He earned Phi Beta Kappa and a law degree in college, was a U.S. senator from New York, a candidate for president, famously served as secretary of state and very nearly was murdered on the very evening of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
William H. Seward was another in a long line of both noted and famous Americans who served this nation as its secretary of state — long viewed as a position of power and ofttimes a stepping stone to the White House.
Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, James Buchanan, John Hay, William Jennings Bryan, Cordell Hull, George C. Marshall, John Foster Dulles on through Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, all have served as secretary of state — some of the noteworthy personages who have served presidents and even become presidents in our history past.
But even amongst this list of notables, William Seward more than holds his own. Born in southern New York in 1801, he also served as the state’s governor, and was one of the most influential politicians during the American Civil War.
Always a determined opponent of slavery and its spread across the United States, Seward was a dominant figure in the liberal wing of the Republican Party during its formative years, and had widely been regarded as the leading candidate to receive his party’s nomination in the presidential election of 1860.
Prior to joining the fledgling Republican Party, he emerged as a leader of the anti-slavery “Conscience Whigs,” and had outraged many Southerners with his opposition to the Compromise of 1850.
The compromise was a series of five bills approved by Congress, which defused a four-year confrontation between slave states in the South and free states in the North regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War.
In fact, Seward became a leading face against slavery, believing the institution morally wrong. While acknowledging slavery was legal under the U.S. Constitution, he denied the document recognized or protected slavery.
“There is a higher law than the Constitution,” he had famously said in 1850, giving him the nickname “Higher Law” Seward. He also opposed the Fugitive Slave Act, defending runaway slaves in court.
Re-elected as a Whig to the Senate in 1855, he soon joined the fledgling Republican Party for its stance against slavery.
In 1858, he delivered a famous speech, arguing political and economic systems of the North and South were incompatible, and the slavery conflict eventually would result in either an entirely slave-holding nation, or an entirely free-labor country.
Like another presidential candidate, moderate Abraham Lincoln, Seward felt slavery should be extinguished by long-run historical forces rather than by coercion or war.
Of course, Lincoln was elected president in 1860, and Abe immediately named Seward secretary of state.
Seward was a defender of America’s long-standing policy of non-intervention in other nation’s affairs — “straight, absolute and peculiar as it may seem to other nations,” as he was quoted saying.
Yet, he had expansionist desires for the nation, developing American influence in the Hawaiian Islands, and actually pursued purchase of British Columbia in Canada — an attempt to connect Alaska with the rest of the United States. And, like Lincoln, was universally criticized for his actions.
On the infamous night of April 14, 1865, would-be assassin Lewis Powell, an associate of John Wilkes Booth, attempted to assassinate Seward in his Washington, D.C., home.
Seward, in bed after receiving a severe injury nine days before trying to catch a pair of runaway horses, was repeatedly stabbed in the face and neck by Powell. The secretary of state somehow survived the vicious attack, and eventually saw the execution of his attacker and the other Lincoln assassination conspirators.
After recovering, Seward served Vice-President-turned-President Andrew Johnson in the same position.
Like Lincoln, Seward had the same view of how to treat the South following the Civil War. He frequently defended his moderate reconciliation policy toward Southerners, enraging Radical Republicans who once regarded him as an ally.
In his influential capacity as secretary of state, Seward’s most famous achievement was the successful acquisition of Alaska from Russia.
Completing negotiations in March 1867, barely two years after the guns had fallen silent at Appomattox Court House, Seward helped the U.S. purchase 586,412 square miles of territory for $7.2 million — about two cents per acre.
Variously mocked by the public as “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox,” the Alaska purchase eventually would be looked on as a master stroke.
Asked about his achievement and its critics, Seward said “it will take the people a generation to find out.”
Alaska — which he purchased — and Hawaii — which he had a hand in — eventually became the 49th and 50th of these United States of America.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking