William Henry Seward served as Secretary of State during the administration of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. During his tenure he brokered a deal with Russia for the United States to purchase Alaska.
William Henry Seward was born in Florida, New York, on May 16, 1801. He was the fourth of six children of Samuel Sweezy Seward and Mary Jennings Seward. Seward’s father was a prominent physician and land speculator. His grandfather served as a colonel in the New Jersey Militia during the Revolutionary War. Seward’s family owned several slaves until New York abolished slavery in 1827. His personal familiarity with the inequities of bondage contributed to Seward’s contempt for the practice as an adult.
As a child, Seward attended a one-room school near his home. At the age of nine, Seward’s parents sent him to a boarding school at the Farmer’s Hall Academy in Goshen, New York. At age fifteen, he enrolled at Union College in Schenectady, New York to study law. Following a disagreement with his father, Seward left school in January 1819 and traveled to Georgia, where he briefly taught school. Six months later, he returned home and graduated from Union College with honors in 1820.
In 1821, Seward joined the New York State Bar. Two years later, he entered a law partnership with Judge Elijah Miller in Auburn, New York. Soon thereafter, Seward began courting Judge Miller’s daughter, Frances Adeline Miller. The couple married on October 20, 1824. Their marriage produced five children.
While living in Auburn, Seward became active in politics, first as a member of the dying Federalist Party and then as an anti-Jacksonian National Republican Party. In 1824, while in Rochester, Seward met newspaper editor and politico Thurlow Weed. The two became friends, and Weed served as Seward’s political adviser throughout the latter’s career.
By 1830, 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. When the influence of the short-lived Anti-Masonic Party began to wane, Seward became a leading organizer of its successor, the Whig Party. In 1834, the Whigs selected Seward as their candidate in the New York gubernatorial election, but he lost the election to incumbent Democratic Governor William L. Marcy.
Following his stint in the New York Senate, Seward briefly retired from politics and returned to his law practice. From 1836 to 1838, Seward served as an agent for the Holland Land Company, a group of Dutch investors who owned vast expanses of land in western New York.
Governor of New York
He resumed his political career in 1838 when New York voters elected him as governor of the state. Re-elected in 1840, Seward served a total of four years. During his tenure, Seward promoted prison reform, increased funding for public education, advocated state support for parochial schools, and sought the extension of canal and railroad systems to promote economic growth. On the national level, Seward endorsed the Whig stand against the territorial expansion of slavery.
Seward’s lifestyle as governor exacted a costly toll on his personal finances, and he decided not to run for reelection in 1842. Instead, he returned to his law practice as a high profile attorney for the next seven years. In 1849, the Whig-controlled New York State Legislature selected Seward to represent the state in the United States Senate. As a U.S. Senator, Seward staunchly opposed to the extension of slavery. In 1850, he 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 Seward’s first term in the Senate, New York legislators selected him for a second term in 1855.
During the 1850s, Seward and his wife opened their Auburn home as a safe-house for fugitive slaves. In 1857, 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.
During his tenure in the Senate, Seward helped found the Republican Party. As the presidential election of 1860 approached, many considered him to be the leading Republican candidate. On the advice of Thurlow Weed, Seward undertook an eight-month tour of Europe in 1859 to avoid publically making inflammatory statements that might offend potential supporters.
Seward returned to find that dark-horse candidate Abraham Lincoln had gained considerable popularity within the party during his absence. At the 1860 national convention in Chicago, Republicans unexpectedly selected Lincoln as their candidate on the third ballot, dashing Seward’s presidential dreams. A disappointed Seward gracefully accepted the party’s choice and championed Lincoln’s candidacy. Following Lincoln’s election in November, the president-elect rewarded Seward’s loyalty by nominating him for the prime cabinet position of Secretary of State.
U.S. Secretary of State
Still serving in the Senate between Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and inauguration in March 1861, Seward worked unsuccessfully to preserve the Union as it teetered on the brink of civil war. Seward assumed his duties as Secretary of State in the Lincoln administration with expectations to domineer his ostensibly unsophisticated leader from the backwoods of Illinois. Like many of Lincoln’s political friends and foes alike, Seward underestimated Lincoln’s political acumen and soon discovered that there was much more to the president than met the eye. After Lincoln established who was in charge, he and Seward grew to be close friends.
During his tenure as Secretary of State, Seward focused on the relationship between European powers and the Confederacy. Despite persistent efforts from Southern diplomats, Seward successfully dissuaded any nation from granting official recognition to the Confederacy. Thus, foreign aid to the South throughout the Civil War was limited to goods that were smuggled through the United States military blockade.
Because of his friendship with Lincoln, during the war, Seward became a target of Radical Republicans, who disagreed with administration policies. In 1862, Lincoln cleverly checked an attempt by Republican senators to force Seward from the cabinet.
Seward nearly lost his life on the same night that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln. On April 14, 1865, Lewis Powell, a co-conspirator of Booth, visited Seward’s home on the pretense of delivering medicine to the secretary who had been injured in a carriage accident a few days before. Upon entering the house, Powell pistol-whipped Seward’s son, Frederick, into unconsciousness. The would-be assassin then forced his way into Seward’s bedroom and savagely attacked secretary with a knife. Miraculously, Seward survived numerous wounds to his face and neck. The stress of the ordeal may have contributed to the death of Seward’s wife, Frances. After traveling from Auburn to minister to her husband and son in Washington, Mrs. Seward suffered a fatal heart attack on June 21, 1865. Later that year, a military tribunal sentenced Powell to death for his attack on Seward and for his role as a co-conspirator in the president’s assassination. Executioners hanged Powell on July 7, 1865.
Seward stayed on as Secretary of State for President Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s death. As a moderate on Reconstruction issues, Seward often found himself caught between Radical Republicans in Congress and Johnson’s more lenient policies. In general, however, Seward remained loyal to Johnson, and he helped broker the president’s acquittal by the United States Senate after Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.
Beyond Reconstruction, Seward devoted his energies to expansionist policies. Congress thwarted several of his attempts to annex additional territories, but in 1867, Seward brokered a deal to purchase Alaska from Russia for 7.2 million dollars (about two cents per acre). The press and public ridiculed Seward for the acquisition, referring to it as “Seward’s folly” and “Seward’s icebox.” Still, the secretary remained confident about the future benefits of the transaction. When asked to name 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.”
Return to Civilian Life
Seward retired from his duties as Secretary of State when Ulysses S. Grant assumed the presidency on March 4, 1869. He returned to Auburn, and in August 1870, he departed for a trip around the world that covered 44,000 miles in fourteen months. Upon returning home, Seward undertook finishing his autobiography and writing an account of his trip, which he titled William H. Seward’s Travels around the World. Both works were published posthumously.
During the first week of October 1872, Seward developed a cough accompanied by intermittent high fevers. His conditioned worsened during the next week, and he began experiencing difficulty breathing. On October 10, Seward died at his home in Auburn. Following his funeral on October 14, which many dignitaries attended, Seward was laid to rest alongside his wife at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.