William H. Seward was born on May 16, 1801, in the small community of Florida, New York, southwest of Newburgh. His father was a prominent physician and later a judge. Seward graduated from Union College in 1820, read law, was admitted to the bar and established a practice in Auburn, his home for the remainder of his life.
Seward began his political rise as an opponent of the prevailing Jacksonian views of the day—first as a supporter of John Quincy Adams, then an active anti-Mason and later as a Whig. He served in the New York state assembly from 1830 to 1834, and later was elected governor for the first of two terms in 1838.
Seward was initially a close ally of Thurlow Weed and an enthusiastic backer of Whig support for internal improvements. He also was a supporter of prison and education reforms, and the emerging antislavery movement. Seward failed to win a third term and returned to his law practice.
In a speech in 1835, Seward outlined his reasons for supporting public education:
That responsibility can be discharged faithfully, successfully,
triumphantly, by the education of the people. This great work
it is practicable for us to accomplish : and herein is that great
distinction of our lot over that of all preceding republics, and all
In 1840, Seward played a significant role in the launching of the New York public school system. The following year, he expressed his deep concern that the remaining Indians of the Six Nations were being tricked into relinquishing their rights to remain on reservations in New York state. A new treaty was signed in 1842 which permitted those Indians who had not abandoned their reservations to remain.
In 1850, Seward was selected by the state assembly to serve in the U.S. Senate. There he was an outspoken opponent of the Compromise of 1850, arguing that there should be no restriction upon the admission of California to the Union. John C. Calhoun's speech (actually delivered by a colleague due to Calhoun's ill health) on March 4, opposing compromise, had been followed by one by Daniel Webster on March 7, advocating compromise to preserve the Union. Four days later, Seward also spoke against compromise, but from the opposite point of view from Calhoun's. Instead, Seward spoke of a “higher law than the Constitution" as justification for his opposition to slavery.
In 1855, Seward allied with the new Republican Party and his political behavior became somewhat contradictory. He continued making stinging attacks on slavery, but then would back away with more moderate comments. Some suggested he was attempting to broaden his appeal for a presidential bid. In any event, Seward did not ally himself with the Radical Republicans.
Seward understood what Lincoln meant in his "house divided" speech of June 1858. He issued a similar warning when he spoke in Rochester, New York, on October 25, 1858:
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.
In the Election of 1860 Seward was the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. However, opposition from Horace Greeley and other radical elements thwarted his hopes, opening the door for Abraham Lincoln. Despite his disappointment, Seward conducted a lengthy speaking tour through the West in support of the Republican ticket.
Seward did not readily accept a cabinet appointment under Lincoln since his suggestions for other positions were not heeded by the president. Nevertheless, he did agree to become secretary of state and performed admirably in that job.
He was successful in his dealings with the British, convincing them that they should withhold recognition from the Confederacy and smoothing over the Trent Affair. He also was able to secure the withdrawal of the French from Mexico. Seward was successful also in convincing Lincoln of the wisdom of waiting to announce the Emancipation Proclamation until a major Union victory had been won.
Seward was stabbed in the throat during the Lincoln assassination plot, but recovered and continued to serve as secretary of state under Andrew Johnson. In 1867, he completed the purchase of Alaska and shortly thereafter acquired the Midway Islands for the nation. He negotiated a treaty with Columbia for control of the Isthmus of Panama, which was rejected by the Senate. Turning increasingly conservative, Seward was a loyal defender of the Johnson reconstruction plan.
After his retirement in 1869, Seward visited Alaska as part of a world tour. He died in Auburn, New York, on October 10, 1872.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by William H. Seward.
Regarding The Union
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.
Speech in Rochester NY, October 25, 1858
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