William Henry Seward, Sr. (May 16, 1801 October 10, 1872) was a Governor of New York, United States Senator and the United States Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. An outspoken opponent of the spread of slavery in the years leading up to the American Civil War, he was a dominant figure in the Republican party in its formative years, and was widely regarded as the leading contender for the party's presidential nomination in 1860 yet his very outspokenness may have cost him the the nomination. Despite his loss, he became a loyal member of Lincoln's wartime cabinet, and played a role in preventing foreign intervention early in the war. On the night of Lincoln's assassination, he survived an attempt on his life in the conspirators' effort to decapitate the Union government. As Johnson's Secretary of State, he engineered the purchase of Alaska from Russia in an act that was ridiculed at the time as "Seward's Folly," but which exemplified his character. His contemporary Carl Schurz described Seward as "one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints.
Seward was born in Florida, Orange County, New York, on May 16, 1801, one of five children of Samuel Sweezy Seward and his wife Mary Jennings Seward. Samuel Seward, described as "a prosperous, domineering doctor and businessman, was the founder of the S. S. Seward Institute, today a secondary school in the Florida Union Free School District.
Seward studied law at Union College, graduating in 1820 with highest honors. He was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1821. In that same year, he met Frances Adeline Miller, a classmate of his sister Cornelia at Emma Willard's Troy Female Seminary and the daughter of Judge Elijah Miller of Auburn, New York. In 1823, he moved to Auburn where he entered into law partnership with Judge Miller, and married Frances Miller on October 20, 1824. They raised five children:
Seward entered politics with the help of his friend Thurlow Weed, whom he had met by chance after a stagecoach accident. In 1830, Seward was elected to the state senate as an Anti-Masonic candidate, and served for four years. In 1834, the 33-year-old Seward was named the Whig party candidate for Governor of New York, but lost to incumbent Democrat William Marcy who won 52% of the vote to Seward's 48%.
From 1836 to 1838, Seward served as agent for the Holland Land Company in Westfield, New York, where he was successful in easing tensions between the company and local landowners. On July 16, 1837, he delivered to the students and faculty of the newly-formed Westfield Academy a Discourse on Education, in which he advocated for universal education.
In 1838, Seward again challenged Marcy, and was elected Governor of New York by a majority of 51.4% to Marcy's 48.6%. He was narrowly re-elected to a second two-year term in 1840. As a state senator and governor, Seward promoted progressive political policies including prison reform and increased spending on education. He supported state funding for schools for immigrants operated by their own clergy and taught in their native language. This support, which included Catholic parochial schools, came back to haunt him in the 1850s, when anti-Catholic feelings were high, especially among ex-Whigs in the Republican Party.
Beginning in the late 1830s, Seward became a radical opponent of slavery. His views and the even stronger anti-slavery feelings of his wife were formed in part by their observations of the conditions of slavery while traveling in the South with their children in 1835. He opposed the expansion of slavery and resisted attempts by Southern states to extradite those who enabled fugitive slaves to escape.
In 1846 Seward became the center of controversy in his hometown when he defended, in separate cases, two convicts accused of murder. Henry Wyatt, a white man, was charged in the stabbing death of a fellow prison inmate; William Freeman, of African American and Native American ancestry, was accused of breaking into a home and stabbing four people to death. In both cases the defendants were mentally ill and had been severely abused while in prison. Seward, having long been an advocate of prison reform and better treatment for the insane, sought to prevent both men from being executed by using a relatively new defense of insanity. In a case involving mental illness with heavy racial overtones Seward argued, "The color of the prisoner’s skin, and the form of his features, are not impressed upon the spiritual immortal mind which works beneath. In spite of human pride, he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race—the image of our Maker. Hold him then to be a Man.
Later, Seward quoted Freeman’s brother-in-law, praising his eloquence: “They have made William Freeman what he is, a brute beast; they don’t make anything else of any of our people but brute beasts; but when we violate their laws, then they want to punish us as if we were men.” In the end both men were convicted. Although Wyatt was executed, Freeman, whose conviction was reversed on Seward's successful appeal to the New York Supreme Court, died in his cell of tuberculosis.
