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Biography of William Henry Seward

Updated on September 8, 2016


William Henry Seward played an important role in New York History and the history of the United States during the turbulent years leading up to and including the Civil War. In addition to serving as New York’s Governor, Seward served as a State Senator, and United States Secretary of State in two separate presidential administrations. During his long and eventful career, he became known as one of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement, and was one of the most important figures of his time.

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William Henry Seward was born in Florida, New York, which is located in Orange County.

Seward's Early Life

William Henry Seward was born May 16, 1801 in Florida New York in Orange County. He was the 4th of 6 children. Seward’s parents were Samuel and Mary Seward. Seward’s father was a successful physician and businessman, and was politically active, which got him appointed as the local Postmaster. The Seward family owned slaves when he was a child, but his father insisted that the slave children attend local schools as did his own children. Seward consequently had extensive contact with the family servants as a child, and came to view them as people and friends rather than as slaves. Seward also saw that not all people were good to their slaves when he saw a neighbor abused because he had attempted to escape. It was said that Seward’s early experiences and interactions with slaves is what made him a lifelong opponent of slavery.

Seward first attended Farmers Hall Academy, and then when he was 12 he went to the S.S. Seward Institute, a school established by his father. Seward next attended the Union College in Schenectady New York. He eventually graduated with honors, but at one point he left college briefly and traveled to Georgia where he found a teaching job for several months. Apparently he was unhappy with his clothing compared to those of his fellow classmates and went to a local Schenectady tailor and ordered what he believed would be appropriate clothing. But his father refused to pay for the clothes, and much to his parents’ distress this caused Seward to leave school and go to Georgia.

Following his graduation from Union College, Seward studied the law and was admitted to the New York Bar. In 1823 Seward moved to Auburn New York and went into the practice of law with the firm of Judge Elijah Miller. Miller would soon be not only Seward’s partner in the practice of law, but would also become his father-in-law as Seward would marry Miller’s daughter Frances in 1824. There are indications that Frances was even a more adamant opponent of slavery, perhaps a true abolitionist, than was her husband. The couple would have 5 children, 4 of whom would survive until adulthood.

1824 was also an important year for Seward’s future political career. Seward was traveling in Rochester New York on business when his carriage broke down. One of the people who came to his aid was a man named Thurlow Weed. Weed was a journalist and newspaper editor in Rochester. The two would become lifelong friends and Weed would be one of Seward’s closest political allies. It was said that one of the reasons the two became friends is that they both had similar anti-masonic views.

Portrait of Governor William Henry Seward

Public Domain image of Chester Harding's (1792-1866) portrait of New York Governor William Henry Seward. The original portrait hangs in the New York Hall of Governors at the New York Capitol building in Albany, NY.
Public Domain image of Chester Harding's (1792-1866) portrait of New York Governor William Henry Seward. The original portrait hangs in the New York Hall of Governors at the New York Capitol building in Albany, NY. | Source

New York Governor William Henry Seward

In 1830 Seward, running as a member of the anti-mason political alliance, was elected to the New York State Senate. He served in the Senate until 1834. But as the anti-mason movement died out Seward and Weed became key players in the newly formed Whig political party. It was as a Whig in 1834 that Seward would take his first try at becoming Governor of New York, but he lost to the incumbent Governor William Marcy. After this defeat Seward briefly focused on his law practice and served as an arbitrator and land agent for the Holland Land Company, and didn’t serve in any public office. But by 1838 Weed had built his newspaper into one of the most circulated papers in the State, and threw his considerable political weight into getting Seward elected Governor.

In the 1838 General Election, Seward once again ran against Democratic Governor William Marcy. By this time slavery had become one of the key issues to voters in New York. Interestingly, at this time Seward wasn’t extremely popular among abolitionists because he had not supported all of their proposals. But Seward’s running mate, Luther Brandish, was a supporter of all of the abolitionist proposals. Marcy and his running mate on the other hand were known as “Doughfaces” because they opposed the abolitionist movement. In the end, Seward was able to carry the election and won receiving 192,882 votes (51.39%) while Marcy received 182,461 votes (48.61%).

In 1840 Seward would run for a second term as Governor. In this election the contest was between Seward and Democrat William Bouck. Seward won his second term, receiving 222,011 votes (50.29%) with Bouck receiving 216,808 votes (49.11%).

As Governor, Seward promoted efforts to improve the State’s infrastructure - especially expanding the State’s canal and railway system, promoted prison reform, and promoted an expanded education system including schools for immigrants.

