (1967). William Henry Seward. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  • Marx, Karl (November 26, 1861). "The Dismissal of Frémont". Die Presse 325. 
  • Swanson, James L. (2006). Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 58–59. 
  • Hamilton, Holman (1951). Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. 
  • Lattimer, John (1980). Kennedy and Lincoln, Medical & Ballistic Comparisons of Their Assassinations. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0151522812.  [information about Seward's accident and jaw splint, in particular]

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
William L. Marcy
Governor of New York
1839 – 1842
Succeeded by
William C. Bouck
Preceded by
Jeremiah S. Black
United States Secretary of State
Served under: Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson

March 5, 1861 – March 4, 1869
Succeeded by
Elihu B. Washburne
United States Senate
Preceded by
John A. Dix
United States Senator (Class 3) from New York
March 4, 1849 – March 4, 1861
Served alongside: Daniel S. Dickinson, Hamilton Fish and Preston King
Succeeded by
Ira Harris

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  • William H. Seward — William Henry Seward Pour les articles homonymes, voir William, Henry et Seward. Photo de William Seward en 1861 William …   Wikipédia en Français

  • William Henry Seward — (* 16. Mai 1801 in Florida, New York; † 10. Oktober 1872 in Auburn, New York) war ein amerikanischer Politiker und amtierte von 1861 bis 1869 unter den Präsidenten Abraham Linco …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • William H. Seward — William Henry Seward (* 16. Mai 1801 in Florida, Orange County, New York; † 10. Oktober 1872 in Auburn, New York) war ein amerikanischer Politiker, der von 1861 bis 1869 unter den Präsidenten …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • William H Seward — [William H Seward] (William Henry Seward 1801–72) the US ↑Secretary of State who persuaded the government to buy ↑Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million. It became known as Seward’s Folly because many people thought it was foolish to pay so… …   Useful english dictionary

  • William Henry Seward — Pour les articles homonymes, voir William, Henry et Seward. Photo de William Seward en 1861 William Henry Seward (né le 16 mai …   Wikipédia en Français

  • William H. Seward, Jr. — This article is about the Civil War Brigadier General. For his father who served as Secretary of State, see William H. Seward, Sr.. William Henry Seward, Jr. (June 18, 1839 ndash; April 29, 1920) was born in Auburn, New York, the son of United… …   Wikipedia

  • William H Seward — ➡ Seward * * * …   Universalium

  • William Henry Seward — ➡ Seward * * * …   Universalium

  • William Henry Seward — noun United States politician who as Secretary of State in 1867 arranged for the purchase of Alaska from Russia (known at the time as Seward s Folly) (1801 1872) • Syn: ↑Seward • Instance Hypernyms: ↑politician, ↑politico, ↑pol, ↑political leader …   Useful english dictionary

  • William Henry Seward — n. (1801 1872) United States politician, Secretary of State (1861 1869) who organized the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 …   English contemporary dictionary

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