On a September evening in 1816, a slight, redheaded fifteen-year-old boy left his home in the rural village of Florida, N.Y., to board a steamboat for Albany. Changing from steamboat to stagecoach in Albany, he eventually reached his destination — Schenectady and college.
After breakfast at Givens' Tavern, the
youth — William Henry Seward — walked up the hill to Union. Once in the
office of the register, he was immediately introduced to the Rev. Thomas McAuley, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, for an examination to determine his fitness.
McAuley, after questioning the young man for half an hour, pronounced him more than qualified, and Seward was promptly admitted to Union as a member of the sophomore class (he wanted to enter as a junior, but college rules made sixteen the lowest permissible age for entering the junior class). By nightfall, his “chum” was chosen, his room supplied with cheap furniture, and, as he wrote in his autobiography, he “sat down to meditate, with self-complacency, on the dignity of my new situation.”
Seward was an able and determined
student, and three years later he graduated with the highest honors in his
class. His ability and determination would carry him to the highest levels of
service in the United States, and he made his mark on American history as a
politician and statesman of genuine distinction. He is thought by some
historians to be our greatest secretary of state, and by many to be second only
to John Quincy Adams.
Yet we seldom remember him except for
one of the last acts of his career — the purchase of Alaska, or, as countless
schoolchildren have learned to call it, “Seward's Folly.” To note the
200th anniversary of his birth, we present this brief look at one of
the nineteenth-century's most remarkable politicians.
William Henry Seward came to Union at the direction of his father, Samuel, who admired the great and growing reputation of the College's president, Eliphalet Nott.
The elder Seward had been educated a
physician, and added to that the occupations of farmer, merchant, and
politician. When William was three, his father represented Orange County in the
state legislature; the year before William entered Union, his father had been appointed the first judge of Orange County.
It is no doubt an exaggeration to say that an impulse to enter politics is an inherited trait, but the younger Seward did show an early tendency to take after his father. During his junior year at Union, the Republican Party in New York divided into two sections, with DeWitt Clinton, the governor, at the head of one section, and Martin Van Buren at the head of the other. The Van Buren section, eager to defeat Clinton, nominated Daniel Tompkins, then the vice president of the country. Tompkins, on a tour of the eastern part of the state, came to Schenectady, and Union's Republican students invited him to campus.
In his autobiography, Seward noted, “Should I not study carefully the first political speech I was to make, especially when that speech was an address to the greatest patriot and statesman whom my native state had produced? I did study the speech, and I did make it; but, like many
other well-studied speeches, made to or for political candidates in our
country, this effort of mine 'fell on stony ground;' and, in spite of the
advice of the Republican students of Union College, DeWitt Clinton was
re-elected Governor of the State of New York.”
After Seward graduated, he pursued the law, working in law offices in Goshen, N.Y., and New York City. He passed the New York State Bar in 1821 and soon began practicing law, building a reputation as a skilled criminal lawyer (he once used the insanity defense in the case of a black man who had murdered a family in Auburn, N.Y. — one of the first uses of the insanity defense).
His public career at the state and national level began in 1830. He joined forces with the masterful political manager, Thurlow Weed, and won a seat in the state senate as a member from Cayuga County. In 1834, he was nominated by the Whigs for governor; he lost that election but won a rematch in 1838, becoming the first Whig governor of New York. During his four year-term, he tried (often unsuccessfully) to use the power of state government to expand internal improvements, such as railroads and canals, and for public education. He also worked for reform of prisons and insane asylums, won legislation to better the position of immigrants, and became a political
spokesman for New York's antislavery movement.
It was his belief in the antislavery cause that turned Seward into a national figure.
After his term as governor ended in 1843, Seward returned to his law practice in Auburn, N.Y. He had consistently expressed his opposition to slavery, and once back in Auburn as a private citizen, he and his wife, Frances, helped Harriet Taubman and the Underground Railroad by hiding
fugitive slaves in their home.
In 1849 Seward was elected to the United States Senate and, on March 11, 1850, in his first major speech, he electrified the country by declaring that the territorial expansion of slavery was contrary to the U.S. Constitution and “higher law.”
“But there is a higher law than the
Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain and devotes it to the same noble purpose. … And now the simple, bold, and awful question which presents itself to us is this: Shall we who are founding institutions, social and politicial, for countless millions; shall we, who know by experience the wise and the just and are free to choose them and to reject the erroneous and the unjust; shall we establish human bondage or permit it by our sufferance to be established? … Sir, there is no Christian nation, thus free to choose as we are, which would establish slavery.”