Seward’s time as Governor also met with a couple of notable controversies. First, in 1839 Seward had to deal with the Helderberg Anti-Rent War. Stephen Van Rensselaer III owned a good portion of the land in the Albany New York area and he rented it out to some 3,000 farmers. Some of the leases dated back to the Revolutionary War and their terms were not very renter friendly. Among other things, the leases required tenants to make heavy rent payments that often called upon the tenant to do some form of labor for the landlord. The leases often went so far as to permit the landlord to enter the property at any time to take it back over. When taking the land back, the landlord could even seize any improvements, including growing crops, which the tenant had made. Although Van Rensselaer III was generally considered to be a lenient landlord, when he died his Will called for his heirs to collect the rents, including all back rents that Van Rensselaer III hadn’t collected, from tenants to pay off the Estate’s debts. The tenants believed the terms of the leases were nothing more than “voluntary slavery” and revolted. On July 4, 1839 they issued their Declaration of Independence and refused to pay the rents. When law enforcement showed up to collect the rents or enforce foreclosure notices the tenants took up arms against them. Seward was put in the unenviable position of being sympathetic to the tenants’ cause but having to enforce the law. So in 1839 he had to order the New York Militia to enforce the foreclosure notices issued against farmers. But at the same time he was lobbying the State Legislature for legal reforms that would benefit the tenants. The battle went on for many years, and culminated in 1845 with a trial of the Helderberg War leaders. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, and during the September 1845 retrial the defense counsel and prosecutor had a fist fight in open court that led to them both spending a day in jail. Ultimately, only one of the leaders was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but he was soon pardoned. Neither the trial nor Seward’s efforts in 1839 for legal reforms resolved the situation. Rather the situation was finally resolved many years later as the heirs who inherited the land began to sell it off to avoid the constant political pressure put upon them, and the constant legal battles they found themselves in.

Seward’s second major controversy was one involving slavery. A number of slaves escaped the South to New York State during his administration. Southern States repeatedly petitioned Seward to return the escaped slaves and all those who assisted them to the South for punishment. Seward refused these requests entirely, which began to cement his position as a leader of the anti-slavery movement.

Seward's time as New York Governor certainly contributed to him being an important influence on New York State history, but his contribution to the State's history were far from over.

Seward and the William Freeman Murder Trial

In 1842 Seward declined to run for a third term as Governor and returned to the practice of law. Some said he needed to return to the practice of law to earn more money to pay off debts, but that doesn’t seem to be the only reason because he was also noted for taking on cases that others wouldn’t and for which he was not likely paid. One of his most famous cases came in 1846 when he represented an Auburn black man by the name of William Freeman. Freeman was accused of brutally murdering a wealthy Auburn family, John Van Nest, his wife, his wife’s mother, and the Van Nest’s 2 year old son. Seward agreed to represent Freeman after visiting him in jail. Seward entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity on Freeman’s behalf. Seward believed that Freeman was insane at the time of the killings because of a family history of insanity and because of head trauma from a severe beating from a prison guard at Auburn State Prison from when Freeman had been imprisoned, apparently erroneously, for horse theft.

At the trial, the judge elected to hear the issue of Freeman's competence to stand trial separately from the factual issues of the case. The jury hearing the competence phase of the trial found that Freeman was competent to stand trial. At the murder trial, Seward attempted to present evidence showing that Freeman was not responsible for his actions because he was insane at the time of the killings. The judge refused to permit Seward to present this evidence. Instead the judge held that the jury's finding that Freeman was competent to stand trial was a conclusive finding that Freeman was not insane. The jury found Freeman guilty, but Seward got the case overturned on appeal. The Supreme Court found that a finding of competence to stand trial should not have prevented presentation of evidence that Freeman was insane at the time of the killings, and ordered a new trial. The second trial never took place because Freeman died in prison. After Freeman's death, an autopsy confirmed that Freeman had severe brain deterioration. Despite Seward's ultimate inability to try the issue of Freeman's sanity, the case is widely regarded as the first case in U.S. history to involve the use of the insanity defense.

At the time Seward was reviled by Auburn residents for representing Freeman, he was even threatened with physical harm. But now he is seen as a legal pioneer of the insanity defense. A plaque at the Cayuga County Courthouse where the trial took place reads “In 1846, William H. Seward in Cayuga County Court House defended a man accused of murder and based his plea on the unprecedented grounds of insanity. Although scorned and humiliated by many for his stand at that time, history has since vindicated him as a man of principle, courage and foresight.”

U.S. Senator William Henry Seward

1851 Public Domain photo of U.S. Senator William Henry Seward by unknown photographer, which appeared McClure's Magazine, November 1906, p. 16.
1851 Public Domain photo of U.S. Senator William Henry Seward by unknown photographer, which appeared McClure's Magazine, November 1906, p. 16. | Source

U.S. Senator William Henry Seward

By 1849 the Whig Party controlled the State Legislature, and the Legislature elected Seward as one of New York’s U.S. Senators. Seward would serve in the U.S. Senate from March 4, 1849 until March 3, 1861.

