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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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William Henry Seward

William Henry Seward

Born May 16, 1801
Florida, New York
Died October 10, 1872
Auburn, New York

Secretary of state in the
Lincoln and Johnson administrations

William Henry Seward was an important political figure throughout the Civil War era. In the 1840s and 1850s, he became known as one of America's leading advocates of abolitionism (the movement to end slavery). During the war, he joined the administration of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) as secretary of state and became one of the president's most trusted advisors. Seward remained in his position as secretary of state through the first years of Reconstruction (the period from 1865 to 1877 during which the Southern states were rebuilt and rejoined the United States) as well. During this period, Seward supported President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; see entry) and his generous policies toward the South and negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia.

Growing up in rural New York

William Henry Seward was born in 1801 in Florida, New York, a small village in the southern region of the state. His father was Samuel Seward, a wealthy landowner who was very strict with young William and his five brothers and sisters. His mother was Mary Jennings, who treated her children with kindness and affection.

As a boy, Seward had his full share of chores around the family farm. Health problems bothered him throughout his childhood, though, leading his parents to wonder if he had the strength to succeed at farming or other strenuous pursuits. "My health caused me to be early set apart for a collegiate education, [which was regarded at the time] by every family . . . as a privilege so high and so costly that not more than one son could expect it," remembered Seward.

In 1816, Seward's father enrolled him in Union College, an all-male school in Schenectady, New York. Seward excelled in his studies, graduating four years later with top honors. In October 1822, he passed the state bar exam, which enabled him to practice law in New York. Soon after passing the exam, he accepted a position at a law firm in Auburn, New York, where he maintained a home for the rest of his life. In 1824, he married a local girl named Frances Miller, with whom he eventually had four children.

Law and politics

Seward's law practice became very successful during the 1820s. As the years passed, however, Seward never really warmed up to the idea of being an attorney. Instead, he became attracted to local and state politics. In 1830, he was elected to the state senate, where he quickly emerged as one of New York's brightest young legislators. He maintained his flourishing law practice during this time, but devoted most of his energy to his senatorial duties.

In the mid-1830s, Seward became a dedicated member of the Whigs, a new political party that believed in a strong national bank, high tariffs (taxes on imported goods), and social reforms designed to help poor people. In 1834, he ran for governor of New York as the Whig nominee, only to be decisively defeated. Four years later, however, he won the governor's office by a sizable margin.

Governor of New York

Seward served as governor of New York for two terms, from 1839 to 1843. During this time he became widely known for his efforts to improve education, increase economic development, expand state canal and railroad systems, and improve conditions in prisons. He worked hard to expand educational opportunities for immigrant children, for example, and tried to relieve the terrible conditions in the New York prison system.

Seward's opposition to slavery also became evident during this period. He endorsed bills that increased the civil rights of both free blacks and fugitive slaves, and changed laws to make it easier for black children to obtain an education. Seward's views on slavery became even better known, however, when he got in a bitter fight with Virginia slaveowners.

Seward's dispute with Virginia erupted in 1839, when three black sailors from New York state unsuccessfully attempted to smuggle (secretly carry) a Virginia slave aboard their ship. When Virginia's governor learned about the scheme, he demanded that the three sailors be turned over to Virginia officials for trial. Seward responded by launching an attack on the institution of slavery and ignoring Virginia's demands. "There is no law of this State which recognizes slavery, no statute which admits that one man can be the property of another, or that one man can be stolen from another," wrote Seward. "[The sailors' act] is not a felony [major crime] nor a crime within the meaning of the constitution." The New York governor's stand "placed Seward squarely in the antislavery camp at a time when the abolitionists were gaining prominence on the national political scene," wrote John M. Taylor in William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand.

Seward joins the U.S. Senate

Seward decided not to seek the governorship of New York in 1842. The political battles of the previous few years had exhausted him, and he decided that he needed to take a break. He returned to his law practice, where he made enough money to pay off several large debts that he had accumulated as governor.

By the mid-1840s, though, Seward's enthusiasm for politics had returned. In 1849, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where his criticism of slavery intensified. Alarmed at Southern efforts to expand slavery into America's western territories, he warned of a future war between the slavery-dependent South and the Northern states, where slavery was increasingly viewed as immoral. In the mid-1850s, Seward left the Whig Party, which was falling apart because of disagreements over slavery. He joined a new antislavery party known as the Republicans.

Within a matter of months, Seward emerged as one of the leading antislavery voices of the new party. On October 25, 1858, for example, he delivered a famous speech in Rochester, New York, where he warned of an approaching "irrepressible conflict" between the South's slave-based economy and the North's free labor economy. "The United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation," he stated. "I know, and you know, that a revolution has begun. . . . While the government of the United States, under the conduct of the Democratic party, has been all that time surrendering one plain and castle after another to slavery, the people of the United States have been no less steadily and perseveringly [persistently] gathering together the forces with which to recover back again all the fields and castles that have been lost."

