Childhood & Early Life
William Henry Seward was born on May 16, 1801, in Florida, Orange County, New York State. He was the fourth of the six children of Samuel Sweezy Seward and Mary (Jennings) Seward.
His father was an affluent landowner of New York State and owned many slaves. Slavery was not completely abolished in the state until 1827.
Young Seward attended the ‘Farmers' Hall Academy.’ He was a bright student. At 15, he was sent to ‘Union College’ in Schenectady, New York.
Seward was a brilliant student in his sophomore years and was made part of the ‘Phi Beta Kappa.’ One of his fellow students was Richard M. Blatchford, who later became his political associate.
After an altercation with his father about money, Seward ran away from school with a fellow student named Alvah Wilson. They boarded a ship from New York to Georgia.
There, he witnessed the ill-treatment meted out to slaves. Persuaded by his family, he returned to New York in June 1819. However, it was too late for him to graduate from the same class. Thus, he studied law at an attorney's office in Goshen. He then returned to ‘Union College’ and in June 1820, earned his degree with the highest honors.
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Seward was admitted to the ‘New York State Bar’ in 1822 and began his law practice in Auburn the following year.
While traveling through Rochester in 1824, he was involved in a minor stage-coach accident. One of the pedestrians who came to help him was local newspaper editor and budding politician Thurlow Weed
Seward and Weed became friends later and bonded over their mutual dislike for Masonic influences in politics. After he was elected to the New York state legislature, Weed became a political mentor to Seward. He helped Seward to be elected to the state senate in 1831. Seward became associated with the ‘Antimasonic Party’ in 1828 and served in the ‘New York Senate’ from 1830 to 1834. Around this time, he allied with other opponents of the Jacksonian ‘Democrats’ and formed the new ‘Whig Party.’ Under the ‘Whig Party,’ Seward served as the governor of New York for 4 years (two 2-year terms from 1839 to 1843) and established himself as the leader of the antislavery wing of his party.
As a governor, he stressed on prison reforms, education for all, and other improvements. Seward refused to contest in the 1842 election and returned to Auburn to practice law.
In 1846, he fought his most talked-about case, when he chose to defend William Freeman, a mentally ill black man who was accused of murdering four people. The case had racial overtones and was the center of attention of the entire nation.
Seward was elected to the ‘United States Senate’ in 1849. The rift between pro- and anti-slavery factions was evident back then. The ‘Compromise of 1850,’ made California a free state in exchange for strengthening the ‘Fugitive Slave Act.’ This gave rise to a lot of conflicts. Seward was against the compromise because it would force the northern citizens to return escaped slaves or face punishment. He delivered a speech at the ‘Senate’ just before it was passed.
Meanwhile, his wife, Frances, turned their home into a safe haven for runaway slaves. Many slaves, such as Harriet Tubman, received financial and other help from the Sewards.
The ‘Whig Party’ broke up by 1859. Both Seward and Weed joined the ‘Republican Party.’ Seward entered the presidential race. However, he later opted out of the race and supported Illinois ‘Republican’ Abraham Lincoln emerge victorious. Following this, Seward was made the secretary of state in Lincoln’s cabinet in March 1861.
The ‘Trent Affair’ of 1862, saw ‘Union’ naval captain Charles Wilkes board a British ship and seize two ‘Confederate’ envoys who were on a diplomatic mission. Thus, Britain’s neutrality was attacked. Seward ordered that the diplomats be released. This entire incident took place from August 1861 to January 1862.
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Based on the agreements proposed during the ‘Trent Affair,’ Seward played a role in the ‘Lyons-Seward Treaty’ of 1862. The treaty stated that the United States and Britain would search each other’s trans-Atlantic shipping for slaves. This treaty thus ended the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
On April 14, 1865, a few days after he sustained serious injuries in a carriage accident, Seward was stabbed in the throat by Lewis Powell (or Lewis Payne), while he was bedridden. Powell was an associate of John Wilkes Booth, who had assassinated Lincoln the same night. Seward, however, recovered and continued to serve as part of the cabinet under President Andrew Johnson (until 1869).
His next significant move was the purchase of the territory of Alaska from Russia for $7,200,000 in 1867. People derided this move by naming it “Seward’s Icebox,” “Seward's Folly," and "Polar Bear Garden.” The decision was thus criticized at the time, but Seward believed it was his greatest achievement.
The following year, he supported President Johnson during his impeachment. After Johnson’s tenure, Seward retired from politics. From 1870 to 1871, he went on a trip around the world.
Family & Personal Life
He had met his future wife, Frances Miller, through his sister, Cornelia. Incidentally, Frances’s father, Judge Elijah Miller, was looking for a junior partner back then, and Seward joined him. On October 20, 1824, Seward and Frances got married.
They then moved to the Miller family home in Auburn, New York. They were both resolved to their cause of the abolition of slavery.
They had five children together, including Fanny (1844–1866), Augustus Henry Seward (1826–1876), William H. Seward Jr. (1839–1920), and Frederick W. Seward (1830–1915). They had also adopted a daughter named Olive. Augustus Henry and William H. Seward Jr. initially became ‘Union’ officers and later ventured into business. Frederick worked under his father in the ‘State Department.’
Seward developed breathing problems while in his office in his Auburn home on October 10, 1872, and died the same day. His last words were: "Love one another."
Seward’s grave rests beside those of his wife and his daughter, Fanny, in the ‘Fort Hill Cemetery’ in Auburn.