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William Henry Seward

William Henry Seward

William Henry Seward (1801-1872), American statesman, is noted for his staunch opposition to the spread of slavery and for his handling of foreign affairs as a member of Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet during the Civil War.

William H. Seward was born on May 16, 1801, in Florida, N.Y. He attended school there and at the age of fifteen entered Union College. In 1818, after a disagreement with his father over money matters, Seward ran away to Georgia, where he taught school and learned something of the South and slavery. He returned and in 1820 graduated from Union.

Seward then studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1822. He began practice as a junior partner of Judge Elijah Miller in "the bustling village of Auburn." He married the judge's capable daughter, Frances, and success came at once. The rise of the Anti-Masonic party lured him into politics, where he came into contact with master politician Thurlow Weed, who became his political mentor and shrewd guide into public office. Seward was elected state senator in the fall of 1830 as the advocate of internal improvements, sound banking, and social reforms. Following defeat in 1833, he cast his lot with the Whigs.

New York Governor

With Weed's help, Seward became the Whig candidate for governor of New York, and in 1837, when the poor economic situation made those in office look bad, he was elected. As governor for two terms, he attracted wide attention for his battle with Southern governors over the return of fugitive slaves and his efforts to secure equal opportunity for the education of Catholic children in New York. In 1842 he returned home to resume his law practice and to restore his depleted finances.

Seward was not, however, out of the public eye. His position against slavery had given him a leading place in the formation of the new Liberty party. His own idea was to take a firm but moderate course. "Let the world have assurance that we neither risk nor sympathize with convulsive, revolutionary or sanguine measures." He was for compensation to the slaveholder with "regard for his feelings" and for equal compassion "to the slave."

In 1846 two African Americans, both clearly mentally ill, were brought to trial in Auburn on the charge of murder. Seward's eloquent defense of these two "spread his fame far and wide and his Argument in Defense of William Freeman … went into four editions the same year." William Gladstone called his summation "the finest forensic effort in the English language."

Seward was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1849. Sectional feelings had meantime become intense, and the Mexican War had raised again the issue of slavery in the territories. Seward supported a proviso barring slavery from any territory acquired from Mexico but sharply opposed Henry Clay's compromise bill, which left the slavery issue unsettled. Seward was reelected in 1854, the year Stephen A. Douglas introduced his Kansas-Nebraska Bill and the Republican party was created. He spoke against Douglas's bill but only gradually shifted to the new party.

In Lincoln's Cabinet

With the Republican victory in November 1860, Lincoln quickly chose Seward as secretary of state. Seward accepted with the assumption that responsibility for conducting the administration rested on his shoulders. He would assume the role of "prime minister" for a president who was inferior in experience and abilities to himself. Though he soon learned better, only the modesty and wisdom of a Lincoln would have endured Seward's unsolicited advice and his independent course in dealing with Southern matters. When he finally discovered that a conciliatory attitude and a willingness to leave slavery to each state was not enough to preserve the Union, Seward became one of Lincoln's most loyal defenders and, in the end, one of the nation's greatest secretaries of state.

Although Seward's conduct during the period that the Southern states began seceding from the Union is open to serious criticism, his handling of foreign affairs deserves the highest praise. While the North rejoiced at the seizure of two Confederate agents on board the British ship Trent, Seward wisely accepted England's protest and returned the men. He handled the matter of English and French recognition of the Confederacy with such dignity and firmness that neither took official action. His pressure, coupled with a veiled threat of dangerous consequences, caused British officials to "take due precautions" in outfitting Confederate privateers.

Seward urged Lincoln to run again in 1864. Seward was connected so closely with all that Lincoln represented that an attempt was made on his life the same night the President was assassinated. Seward remained in the Cabinet after Lincoln's death and supported President Andrew Johnson's efforts to bring the Southern states back into the Union. He remained loyal even when impeachment proceedings were brought against the President.

Seward rounded out his diplomatic career by crowding France and Maximilian out of Mexico, settling the Alabama Claims, and purchasing Alaska from Russia. He spent his last days traveling, ending with a trip around the world. He died at his home in Auburn, N.Y., on Oct. 10, 1872.

Further Reading

Seward's writings and speeches are gathered in The Works of William H. Seward, edited by George E. Baker (5 vols., 1884-1889). An indispensable biography is Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (1967). The older, once standard life by Frederic Bancroft, The Life of William H. Seward (2 vols., 1900; repr. 1967), which devotes less space to Seward's personal life, remains useful for reference. Other biographies are T. K. Lothrop, William Henry Seward (1896), and Edward E. Hale, Jr., William H. Seward (1910). Seward figures prominently in James G. Randall, Lincoln the President (4 vols., 1946-1965).

Additional Sources

Taylor, John M., William Henry Seward: Lincoln's right hand, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1991. □

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Seward, William Henry

William Henry Seward, 1801–72, American statesman, b. Florida, Orange co., N.Y.

Early Career

A graduate (1820) of Union College, he was admitted to the bar in 1822 and established himself as a lawyer in Auburn, N.Y., which he made his lifelong home. He was active in the Anti-Masonic party and later (1834) he and his close personal and political friend, Thurlow Weed were founding members of the Whig party and the most influential Whigs in New York state. A state senator from 1830 to 1834, he ran unsuccessfully for the governorship in 1834. In 1838, however, he won that office, and he was reelected in 1840. As governor, Seward worked for educational reforms and internal improvements; he also secured legislation to better the position of immigrants and to protect fugitive slaves. He returned to his law practice in 1843.