By 1860, Seward was completing his second full term as senator (he was reelected in 1855) and thinking about running for president of the United States. After all, he was one of America's best known political leaders, and he knew he could count on support from many influential Republican Party leaders. As the time drew near for Republicans to select their candidate for president in the fall 1860 elections, Seward was sure that he would win the nomination.

As it turned out, however, Seward did not receive the party's nomination. Some delegates (representatives) opposed him because of his past policies as New York governor. Others voted against him because they knew that Seward's strong antislavery reputation would make him unpopular with Southern voters. These factors enabled a relatively unknown politician named Abraham Lincoln to capture the Republican nomination for the presidency. Lincoln's victory shocked Seward and his supporters, as well as the rest of the nation. But after spending a few weeks at his home in Auburn, Seward actively campaigned for Lincoln's election.

The American Civil War begins

In November 1860, widespread support from Northern voters enabled Lincoln to defeat Democratic candidates Stephen Douglas (1813–1861) and Vice President John C. Breckinridge (1821–1875) to become the sixteenth president of the United States. Lincoln's victory infuriated America's Southern states, though. Republicans had hoped that their decision to nominate Lincoln instead of a "radical abolitionist" like Seward would reassure white Southerners that the party wanted to settle North-South differences over slavery through negotiation and compromise. But most white Southerners believed that all Republicans were alike. They worried that Lincoln would take immediate steps to abolish (eliminate) slavery, which they viewed as the cornerstone of their economic and social lives.

As a result, a number of Southern states seceded from (left) the United States following Lincoln's election. With their enemies in control of the U.S. government, they felt that the only way they could protect their rights as independent states was to leave the Union. But it soon became clear that the North was willing to fight to keep the Southern states in the Union. Within a matter of months, the two sides were at war.

Lincoln's secretary of state

When Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860, he asked Seward to serve as his secretary of state. Seward accepted the position, which was the most important one in the entire cabinet (a group of advisors who guide various departments of government). Upon arriving in Washington, D.C., however, Seward acted as if he were the president. Skeptical about Lincoln's abilities to lead the country, he lectured the president about various policy issues and tried to dictate military strategy.

Seward's actions angered Lincoln. But the president knew that the New York native was a bright legislator and a talented statesman. As a result, he skillfully neutralized Seward's maneuvers until mid-1861, when the secretary of state realized that Lincoln knew what he was doing. From that point on, Seward accepted his role and became an important member of the Lincoln administration.

As the Civil War progressed, Seward proved his value to Lincoln in many ways. For example, Lincoln recognized that if Great Britain or France declared support for the Confederate government, the Union might have to let the Southern states go or risk a disastrous trade war with Europe. Seward used his diplomatic skills to convince Great Britain and France to withhold recognition of the Confederacy's claim of independence. He also intervened to prevent foreign nations from providing the South with ships, weapons, and other supplies.

By the time the war ended in the spring of 1865, Seward had become a close friend and trusted advisor to Lincoln. After all, they had spent the previous four years laboring together to restore the Union and defending each other from critics who did not like their wartime policies. On April 14, 1865, however, their friendship and alliance came to a tragic end. That evening, fanatical Southern sympathizers attacked both men in separate incidents. Seward was attacked in the bedroom of his Washington, D.C., home, where he was recovering from a carriage accident. He suffered several stab wounds at the hands of Lewis Paine, but survived the assault. Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth while attending a play at Washington's Ford Theatre.

"Seward's Folly"

Lincoln's death vaulted Vice President Andrew Johnson into the presidency on April 15, 1865. Seward continued to serve as secretary of state in the Johnson administration. He supported Johnson's Reconstruction policies, which were widely criticized for being too lenient on the South. Defending Johnson's approach to restoring the Southern states to the Union, Seward argued that "history shows that the more generous and magnanimous [forgiving] the conqueror to the conquered, the sooner victory has been followed by conciliation and a lasting peace."

In 1867, Seward made his most remarkable postwar contribution when he negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. Some people referred to the acquisition of Alaska as "Seward's Folly," because they could not believe that he had paid so much money for a distant land of ice and mountains. As time passed, however, Americans realized that Seward's purchase of the land was one of the great bargains of all time.

Seward left his government position in March 1869, when Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry) became president of the United States. He returned to Auburn, but soon became restless in retirement. He subsequently went on a tour of the world with some family friends. Shortly after his return to Auburn, however, his health began to decline. He died on October 10, 1872.

Where to Learn More

Lothrop, Thonrton Kirkland. William Henry Seward. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895. Reprint, 1972.

Taylor, John M. William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Van Deusen, Glyndon G. William Henry Seward. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

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Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.