In the north, his “higher law” speech made Seward the foremost political leader of the anti-slavery forces. In the South, his position was roundly condemned. (The idea of a higher law probably came from the man who taught Seward — Eliphalet Nott. Nott, in his sermons, frequently
referred to the idea of a higher law, and Seward was very much influenced by
In the mid-1850s, the Whig Party collapsed, to a great extent the victim of disagreement over slavery between Northern and Southern Whigs. Seward, Weed, and others established the Republican Party, which held its first convention to nominate a candidate for president in 1856. Seward wanted to run, but was persuaded by Weed to wait four years. Two years later, in Rochester, N.Y., Seward again electrified the country with his
“irrepressible conflict” speech.
Discussing the slave system and the free-labor system, Seward noted that the two have existed in different states because the Union is a confederation of states. But increasing population, together with a network of railroads and an expanding commerce, is bringing the states closer
together, he said.
“Thus, these antagonistic systems are
continually coming into closer contact, and collision results.
“Shall I tell you what this collision means? They who think that it is accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators and therefor ephemeral, mistake the case altogether. It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free-labor nation.”
The speech caused Roger Tanney, chief justice of the Supreme Court, to say that if Seward were elected president in 1860 he would refuse to administer the oath. It caused many Southerners to accuse Seward of setting the tone that led to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, and it led a Richmond newspaper to offer a $50,000 reward for the head of that traitor, William H. Seward.
Despite his controversial public face, Seward entered the 1860 race for the Republican presidential nomination. As the convention approached, he softened his words — bot not enough. Despite his prominence and influence, the Republicans turned to a candidate who, it was thought, would have a better chance of carrying states in the lower part of the North — Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. On the third ballot, the moderate candidate –Abraham Lincoln — was nominated.
Seward was hurt by the defeat. But buoyed by letters urging him to remain active in the party, he campaigned actively for Lincoln. A few weeks after the election, Lincoln offered Seward the position of secretary of state in his cabinet. The offer was accompanied by a warm letter in which Lincoln praised Seward's position, integrity, learning, and great experience.
Seward made several mistakes in his first months in the State Department. He presented Lincoln with a paper titled “Thoughts for the President's
Consideration,” which not only suggested policies he thought the president should follow but also, in essence, volunteered to make the decisions if the president wouldn't. Contained in the paper was the notion that Lincoln should threaten war against France and Spain for violating the Monroe Doctrine in Mexico and the Caribbean; the idea seemed to be that provoking foreign powers might unify American opinion at home and perhaps prevent the coming of a civil war.
Lincoln put Seward in his place, but kindly enough so that Seward remained in the cabinet. He became a valued advisor to the president and the person with whom the president was most relaxed. The relationship was undoubtedly helped by the fact that Seward was optimistic and had great faith in his country. His diplomatic correspondence was written to solidify Northern public opinion and at all times showed a confidence in the
outcome of the war. He also met the practical issues of the day with skill,
most notably keeping the European powers from intervening in the American
The night that President Lincoln was assassinated, a conspirator of the assassin went to Seward's home to kill the secretary of state. Seward suffered knife wounds in the attack, which resulted in an outpouring of sympathy and support for Seward. Less than a month later, President Andrew Johnson conducted a cabinet meeting at Seward's residence, a tribute to his importance in the government.
Seward's optimism and his democratic faith, which had played such an important role during the Civil War, were manifested in a different way in his years as secretary of state under Johnson. The purchase of Alaska illustrates.
Russia, weakened by the Crimean War, became eager to sell what we now know as Alaska. The U.S. Senate, however, was bitterly opposed to the administration, and the chairman of the Foreign relations Committee did not agree with Seward on the problems of reconstruction. In addition, the
public at large seemed to have little use for what they quickly dubbed
“Seward's Icebox.” Seward persevered, however, and in 1867 the Senate
voted thirty-seven to two to support the treaty Seward drew up. The wisdom of
the decision was soon apparent. By 1900 Alaska had yielded in fish, furs, and
gold nearly $150 million, and the revenue tax on sealskins had brought in a sum larger than the purchase price of $7.2 million.
Less noticed in 1867 were his efforts that led to the acquisition of the Midway Islands in the Pacific Ocean. And if he had had his way, he would have gone farther. He negotiated a treaty for the acquisition of the Dutch West Indies; he toyed with the idea of incorporating the Dominican Republic into the United Srates; he advocated the annexation of Hawaii; he pursued acquiring the right to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama; and
he examined the possibility of establishing American naval bases in the
Caribbean. But public opinion did not support such expansionism, and Seward
retired from the State Department in 1868. He spent much of his remaining years traveling and was working on a book about his trips when he died at his home in Auburn in 1872.