Senator

Seward was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1849. Reelected in 1855, he was one of the Senate's most prominent members in the troubled years preceding the Civil War. A genial, gregarious man with intellectual interests, he was generally well liked, even by his political opponents.

Seward was an uncompromising foe of slavery, and, although he apparently tempered his public expressions so as not to alienate votes, he nevertheless made two remarks that became catchphrases of the antislavery forces. Voicing his opposition to the Compromise of 1850 in the Senate, he said (Mar. 11, 1850), "there is a higher law than the Constitution which regulates our authority over the domain." In a speech at Rochester on Oct. 25, 1858, he declared that there would exist "an irrepressible conflict" until the United States became either all slave or all free.

With the disintegration of the Whig party, Seward and Weed joined (1855) the new Republican party. Prominent as he was, Seward, despite (or possibly because of) the efforts of Weed's machine, was never able to secure the Republican presidential nomination. His friendship toward immigrants, especially the Irish, alienated members of the former Know-Nothing movement within the Republican party.

Secretary of State

In 1861, Seward became Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, and many expected him to be the real power in the administration. He revealed his own desire to dominate the President in a peculiar memorandum (Apr. 1, 1861) to Lincoln in which he proposed waging war against most of Europe so as to unite the nation. Seward also did some unwarranted meddling during the Fort Sumter crisis. After the Civil War broke out, however, he showed himself an able statesman, although it took all of Lincoln's ingenuity to keep both Seward and his rival, Salmon P. Chase, eternally ambitious for the presidency, in the same cabinet. Seward's handling of delicate matters of diplomacy with Great Britain, particularly in the Trent Affair, was notably adept. He also protested French intervention in Mexico and after the Civil War helped bring an end to it.

The plot of John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln also included a stabbing attack on Seward, but he recovered from his wounds and retained his cabinet position under the new President, Andrew Johnson. He supported Johnson's Reconstruction policy and, like the President, was roundly denounced by the radical Republicans. Seward's most important act in this administration was the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. His foresight was not generally acknowledged, however, and Alaska was long popularly called "Seward's folly." He also tried to purchase the two most important islands in the Danish West Indies (the Virgin Islands), but the Senate refused to approve his action.

Bibliography

See G. E. Baker, ed., The Works of William H. Seward (5 vol., 1853–84); F. W. Seward, ed., Autobiography … and Selections from His Letters (3 vol., 1891); biographies by F. Bancroft (1900, repr. 1967), G. G. Van Deusen (1967), and W. Stahr (2012).

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Seward, William H.

Seward, William H. (1801–1872), secretary of state during the Civil War.An 1820 graduate of Union College, Seward became a lawyer in Auburn, New York, and was active in the Anti‐Masonic Party. He subsequently led the Whig Party in the state. Elected governor in 1838, he entered the U.S. Senate in 1849 and established himself as a promoter of America's mission in the world and a leading opponent of slavery. In 1850, he appealed to a “higher law than the Constitution” in condemning slavery, and in 1858, by then a Republican, spoke of an “irrepressible conflict” between freedom and slavery.

After losing the party's 1860 presidential nomination to Abraham Lincoln, Seward was offered the State Department as a consolation prize. He accepted only in the false hope of thereby becoming president in all but name. Initially, he proposed going to war with France and Spain in order to reunite the country and avert the Civil War. But his subsequent achievements were considerable.

He worked successfully to keep the European powers out of the Civil War, smoothed relations with Great Britain after the Trent Affair, ended French intervention in Mexico through persuasion and the moving of American troops to the Rio Grande in 1866, and laid the groundwork for the so‐called Alabama claims for damages done by Confederate commerce raiders. He purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 and annexed Midway in the same year, concluded a treaty with Great Britain for the suppression of the African slave trade, and opened diplomatic relations with the black republics of Haiti and Liberia. In his eight years in office, he negotiated more treaties with foreign nations than had all his predecessors combined.

With his vision of an American commercial hegemony that would spread democracy throughout the world, Seward was clearly ahead of his time. Such proposals as acquiring Hawaii, the Dominican Republic, and the Danish West Indies came to nothing at the time, as did plans for an isthmian canal and a worldwide telegraphic communications network. But they clearly foreshadowed the shape of things to come.
[See also Civil War: Domestic Course.]

Bibliography

Glyndon Van Deusen , William Henry Seward, 1967.
Norman B. Ferris , Desperate Diplomacy: William H. Seward's Foreign Policy, 1861, 1976.

Manfred Jonas

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Seward, William H.

Seward, William H. (1801–72) US statesman. Seward lost the Republican nomination for president (1860) to Abraham Lincoln, who appointed him secretary of state. He succeeded in maintaining good relations with Europe during the Civil War, and his handling of the Trent Affair averted British recognition of the Confederacy. Seward was wounded in the shooting that killed Lincoln, but continued in office under Andrew Johnson, negotiating (1867) the purchase of Alaska.

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