Name:  William Henry Seward

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Born:  May 16, 1801
Died:  October 10, 1872
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
William Henry Seward, senator and secretary of state, was born in the town of Florida, New York, to Mary Jennings Seward and Samuel Seward, a wealthy land speculator and gentleman farmer. Smart and independent-minded, young William graduated from Union College with high honors in 1820. He began practicing law in 1823 and built a reputation as a skilled criminal lawyer. Seward began his political life backing John Quincy Adams’ National Republican party before switching to the Antimasonic party in 1829. At that time he joined forces with the masterful political manager, Thurlow Weed, forging a lifelong friendship in the process. With Weed behind him, Seward won a seat in the state senate in 1830 and the Whig nomination for governor in 1834. Losing the latter election to Democrat William Marcy, Seward bested the incumbent in a rematch four years later.

As a Whig governor (1839-1843), Seward tried (often unsuccessfully) to use the power of the state government to expand internal improvements, such as railroads and canals, and public education. Many legislators, however, thought that appropriations for additional internal-improvement projects would bankrupt the state, while most Catholics considered the public schools to be a government tool for imposing Protestant values on their children. Governor Seward also advocated reform of prisons and insane asylums, temperance, and became a political spokesman for New York’s antislavery movement. He refused to cooperate in the fugitive slave act and called for an end to racially discriminatory voting regulations.

In 1849 Seward was elected to the U.S. Senate. He quickly gained notoriety with his first significant speech in which he declared that the territorial expansion of slavery was contrary to the U.S. Constitution and "higher law." As a result, he was perceived as an antislavery radical, causing several Whigs, including President Zachary Taylor, to distance themselves from the new senator. Northern and Southern Whigs agreed on most issues, but their disagreement on slavery, compounded by controversy over immigration policy, proved to be a catalyst for the party’s collapse in the mid-1850s. Like many antislavery advocates, Seward was particularly agitated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which opened the territories north of the Missouri Compromise line of 36° 40´ to slavery. With Weed’s critical assistance, Seward secured reelection from a disparate coalition opposed to that new federal law.

From the ashes of the Whig party, Seward, Weed, and other established the Republican party, with opposition to the expansion of slavery as its raison d’être. The senator was tempted to seek the new party’s presidential nomination in 1856 but was persuaded by his political mentor to wait four years. During that time, Seward remained in the public eye. He used his Senate seat to advocate a program for national economic expansion (which underlined the continuity between the Whig and Republican parties): transatlantic railroad, transatlantic telegraph, Western homesteading, protective tariffs, and trade in the Pacific.

Seward continued to attract attention on the slavery issue, particularly with his contention that the Southern system of slavery and the Northern system of free labor were in "irrepressible conflict" with each other. He forecast that the free labor system would eventually prevail if slavery was kept out of the Western territories and as free labor penetrated the South. In 1859 negative publicity after the Harper’s Ferry raid by radical abolitionist John Brown forced Seward to emphasize that his vision of slavery’s end was peaceful, voluntary, and evolutionary. Yet he was still often labeled as an antislavery radical, although some simply considered him to be an unprincipled political opportunist.

Despite his controversial public persona, Seward entered the 1860 race for the Republican presidential nomination as the front-runner. He was an intelligent and talented politician, an influential senator from the state with the most electoral votes, and the most prominent Republican in the country. Because of Republicans’ firm opposition to the expansion of slavery, they comprised a sectional party with strength only in the North. In order to win the presidency, they needed a candidate who could potentially carry states in the lower North which had gone Democratic in 1856—Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. At the Republican National Convention in Chicago, the campaign managers of Abraham Lincoln packed the hall with raucous supporters of the Illinois politician and promoted Lincoln as a moderate alternative to Seward. On the third ballot, Lincoln overtook Seward to win the nomination. The New York senator campaigned loyally for his party’s nominee.

After his election, Lincoln chose his former rival to become secretary of state. The new president followed Seward’s advice to be conciliatory in the inaugural address. Seward, like most of the president’s cabinet, voted to abandon Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, and he informed Virginia Unionists and Confederate representatives in Washington, D.C., that such would be the administration’s position. Instead of holding Fort Sumter, the secretary of state recommended that the U.S. Navy reinforce Fort Pickens off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. Furthermore, he urged the president to threaten war against France and Spain for violating the Monroe Doctrine in Mexico and the Caribbean. This strategy was not intended to precipitate war, but to rally Americans to a united cause; it was hoped to foster cooperation in the national interest without giving in to all Confederate demands or recognizing secession or independence.

Lincoln, instead, decided to reinforce Fort Sumter with non-military supplies, a strategy which provoked South Carolina to fire upon and capture the fort, four more slave states to leave the Union, and the Civil War to begin. The secretary of state’s greatest challenge was to prevent Great Britain and France from aiding the Confederacy or, worse, entering the war as Confederate allies. In November 1861 a Union ship stopped a British vessel, the Trent, and arrested two Confederate diplomats headed for Britain. The so-called Trent Affair infuriated the British government, but Seward managed to diffuse the situation adroitly. He was also able to curtail British outfitting of Confederate warships, but he waited until after the war to pressure Napoleon III into withdrawing support for France’s puppet ruler in Mexico, Maximilian.

After an initially rough start, Seward gained the trust of Lincoln and became a valued advisor to the president. The secretary of state, however, angered more radical Republicans by his wariness of government-mandated emancipation, as opposed to his favored voluntary approach. He did, however, support the 13th Amendment and, in fact, lobbied privately for its passage. He further earned the radicals’ ire by his support of mild Reconstruction policies. He and his son were wounded by a would-be assassin on the same night that Lincoln was murdered.

President Andrew Johnson retained him as secretary of state, but the New Yorker had a more difficult working relationship with the inflexible new president. In 1867 Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia and the annexation of the Midway Islands in the Pacific. He was unable to accomplish further expansionist goals of acquiring Hawaii or beginning construction of a canal across Central America. Upon his retirement he traveled frequently, including a trip around the world, but he died in his New York home. Seward is usually considered to be one of the best secretary of states in American history.

Source consulted: American National Biography











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