William Henry Seward, b. Florida, N.Y., May 16, 1801, d.
Oct. 10, 1872, was a Republican party leader and U.S. secretary of state (1861-69). After
practicing law he entered New York politics and became a state senator (1830-34), the
first Whig governor of New York (1838-42), and a U.S. senator (1849-61). He advocated
internal improvements, prison reform, and the education of immigrants in their own
languages by teachers of their own religious faiths.
Although he did not think blacks equal to whites, Seward was an outspoken opponent of
slavery. In 1850 he advocated barring slavery from the territories by appealing to a
"higher law than the Constitution." That year he also described sectional
controversy as an "irrepressible conflict," thereby earning an unmerited
reputation for radicalism.
Seward was the front-runner for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination but failed to
attain it; many Republicans feared that his record of support for antislavery and Catholic
rights did not have a broad enough appeal. Appointed secretary of state by his successful
rival, President Abraham Lincoln, Seward succeeded in maintaining good relations with
European nations during the Civil War and in preventing them from extending recognition to
the Confederacy. After settling the TRENT AFFAIR amicably by releasing two Confederate
agents who had been removed from a British ship, he convinced England that British
recognition of the South would mean war. He waited until after the Confederate surrender
before pressing strongly for French withdrawal from Mexico.
Lincoln came to trust Seward's advice on domestic questions, most notably in delaying the
announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation until after the Union victory at Antietam in
1862. John Wilkes Booth included Seward as a target in the assassination plot that
succeeded in killing Lincoln; although severely wounded, Seward survived. Continuing as
secretary of state under Andrew Johnson, he backed the president against Radical
Republican attacks. An expansionist, Seward purchased (1867) Alaska for the United States
and favored the acquisition of the Danish West Indies (the Virgin Islands) and Hawaii.
Mark E. Neely, Jr.
Bibliography: Bancroft, Frederic, The Life of William H. Seward, 2 vols. (1900; repr.
1967); Paolino, Ernest N., The Foundations of the American Empire: William Henry Seward
and U.S. Foreign Policy (1973); Taylor, John M., William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right
Hand (1991); Van Deusen, Glyndon G., William Henry Seward (1967).
NOTE: Though it is not mentioned in the above article William Seward lived a good deal of
his life in Auburn, and died there. A museum was made out of his mansion and is still a
tourist attraction there today.
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