Seward’s first speech to the Senate turned out to be one the defining moments of his Senatorial career. Delivered March 11, 1850 and entitled “Freedom in the New Territories” this speech became commonly known as the Higher Law Speech. Seward wrote the speech to address the issue of whether California should be admitted to the Union as a State. The speech made it clear that Seward did indeed believe that Congress should admit California as a State because its Pacific location made it essential to the growth of the United States, and because Congress had obligated itself to make California a State under the Treaty of Hidalgo Guadalupe that ended the Mexican-American war.

However, one of the key arguments being put forth by Southern States against California’s admission was that California proposed entering the Union as a free (i.e. non-slave) State. The South proposed many compromises that would have in some way, shape, or form expanded slavery either in part of California, or in the District of Columbia. One of the theories being supported was that the U.S. Constitution was sufficient authority for expanding slavery. But in his speech, Seward put forth the concept that there was a higher law than the Constitution (God’s law),which says that all men are created equal. He also made plainly clear that he believed slavery in all its forms was wrong, and even characterized it as being America’s own version of an Aristocracy, which was one of the things the Revolutionary War sought to end. This speech became one of the pillars of the movement to end slavery. But it wasn’t the Senate who took it seriously. In fact, Seward’s speech was so poorly delivered that most of the Senators present pretty much ignored him. Rather the speech became famous when it was reprinted and distributed widely throughout the Country. So it was the people of the United States that saw the wisdom of Seward’s speech and made it one of the most important anti-slavery speeches delivered in the Senate.

This speech and other actions during the first part of Seward’s Senate service caused him to become known as the leader of the Whig Party’s anti-slavery faction. Some, as have some historians, even characterized Seward as an abolitionist. This characterization was strengthened by the fact that during his time in the Senate, he and his wife were using their home in Upstate New York as part of the Underground Railroad to assist slaves fleeing the South. But several important points are often missed about the speech. First, it makes clear that Seward was not a true abolitionist. In the speech he never called for the immediate ending of slavery. In fact, he all but said no action of government was necessary to end slavery. Rather, he believed that slavery was so inherently evil that it would end over time on its own accord.

Second, many believe that the speech predicted an inevitable military conflict between the North and South over slavery. But rather what Seward actually said was that if the South did indeed leave the Union over slavery, it would inevitably lead to military conflict. But what is often missed is that he said that he did not believe this would ever happen. Rather he believed that all the threats and alarms of the Southern politicians were nothing more than politics. He essentially said that he did not believe that the people of the South believed in the issue as strongly as the politicians were saying, and more importantly that he did not believe that the people of the South believed in slavery enough to put up with the hardships that would inevitably be the result of the Civil War. This very well may have been Seward’s gravest political miscalculation.

In addition to making Seward one of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement, his Higher Law Speech also is credited with being the cause of the demise of the Whig political party. During the years following the speech the party broke apart at least partly along pro and anti-slavery lines. Seward, along with his political adviser Thurlow Weed and many Whig opponents of slavery became members of a new Republican Party. So when Seward was reelected to the Senate in 1855 he was a Republican. During his time in the Senate

Seward also spoke often of how the slavery question impacted the North and South differently economically. By the time Seward's time in the Senate was drawing to a close he was becoming extremely influential and well respected on the national political scene.

Seward as U.S. Secretary of State

Public Domain Photo of U.S. Secretary of State William Henry Seward by the Studio of Mathew Brady
Public Domain Photo of U.S. Secretary of State William Henry Seward by the Studio of Mathew Brady | Source

Lincoln's Secretary of State

Although most will remember Seward as Lincoln's Secretary of State, by 1860 Seward’s political stature had risen to the point that he was actually the leading candidate for the Republican nomination to run for President. In fact, he was considered such a prohibitive favorite for the nomination that his political adviser Thurlow Weed recommended that he take an overseas trip during the months leading up to the nomination to avoid making any political mistakes domestically that would cost him the nomination. It turned out that taking the trip was the mistake that cost Seward his chance to run for President, because in the months leading up to the nomination many Republicans began to be very concerned that Seward’s views on slavery were too radical to make him a viable candidate. Being out of the Country, he never got a chance to personally address these concerns. So when the party nominated their candidate for President they bypassed Seward and chose a relatively unknown from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.

When Lincoln was elected President, he asked Seward to serve as Secretary of State. Seward accepted the office and served as Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869 in both Lincoln and Andrew Johnson’s administrations.

At first Lincoln and Seward did not work well together, in part because Seward was skeptical about Lincoln’s ability to lead the nation. In fact, many thought Seward would end up being the real power behind the Lincoln administration. But it soon became clear to everyone, including Seward, that Lincoln was more than capable of running his own Presidency. Lincoln and Seward became close friends and Seward became one of Lincoln’s closest and most trusted advisers.

