(May 16, 1801–0ctober 10, 1872)
Charles F. Ritter
William Henry Seward’s four-decade public career placed him in the center of one of America’s most dramatic periods. Elected in 1830 to the New York State Senate, Seward became governor of the state in 1838 and again in 1840. In Albany he gained a reputation as a reformer and as an advocate of internal improvements. He carried his reformist faith to Washington, where, during his decade of service as senator from New York, he became a rabid opponent of slavery. A leading Republican in 1860, Seward was poised to win the party’s nomination for president. Although he did not secure the coveted nomination, he took a prominent role in President Abraham Lincoln’s (q.v.) cabinet and won accolades for his handling of diplomacy during the Civil War. He remained Secretary of State during President Andrew Johnson’s (q.v.) administration. Although overshadowed by Lincoln in life and death, recent scholarship acknowledges Seward’s many accomplishments.
Born on May 16, 1801, in the village of Florida, New York, sixty miles north of New York City, William was the fourth of six children of Samuel and Mary (Jennings) Seward. Of Welsh descent, his father was a doctor, a merchant, and a local land speculator; his mother probably descended from Irish stock. Young William—he preferred to be called “Harry”—was educated in Florida’s oneroom schoolhouse and at Farmer’s Hall Academy in Goshen, New York. In 1816, at the age of fifteen, Seward’s father shipped him off to Union College in Schenectady. He graduated with highest honors and a Phi Beta Kappa key in 1820.
Seward read law in Goshen and New York City and was admitted to the New York bar in 1822. Settling in Auburn, he joined Elijah Miller’s law firm, married Frances Miller on October 20, 1824, and moved into the Miller household. Settling into a profitable law practice, Seward turned his attention to politics.
Although reared in a Jeffersonian household, Seward briefly supported Martin Van Buren’s Albany Regency, then threw his support to the Democratic Re-