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War between the States
William Henry Seward


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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