William H. Seward

Seward, William Henry

William Henry Seward, 1801–72, American statesman, b. Florida, Orange co., N.Y.

Early Career

A graduate (1820) of Union College, he was admitted to the bar in 1822 and established himself as a lawyer in Auburn, N.Y., which he made his lifelong home. He was active in the Anti-Masonic party and later (1834) he and his close personal and political friend, Thurlow Weed were founding members of the Whig party and the most influential Whigs in New York state. A state senator from 1830 to 1834, he ran unsuccessfully for the governorship in 1834. In 1838, however, he won that office, and he was reelected in 1840. As governor, Seward worked for educational reforms and internal improvements; he also secured legislation to better the position of immigrants and to protect fugitive slaves. He returned to his law practice in 1843.


Seward was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1849. Reelected in 1855, he was one of the Senate's most prominent members in the troubled years preceding the Civil War. A genial, gregarious man with intellectual interests, he was generally well liked, even by his political opponents.

Seward was an uncompromising foe of slavery, and, although he apparently tempered his public expressions so as not to alienate votes, he nevertheless made two remarks that became catchphrases of the antislavery forces. Voicing his opposition to the Compromise of 1850 in the Senate, he said (Mar. 11, 1850), "there is a higher law than the Constitution which regulates our authority over the domain." In a speech at Rochester on Oct. 25, 1858, he declared that there would exist "an irrepressible conflict" until the United States became either all slave or all free.

With the disintegration of the Whig party, Seward and Weed joined (1855) the new Republican party. Prominent as he was, Seward, despite (or possibly because of) the efforts of Weed's machine, was never able to secure the Republican presidential nomination. His friendship toward immigrants, especially the Irish, alienated members of the former Know-Nothing movement within the Republican party.

Secretary of State

In 1861, Seward became Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, and many expected him to be the real power in the administration. He revealed his own desire to dominate the President in a peculiar memorandum (Apr. 1, 1861) to Lincoln in which he proposed waging war against most of Europe so as to unite the nation. Seward also did some unwarranted meddling during the Fort Sumter crisis. After the Civil War broke out, however, he showed himself an able statesman, although it took all of Lincoln's ingenuity to keep both Seward and his rival, Salmon P. Chase, eternally ambitious for the presidency, in the same cabinet. Seward's handling of delicate matters of diplomacy with Great Britain, particularly in the Trent Affair, was notably adept. He also protested French intervention in Mexico and after the Civil War helped bring an end to it.

The plot of John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln also included a stabbing attack on Seward, but he recovered from his wounds and retained his cabinet position under the new President, Andrew Johnson. He supported Johnson's Reconstruction policy and, like the President, was roundly denounced by the radical Republicans. Seward's most important act in this administration was the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. His foresight was not generally acknowledged, however, and Alaska was long popularly called "Seward's folly." He also tried to purchase the two most important islands in the Danish West Indies (the Virgin Islands), but the Senate refused to approve his action.


See G. E. Baker, ed., The Works of William H. Seward (5 vol., 1853–84); F. W. Seward, ed., Autobiography … and Selections from His Letters (3 vol., 1891); biographies by F. Bancroft (1900, repr. 1967), G. G. Van Deusen (1967), and W. Stahr (2012).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

William H. Seward: Selected full-text books and articles

FREE! The Life of William H. Seward with Selections from His Works By William H. Seward; George E. Baker J.S. Redfield, 1855
FREE! William H. Seward's Travels around the World By William Henry Seward; Olive Risley Seward D. Appleton, 1873
FREE! The Life of William H. Seward By Frederic Bancroft Harper and Brothers, vol.1, 1900
FREE! William Henry Seward By Thornton Kirkland Lothrop Houghton Mifflin Company, 1896
The American Whigs: An Anthology By Daniel Walker Howe John Wiley & Sons, 1973
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "The Higher Law" by William H. Seward
Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party By Thomas Brown Columbia University Press, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "William Seward and the Politics of Progess"
A Cultural Encyclopedia of the 1850s in America By Robert L. Gale Greenwood Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: "Seward, William H. (1801-1872)" begins on p. 336
The Early History of the Republican Party By Andrew Wallace Crandall Richard G. Badger, 1930
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of William H. Seward begins on p. 157
A History of American Foreign Policy By Alexander DeConde Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of William H. Seward begins on p. 242
FREE! Lincoln, Master of Men: A Study in Character By Alonzo Rothschild Houghton Mifflin, 1906
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of William H. Seward in multiple chapters
The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War By Michael F. Holt Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of William H. Seward in multiple chapters
Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War By Eric Foner Oxford University Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of William H. Seward in multiple chapters
History of Alaska By Henry W. Clark The Macmillan, 1930
Librarian’s tip: Chap. V "The Purchase of Alaska"
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