William H. Seward – The U.S. Secretary of State Responsible for the Purchase of Alaska

William H. Seward – life and accomplishments

Even though he never served as president, William H. Seward is among one of America’s most accomplished figures in politics. After Abraham Lincoln was elected 16th President of the United States, Seward served as Secretary of State throughout the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Seward was Lincoln’s go-to advisor on war and diplomatic matters, and his influence was significant throughout the conflict. He also served as Secretary of State to Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson.

From being a staunch opponent of the spread of slavery to going against all odds to secure the region of Alaska (formerly Russian America), here is a look at the life and major achievements of U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Early Life

Born in 1801 to a wealthy New York family, Seward was given the best education, as he graduated from elite institutions like Union College in 1820. He started practicing law before he turned twenty as he was called to the bar in 1822. He settled in and spent many years working in Auburn, New York. He launched a lengthy political career following his 1831 election to the New York State Senate.

Achievements of William H. Seward

William Seward made some substantive achievements over the course of his career aside from the infamous Alaska purchase. Let’s look at a few of them.

Defended People of Color

In order to end a mortgage issue that was impacting the western half of New York State, Seward negotiated a major arbitration program on behalf of the Holland Land Company. Also notable is the fact that Seward gained popularity for his pro bono representation of a clientele which consisted of people of color. He did this when no other lawyers in the state would take their cases.

Also, Seward’s use of the insanity defense in the trial of William Freeman established him as a formidable defender of the helpless and a brilliant legal mind.

William H. Seward

Seward served as a defense attorney for quite a number of African-Americans in his state New York.

Fight against Slavery

Seward was elected governor of New York in 1838 with the support of his close friend and renowned newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed. A committed Whig Party member, he was an advocate of government spending on social programs and schools.

Additionally, Seward was vehemently anti-slavery, a position that would become central to his political career, as was the case with many other Whigs of the time.

After being elected to the U.S. Congress in 1849, he received critical acclaim from anti-slavery campaigners and rights activists for his views. As senator, he agitated against the Southern slave owners, or the Slave Power of the South as it was commonly known.

As a staunch advocate for anti-slavery groups and legislation, Seward fought against legislations like the Fugitive Slave Act which required slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state.

Rose to the Rank of Secretary of State

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Seward was offered the position of Secretary of State in Lincoln’s cabinet in 1860. Even though Seward had his doubts about Lincoln’s political skills initially, the two eventually became allies, and Lincoln ultimately chose to ignore requests from radical Republicans to fire Seward.

Seward spent his first several months in office desperately trying to prevent a civil war and save the Union. With the Union’s fragile support and the border states at stake, he urged Lincoln to refrain from deploying force during the Siege of Fort Sumter in South Carolina. After Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus at the outbreak of war, Seward took it upon himself to ensure that Northerners suspected of being sympathetic to the Confederacy were arrested and incarcerated.

Aided in Resolving the Trent Affair

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Seward’s main priority was making sure no European country supported the rebels. After the U.S. Navy took two Confederate envoys hostage on a British ship, America’s chief diplomat played a key role in resolving the situation, which became known as the Trent Affair.

Later, in 1862, Seward and British Ambassador Richard Lyons negotiated the Lyons-Seward Treaty, which gave the U.S. and British navies the power to investigate vessels suspected of carrying African slaves, therefore reducing the flow of slaves over the Atlantic.

Expansion of America’s Territories

He advocated for a westward expansion of the United States while serving as Secretary of State. On March 30, 1867, he successfully negotiated with Russia to purchase Alaska for $7,200,000. This price covered 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 square kilometers), which is the equivalent of  more than twice the area of Texas today.

At that bargain price, the United States paid just about two cents per acre. Seward was initially ridiculed by some lawmakers in Washington, D.C. who described his Alaska Purchase as “Seward’s Folly,” “Seward’s Icebox,” and “Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.”

However, the purchase later became an important asset to America since the land was filled with minerals and wildlife.

Today, Alaska cities such as Anchorage and Fairbanks are home to major U.S. military bases, further solidifying Alaska’s importance to national security of the United States. Aside from its pristine wilderness, federal parks and wildlife refuges, Alaska is considered one of the richest states in the Union as it has has hundreds of billions of dollars in natural resources, including timber, gold, fish, lead, copper, and petroleum, among others.

It’s worth noting that the last Monday of March has been known as Seward’s Day in the State of Alaska as a commemoration of the acquisition.

Did you know: He also negotiated for American sovereignty of Panama and the annexation of the Danish Virgin Islands and the Bay of Samaná, but these accords were never ratified by the Senate?

Seward’s brush with death

In the final days of the American Civil War, Seward was nearly assassinated in the same plot that took the life of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.

A former Confederate soldier named Lewis Powell ambushed Seward, who was recovering from a carriage accident, and stabbed him numerous times with a bowie knife on the night of April 14, 1865.

Seward was severely injured in the attempt on his life and spent several weeks healing from cuts to his neck and face. The Secretary of State’s life was saved thanks to the neck brace he was wearing after suffering injuries in a carriage accident a month prior. However, the attack left permanent scars on his face, which he had to live with.

Later, on July 7, 1865, Powell and three other conspirators in the Lincoln assassination as well as Seward’s attempted assassin, were captured and hanged. The others were David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt.

Other Interesting Facts about William Seward

Statue of Seward by Randolph Rogers in Madison Square Park, New York City

A statue of the 24th United States Secretary of State William Seward, sculpted by Randolph Rogers and installed in New York City’s Madison Square Park in 1876, is often cited as the city’s first monument to a prominent New Yorker. Here are other interesting facts about the politician.

  • Unlike President Andrew Johnson who maintained Seward as the United States top diplomat, President Ulysses S. Grant deemed Seward as not vital to his cabinet following his election 1868. Therefore, Seward resigned from active politics. His later years would be spent exploring the world, beginning with excursions to the western United States, Alaska, and Mexico. Next, Seward went on a global tour, stopping in Asia and Europe before finally settling back in New York in 1871.
  • Seward served as the 12th Governor of New York from 1839 to 1842 and went on to hold the office of United States Senator from New York from 1849 to 1861. The politician finally became the 24th United States Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869.
  • As a result of his strong belief that all men should be free, William H. Seward gambled his long political career on this notion. When Seward was governor of New York, he secured a law ensuring that fugitive slaves would be tried in front of a jury if they were captured.
  • Both the withdrawal of French forces from Mexico and the acquisition of Alaska from the Soviet Union were significant diplomatic accomplishments for Seward in the years following The American Civil War.
  • Seward’s lack of party loyalty and blunt personality often hindered his political advancement despite his presidential ambitions.
  • He was born to Dr. Samuel Sweezy Seward and Mary Jennings Seward. Seward later married Frances Adeline Miller on October 20, 1824, after the couple first met in 1821. They had six children altogether.
  • Postmortem results showed that Seward died from difficulty in breathing at his office desk on October 10, 1872. He was 71 years old.

1 Response

  1. Arbind Kumar says:

    Very pertinent facts regarding how Alaska was purchased by US with serious attempt by William H. Seward . Thanks for sharing !

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