Seward was among many who were involved in the negotiations to keep the South from leaving the Union. When these negotiations failed, some say that Seward advised Lincoln to get the U.S. involved in a foreign war to rally the Country and distract it from the secession crisis. Lincoln rejected the proposal of a foreign war. Seward then turned his attention to keeping foreign nations from recognizing or supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Seward’s first diplomatic crisis came in the Trent Affair when a U.S. warship boarded a British ship and seized two Confederate diplomats in route to England to negotiate on behalf of the Confederacy. Seward ordered the Confederate envoys released, and used the incident to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain that granted both nations the right to search the other’s vessels for slaves being transported. This committed Great Britain to the American position of having the right to search vessels on the high seas for slaves, and severely limited the slave trade during the Civil War.

In addition, Seward also used diplomatic pressure to prevent Great Britain and other nations from supporting the Confederate war effort. One such incident came when Great Britain allowed the Confederacy to build two warships (the Alabama and the Florida) in England. Although, these ships were completed, Seward’s diplomatic efforts resulted in Great Britain honoring their neutrality in the war and caused them to ensure that no more ships were built for the Confederacy, which had a major impact on the war’s outcome.

Seward's service to the Lincoln administration is widely regarded as being a major contributor to the success of the war effort, and for ultimately reuniting the union into a united country.

Lewis Powell attacking Frederick Seward

1865 Public Domain illustration of Lewis Powell attacking Frederick Seward from the National Police Gazette.
1865 Public Domain illustration of Lewis Powell attacking Frederick Seward from the National Police Gazette. | Source

The Assassination Attempt

As the Civil War was ending Seward was involved in a carriage accident that left him severely injured. Apparently Seward liked to ride atop, rather than in, carriages so that he could smoke his cigars. This led to several accidents. On this occasion, Seward was thrown from the carriage completely. He was so severely injured that he was confined to bed. In fact, he was still bedridden when Lincoln came to his home, after returning from Richmond Virginia, to tell him of the South’s surrender and the war’s end.

Nine days after the carriage accident, on April 14, 1865, the same night of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln, a Booth conspirator by the name of Lewis Powell showed up at Seward’s house claiming to be delivering urgent medicine for Seward. When a household servant refused to let Powell in, Powell forced his way into Seward’s home. Powell rushed to the third floor of Seward’s home and was confronted by Seward’s son Frederick who was an Under Secretary of State. Powell tried to shoot Frederick but when his gun misfired, hit Frederick over the head fracturing his skull. Powell then used a knife to stab another of Seward’s sons, Augustus. Powell then forced his way into Seward’s room, where he attacked Seward’s body guard, nurse, and daughter Fanny, stabbing them all. Powell then viciously attacked Seward trying to kill him. During Powell's attack on Seward, Seward’s oldest son, Major William Seward, rushed into the room to stop the attack on his father and was also stabbed. Seward was stabbed several times in the neck and chest before Powell fled out of the house in the process stabbing a State Department messenger in the back during his retreat. Fortunately, everyone in the Seward house who was injured during the assassination attempt survived, although Seward’s son Frederick was in a coma for some time before he recovered. Seward’s injuries turned out to be far less severe than they might have been because a metal brace he was wearing for the broken jaw he suffered in the carriage accident protected his arteries from the knife wielded by Powell.

Powell was captured that same night, and was tried and eventually hung along with three other conspirators in the attacks on Lincoln and Seward. In an odd twist of fate, Powell’s attorney tried to save Powell's life with an insanity defense similar to the one pioneered by Seward.

Seward's Later Years

When Seward returned to work after the assassination attempt he set about to try and negotiate treaties to expand the United States’ territory. His greatest success was the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Many at the time thought the Alaskan purchase was a waste of money and called it “Seward’s Folly”, but Seward himself would later say that he thought it was one of his most important achievements. History would go on to prove that the purchase of Alaska was indeed an important accomplishment for the United States. Seward also made several unsuccessful attempts to expand U.S. territory by trying to purchase portions of the Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, and other areas of the Caribbean and Pacific.

Seward was also credited with forcing the French to abandon their occupation of Mexico. But politically he found himself in a difficult position at home. He often didn’t agree with many policies of the Johnson administration, but at the same time he wasn’t trusted by his former Republican allies who believed that he was too lenient on Reconstruction policies following the Civil War.

When Seward left office in 1869 he spent the majority of his time traveling throughout the world. He returned home in 1871 and died at his home in Auburn New York October 10, 1872. Seward was buried at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.

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    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      2 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Wonderful Hub, Todd. Seward was one of our most influential mid 1800's politicians and very underrated. Thank you for this interesting and comprehensive article.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I think many people are used to thinking of Seward mostly as Lincoln's foil and would-be prime minister. But as you show, he was a force in his own right. Good job of fleshing out his life and contributions to the nation.


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