Seward, William H. (1801–1872)

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SEWARD, WILLIAM H. (1801–1872)

William Henry Seward was a New York lawyer, governor (1838–1842), United States senator (1849–1861), and secretary of state (1861–1869). As governor he prevented the extradition to Virginia of three men accused of helping a slave escape, and thus set off a minor interstate squabble. In Jones v. Van Zandt (1847) Seward, as cocounsel with salmon p. chase, unsuccessfully appealed the conviction of an Ohio Quaker accused of aiding fugitive slaves. In the Senate, Seward opposed the compromise of 1850, asserting that on the issue of slavery there was " higher law than the Constitution." He supported the admission of Kansas as a free state, attacked the Supreme Court's decision in dred scott v. sandford (1857), and in 1858 declared that slavery had created "an irrepressible conflict" for the Union. During the secession crisis Seward served on the Committee of Thirteen, and proposed that Congress guarantee to protect slavery wherever it existed. Seward thought secession was illegal, but he urged Lincoln to evacuate Fort Sumter and negotiate with Confederate officials. Seward initially opposed the emancipation proclamation and successfully urged Lincoln to delay it until after a Union military victory. In foreign affairs he deftly negotiated to keep Britain and France out of the war, and avoided a conflict with Britain over the Trent affair. He also laid out the legal argument that led to a successful damage claim against Britain over the Alabama. During Reconstruction, Seward supported andrew johnson's policies, and drafted many of his veto messages. He also negotiated the acquisition of Alaska (1867) from Russia.

Paul Finkelman


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