Seward, William Henry

Seward, William Henry,

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 partyAnti-Masonic party,
American political organization that rose after the disappearance in W New York state in 1826 of William Morgan. A former Mason, Morgan had written a book purporting to reveal Masonic secrets.
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 and later (1834) he and his close personal and political friend, Thurlow WeedWeed, Thurlow
, 1797–1882, American journalist and political leader, b. Cairo, N.Y. After working on various newspapers in W New York, Weed joined the Rochester Telegraph and was influential as a supporter of John Quincy Adams.
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 were founding members of the Whig partyWhig party,
one of the two major political parties of the United States in the second quarter of the 19th cent. Origins

As a party it did not exist before 1834, but its nucleus was formed in 1824 when the adherents of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay joined forces
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 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.


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. ChaseChase, Salmon Portland,
1808–73, American public official and jurist, 6th chief justice of the United States (1864–73), b. Cornish, N.H. Admitted to the bar in 1829, he defended runaway blacks so often that he became known as "attorney general for fugitive slaves.
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, eternally ambitious for the presidency, in the same cabinet. Seward's handling of delicate matters of diplomacy with Great Britain, particularly in the Trent AffairTrent Affair,
incident in the diplomatic relations between the United States and Great Britain, which occurred during the American Civil War. On Nov. 8, 1861, the British mail packet Trent, carrying James M.
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, 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 BoothBooth, John Wilkes
, 1838–65, American actor, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, b. near Bel Air, Md.; son of Junius Brutus Booth and brother of Edwin Booth. He made his stage debut at the age of 17 in Baltimore.
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 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 JohnsonJohnson, Andrew,
1808–75, 17th President of the United States (1865–69), b. Raleigh, N.C. Early Life

His father died when Johnson was 3, and at 14 he was apprenticed to a tailor.
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. 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.


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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