Portrait of William H. Seward

In 1867, William H. Seward brokered a deal to purchase Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million (about two cents per acre). The press and public ridiculed the deal, referring to it as “Seward’s folly” and “Seward’s icebox.” [Wikimedia Commons]

William Henry Seward - Facts

May 16, 1801 - October 10, 1872

Key facts about William H, Seward who served as Secretary of State during the administration of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson and brokered a deal with Russia for the United States to purchase Alaska.

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Full Name:

  • William Henry Seward

Birth Date:

  • May 16, 1801

Birth Location:

  • Florida, New York

Parents:

  • Samuel Sweezy Seward and Mary Jennings Seward

Education:

  • Union College (1820)

Occupation:

  • Lawyer
  • Politician

Career Summary:

  • Governor of New York
  • U.S. Senator
  • U.S. Secretary of State

Spouse:

  • Frances Adeline Miller (1824)

Nickname(s):

  • Higher Law Seward

Place of Death:

  • Auburn, New York

Date of Death:

  • October 10, 1872

Place of Burial:

  • Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York

Significance:

  • William H. Seward was the fourth of six children of Samuel Sweezy Seward and Mary Jennings Seward.
  • William H. Seward’s father was a prominent physician and land speculator.
  • William H. Seward’s grandfather was a colonel in the New Jersey Militia during the Revolutionary War.
  • William H. Seward’s family owned several slaves until New York abolished slavery in 1827.
  • As a child, William H. Seward attended a one-room school near his home.
  • At the age of nine, William H. Seward was sent to boarding school at the Farmer’s Hall Academy in Goshen, New York.
  • At age fifteen, William H. Seward enrolled at Union College in Schenectady to study law.
  • Following a disagreement with his father, William H. Seward left school in January 1819 and traveled to Georgia where he briefly taught school.
  • William H. Seward graduated from Union College with honors in 1820.
  • In 1821, William H. Seward was admitted to the New York State Bar.
  • In 1823, William H. Seward entered into a law partnership with Judge Elijah Miller in Auburn, New York.
  • William H. Seward married Frances Adeline Miller on October 20, 1824. Their marriage produced five children.
  • While living in Auburn, New York William H. Seward became active in politics, first as a member of the dying Federalist Party and then as an anti-Jacksonian National Republican.
  • In 1824, while in Rochester, William H. Seward met newspaper editor and politico Thurlow Weed. The two became friends and Weed served as Seward’s political advisor throughout the latter’s career.
  • By 1830, William H. Seward had joined the Anti-Masonic Party and voters from New York’s seventh district elected him to represent them in the state senate, where he served until 1834.
  • William H. Seward was a leading organizer of the Whig Party.
  • In 1838, New York voters elected William H. Seward as governor and reelected him in 1840.
  • In 1849, the Whig-controlled New York State Legislature selected William H. Seward to represent the state in the United States Senate.
  • As a U.S. Senator, William H. Seward was a vocal opponent to the extension of slavery.
  • In 1850 William H. Seward earned the nickname “Higher Law Seward” for maintaining that there was a “higher law than the Constitution” while arguing against the adoption of the Compromise of 1850.
  • At the completion of William H. Seward’s first term in the Senate, New York legislators selected him for a second term in 1855.
  • During the 1850s, William H. Seward and his wife opened their Auburn home as a safehouse for fugitive slaves.
  • In 1857, William H. Seward provided sanctuary to Harriet Tubman in a brick home on the outskirts of Auburn. Two years later, Seward sold the house to Tubman for a modest sum on lenient terms.
  • William H. Seward was an active leader in the founding of the Republican Party.
  • William H. Seward was considered to be the leading Republican candidate for President of the United States. Instead, Republicans nominated dark-horse candidate Abraham Lincoln.
  • President-elect Abraham Lincoln nominated William H. Seward for the prime cabinet position of Secretary of State on December 28, 1860.
  • During his tenure as secretary of state, William H. Seward successfully discouraged any foreign nations from officially recognizing the Confederate States of America.
  • Because of his personal friendship with Abraham Lincoln, during the course of the war, William H. Seward became a target of Radical Republicans who disagreed with administration policies, but were reluctant to directly assail the president.
  • In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln thwarted an attempt by Republican senators to force William H. Seward from the cabinet.
  • On April 14, 1865, Lewis Powell attempted to assassinate William H. Seward.
  • William H. Seward served as secretary of state for President Andrew Johnson.
  • In 1867, William H. Seward successfully brokered a deal to purchase Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million (about two cents per acre).
  • The press and public ridiculed William H. Seward’s purchase of Alaska, referring to it as “Seward’s folly” and “Seward’s icebox.”
  • When asked to name his greatest achievement as secretary of state, William H. Seward replied, “The purchase of Alaska—but it will take the people a generation to find it out.”
  • William H. Seward retired from his duties as secretary of state when Ulysses S. Grant assumed the presidency on March 4, 1869.
  • William H. Seward died at his home in Auburn, New York on October 10, 1872.
  • Following his funeral on October 14, 1872, which was attended by many dignitaries, William H. Seward was laid to rest alongside his wife at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.
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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title William Henry Seward - Facts
  • Coverage May 16, 1801 - October 10, 1872
  • Author
  • Keywords William Henry Seward
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 27, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 29, 2021
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