Seward, William H.

Born: 1801-05-16 Florida, New York

Died: 1872-10-10 Auburn, New York

William H. Seward graduated from Union College in 1820 and moved to Auburn, New York. He married Frances A. Miller in 1824, with whom he had five children. Seward joined the Anti-Masonic Party in 1829 and became well acquainted with Thurlow Weed, who became his political mentor. Seward won election, as a Whig, to the New York Senate in 1830, and remained there until 1834. That year, he unsuccessfully ran for governor against the Democratic incumbent, William L. Marcy, but defeated him in 1838. As governor, he promoted various internal improvements and reform movements, including anti-slavery.

Seward’s second term as governor ended in 1843, but he re-entered politics in 1849, when a newly elected Whig majority in the New York State Legislature sent him to the U.S. Senate. Upon assuming his seat, Seward quickly positioned himself in opposition to the Compromise of 1850—proposing that slavery be banned from all new territories. Seward also opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act but remained within the Whig Party. By 1855, Seward was a prominent member of the newly formed Republican Party and planned to win the party’s 1860 presidential nomination. As a result, he continued his public statements opposing slavery’s expansion and promoting free labor, most notably his “Irrepressible Conflict” speech of October 25, 1858. However, Seward’s views made him an unpopular candidate in some northern states, and Abraham Lincoln instead secured the party’s 1860 nomination. Nevertheless, Seward supported Lincoln’s campaign, and the new president rewarded him with an appointment as secretary of state.

Although Seward fervently worked to prevent civil war following the secession crisis and harbored reservations about Lincoln, he became a committed member of the war administration following the attack on Fort Sumter and one of the President’s closest advisors. As secretary of state, his primary focus was on foreign affairs. The Trent Affair proved to be the most significant diplomatic event of the war, in which he and Lincoln avoided war with the United Kingdom. Seward was more cautious about emancipation than Lincoln but fully supported the Thirteenth Amendment and was instrumental in securing its passage. The same conspirators who assassinated Lincoln also targeted Seward, who was attacked in his Washington, DC, home and stabbed multiple times on April 14, 1865, but survived.

Daniel W. Crofts, “Seward, William Henry,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 19:676-81; The Irrepressible Conflict. A Speech by William H. Seward, Delivered at Rochester, Monday, Oct. 25, 1858 (New York: New York Tribune, 1858).