Meeting of April 30, 2013

René Accornero on “William Henry Seward, Secretary of State”

Early Years

William Henry Seward (Wikipedia)

William Henry Seward was a politician who was born in 1801 in the state of New York. Seward studied law at Union College, graduating as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and was then admitted to the New York State Bar. In 1821 he met Frances Adeline Miller and they married 3 years later and raised six children.

In 1846 Seward defended an African American who was accused of stabbing four people to death. Seward was an advocate of prison reform and better treatment for the insane, and won a verdict for the defendant using the defense of insanity. Many whites felt bitter toward Seward for defending a black man who had killed whites.

Seward encountered a problem while traveling and a stranger named Thurlow Weed stopped to help out. That was the beginning of a life-long friendship and Weed helped Seward enter politics and was instrumental in this role throughout Seward’s political career. Seward first served as a member of the New York State Senate. In 1839, he won election as the 12th Governor of New York. And from 1849-1861, he served as US Senator from New York.

Civil War Period

Seward was an opponent of the spread of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War, but he preferred a policy of gradual/voluntary elimination as opposed to forced. Switching to the Republican Party, Seward was a contender for the party’s presidential nomination in 1860, but lost to Abraham Lincoln.

After he was elected President, Abraham Lincoln appointed Seward his Secretary of State in 1861. In this role, Seward was instrumental in preventing foreign countries from intervening in the war on the side of the Confederacy. Seward played an important role in resolving the Trent Affair where an America ship arrested two Confederate ambassadors travelling to Great Britain traveling on the British ship named Trent. Great Britain was so outraged at the incident that it sent 5,000 troops to Canada and was on the verge of declaring war on the US.

In 1862, Seward was a key proponent of the Emancipation Proclamation, and in 1865 led Lincoln’s successful effort to win adoption of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. However, Seward’s relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln was a very difficult one. Mrs Lincoln made it know that she hated Seward even tho Seward was her husband’s most loyal cabinet members.

Assassination Attempt

On April 14, 1865, Lewis Powell, co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth, attempted to assassinate Seward at his home. Powell was able to enter Seward’s home by tricking the butler that Powell was delivering medicine for Seward. A few weeks earlier, Seward had fallen and severely broken his jaw and had his neck and jaw areas covered with a hard cast to prevent movement. Powell went upstairs, but encountered Seward’s son Frederick. Powell beat Frederick over the head with the barrel of his gun and then entered Seward’s bedroom. Powell leaped on the Seward’s bed stabbing him several times in the face and neck area. However, the large cast around Seward’s neck and jaw prevented more serious injury.

Powell fled down the stairs and escaped on horseback. However, Powell was captured the next day at the boarding-house home of Mary Surratt, and was hanged on July 7, 1865, along with the other conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination.

Serving President Andrew Johnson

After recovering from the assassination attack, Seward became a major force in the administration of Andrew Johnson. Seward was an advocate of the reconciliation policies towards the South rather than punishment. He was very influential in helping Johnson gain acquittal during his Impeachment trial.

Expansionist View for America

Seward saw America’s future as a world leader and looked often for opportunities for territorial expansion. He had ambitions of taking control of places such as Danish West Indies, Panama, British Columbia, and Hawaii; it was only with Hawaii where he had some success. As President Johnson’s Secretary of State, Seward led the 1867 purchase for $7,200,000 of Alaska from Russia, which needed the money to pay off debts incurred in the Crimean War. At the time, most American viewed Alaska as a frozen worthless wilderness and labeled the purchase “Seward’s Folly”.

Remaining Years

Seward retired as Secretary of State at the end of Andrew Johnson’s one term as President. Seward began to travel extensively and also took up writing. In 1872, Seward’s health began to fail and he died at his home on October 10, 1872.

Meeting Minutes April 2013