He was elected U.S. Senator as a Whig in 1848 and emerged as the leader of the anti-slavery "Conscience Whigs". Seward opposed the Compromise of 1850, and was thought to have encouraged Taylor in his supposed opposition. More recent scholarship suggests that Taylor was not under Seward's influence and would have accepted the Compromise if he had not died.
Seward believed that slavery was morally wrong, and said so many times, outraging Southerners. He acknowledged that slavery was legal under the Constitution, but denied that the Constitution recognized or protected slavery. He famously remarked in 1850 that "there is a higher law than the Constitution". He continued to argue this point of view over the next ten years. He presented himself as the leading enemy of the Slave Power that is, the perceived conspiracy of southern slaveowners to seize the government and defeat the progress of liberty.
When the Whig Party dissolved, Seward joined the Republican Party in 1855 and was re-elected to the Senate. Seward did not seriously compete for the presidential nomination (won by John C. Frémont) in 1856, but sought and was expected to receive the nomination in 1860. In October 1858, he delivered a famous speech in which he argued that the political and economic systems of North and South were incompatible, and that, due to this "irrepressible conflict," the inevitable "collision" of the two systems would eventually result in the nation becoming "either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.". Yet, Seward was not an abolitionist. Like Lincoln, he believed slavery could and should be extinguished by long-run historical forces rather than by coercion or war.
In 1859, confident of gaining the presidential nomination and advised by his political ally and friend Thurlow Weed that he would be better off avoiding political gatherings where his words might be misinterpreted by one faction or another, Seward left the country for an eight-month tour of Europe. During that hiatus, his lesser-known rival Abraham Lincoln worked diligently to line up support in case Seward failed to win on the first ballot. After returning to the United States, Seward gave a conciliatory, pro-Union Senate speech that reassured moderates but alienated some radical Republicans. (Observing events from Europe, Karl Marx, who was ideologically sympathetic to Frémont, contemptuously regarded Seward as a "Republican Richelieu" and the "Demosthenes of the Republican Party" who had sabotaged Frémont's presidential ambitions.) Around the same time, his friend Horace Greeley turned against him, opposing Seward on the grounds that his radical reputation made him unelectable. When Lincoln won the nomination, Seward loyally supported him and made a long speaking tour of the West in the autumn of 1860.
Abraham Lincoln appointed him Secretary of State in 1861 and he served until 1869. As Secretary of State, he argued that the United States must move westward. Proposing American possession of the Danish West Indies, Samaná, Panama, and Hawaii, only the Brook Islands were annexed. Despite a minimal degree of Congressional support however, by the end of his term, Seward had established a realm of informal influence which, nonetheless included the Hawaiian Islands, Japan, and even, China.
Powell then burst into William Seward's bedroom with a bowie knife and stabbed him several times in the face and neck. Powell also attacked and injured another son (Augustus), a soldier (Private George Robinson), who had been assigned to stay with Seward, and a messenger (Emerick Hansell), who arrived just as Powell was escaping.
During the attack Seward was wearing a jaw splint (often incorrectly reported as a "neck brace") as a result of the carriage accident, and it is said that this saved his life. However, he carried the facial scars from the attack for the remainder of his life. The events of that night took their toll on his wife, Frances, who died June 1865. His daughter Fanny died of tuberculosis in October 1866.
Seward's most famous achievement as Secretary of State was his successful acquisition of Alaska from Russia. On March 30, 1867, he completed negotiations for the territory, which involved the purchase of 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 km²) of territory (more than twice the size of Texas) for $7,200,000, or approximately 2 cents per acre. The purchase of this frontier land was alternately mocked by the public as "Seward's Folly," "Seward's Icebox," and Andrew Johnson's "polar bear garden." Currently, Alaska celebrates the purchase on Seward's Day, the last Monday of March.
His son, Frederick, edited and published his memoirs in three volumes.