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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 652

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This is the grave of William Seward.

Born in 1801 in Florida, New York, William Seward grew up wealthy. His father was a slaveowner and big landowner in Orange County, on the west side of the Hudson River. With slavery legal in New York until 1827, slavery was still quite common in Seward’s youth. He showed a lot of promise and went to Union College in Schenectady at the age of 15. He took a little time off to teach in Georgia, but graduated in 1821.

Seward passed the bar in 1822 and opened a practice in the growing town of Auburn, New York. He married Frances Miller, the daughter of his law partner in 1824. That same year, they were traveling by carriage to Niagara Falls when their carriage broke. Who came to the rescue but the New York political boss Thurlow Weed. Seward and Weed came to know each other and then became major political allies, with Weed serving as a promoter of the younger man’s career. Initially, in this moment where the First Party System had collapsed, Seward support the Regency faction led by Martin Van Buren, which later became the foundation of the Democratic Party. But he was disgusted by the corruption he saw. So he joined the Anti-Masonic Party.

The Anti-Masonic Party developed in 1826 in opposition to the mysterious death of William Morgan, a New York Mason who was probably murdered after he published a book that revealed the organization’s ritual secrets. Andrew Jackson was a leading Mason and so the Anti-Masonic Party quickly became the seat of opposition for anti-Jackson politics, evolving into the Whig Party. Seward became central to these efforts, giving speeches in New York in support of John Quincy Adams’ reelection in 1828. But his position wasn’t that popular. The Anti-Masons wanted him to run for Congress that year but he refused, thinking he had no chance to win. He probably didn’t. But in 1830, he did run for the State Senate. And thanks to being the protege of Weed, he won. He rose quickly and became an important player in New York and national Anti-Mason politics. The Anti-Masons still held sway in New York in 1832 and Seward wanted William Wirt for president. But Henry Clay became the leading opposition candidate to Jackson. The problem there was that Clay was also a Mason. Seward and others were bitterly disappointed, but figuring that Jackson was the real enemy, they threw their support behind Clay. The Whig Party formed to unite anti-Jackson opposition, but always struggled as a diverse coalition of often vastly differing interests. Jackson won anyway.

Seward became the Whig candidate for New York governor in 1834, but lost a tight election to the Democrat and lackey of slave interests William Marcy. Seward returned to private life. He and his wife took a long trip that included a stop in Virginia. There they saw slavery in action. Horrified, they became staunch abolitionists, though they were already on this path before the trip. He took a job as the agent for a group of investors in a land deal in western New York. But he couldn’t get away from politics for too long. The Panic of 1837 had undermined the Democratic Party’s dominance in the state. Weed engineered Seward to become the Whig nominee for governor in 1838 and he won a narrow victory.

Seward proved to be an effective governor and one not afraid to make enemies. One of his first policy goals was to eliminate Protestantism from New York public schools so that the increasingly large number of Irish immigrants in New York City would actually send their children to school. He succeeded but made permanent enemies of the nativist wing of his party. The first year was slow because Democrats controlled the state Senate and refused to work with him on anything, but then Seward and Weed worked hard to flip the chamber in 1839 and succeeded. He pushed for a signed a bill to protect fugitive slaves in New York from being recaptured in 1840. He won a second term that same year. Among the accomplishments of that term was to sign a law that immediately freed any slave brought to the state by its owner. Given the amount of business southern planters did in New York, this mattered.

After his second term, Seward chose to leave electoral politics. He lived high on the hog and had a lot of debt by 1842. So he went into private practice and became one of the state’s leading lawyers and political insiders. He helped create the idea of the legal defense by reason of insanity defending clients in a case, one white and one black, in separate cases where their abuse in prison had turned them into monsters. Always an advocate for prison reform, he argued against execution and won one of those cases. He turned down the Liberty Party’s offer of being their presidential nominee in 1844; they went with James Birney instead, who proceeded to throw the election to James Polk by dividing the vote against him in key states.

In 1849, Whigs controlled the New York legislature. There was an opening for the Senate and Seward was chosen. He entered the body that December, right as the Senate was engaged in the torturous debates after the Mexican War that created the Compromise of 1850, helping move the nation down the long road to civil war. Seward instantly took a major role in this debate, being one of the strongest abolitionists in the Senate. Meanwhile, his wife began using their home in Auburn as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Seward’s 1850 anti-slavery speech that invoked “a higher law than the Constitution” made him a hero of the movement.

All of this helped blow up the Whig Party, which could no longer handle the compromises needed for southern and northern Whigs to be together. Meanwhile, Democrats were becoming the party of slavery, leaving lots of northern Democrats adrift. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was the final straw. Seward of course loudly opposed it on the Senate floor. So naturally, Seward became one of the leading members of the Republican Party when it formed in 1854. There was talk of nominating Seward for president in 1856, but Weed advised against it since there was no chance of winning. The party chose John C. Frémont instead and Seward bided his time for 1860. Meanwhile, Seward continued denouncing slavery from the Senate floor. He accused Roger Taney and James Buchanan of conspiring for the Dred Scott result. He stated–as Republicans who believed that the great threat of slavery was its impact on whites often did–that “The interest of the white races demands the ultimate emancipation of all men. Whether that consummation shall be allowed to take effect, with needful and wise precautions against sudden change and disaster, or be hurried on by violence, is all that remains for you to decide.”

Seward fully expected to be the Republican nominee in 1860. But he had lots of enemies. He had a big ego. Some thought of him as corrupt and he certainly had little objection to the smoke filled back room deal. The nativists still hated him for his betrayal as governor and they were a big part of the Republican Party after the Know-Nothings fell apart. His strong abolitionism was also seen to be a problem in the more moderate states such as Illinois and Pennsylvania that Republicans had to win. In the end, it was too much. Seward led on the first ballot, but Abraham Lincoln, a compromise candidate all the way, took the lead on the third ballot and won the nomination and then the election. Seward was shocked and horrified. He briefly thought about retiring from politics but realizing the party needed him to win New York, he was a good trooper and did his duty. It helped.

Lincoln paid Seward off by naming him Secretary of State. Seward, like Salmon Chase and other leading Republicans in the Cabinet, thought he was smarter and better than Lincoln and sought to control him. As Secretary of State, Seward had a lot of work to do, namely keeping Europe from recognizing the Confederacy. There were a lot of hiccups with British relations, but thanks to Charles Francis Adams as ambassador (really more than Seward who was ready to tell the British the US would declare war if they recognized the Confederacy, which would have been a disaster), ultimately American foreign policy was successful. More important was the evolving personal relationship between Seward and Lincoln that helped the war effort tremendously. Unlike Chase, who could never get beyond his blind ambition, Seward came to respect Lincoln greatly. Seward became his right-hand man with a portfolio that was far beyond just State, leading to a lot of resentment from other Cabinet members who rightfully felt that Seward was intruding into their domains. Seward also suggested that Thanksgiving become a national holiday and Lincoln took him up on it.

When John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln, Seward was on the chopping block too. An assassin named Lewis Powell got into Seward’s bedroom and stabbed him five times. Seward survived but his wife died soon after, probably in part from the shock of it all.

Seward maintained his position of Secretary of State after Andrew Johnson became president. He became famous, infamous at the time really, for buying Alaska from Russia. But of course “Seward’s Folly” became the a great deal in the twentieth century and significantly checked Russian expansion. Seward also put a lot of pressure on the French to get out of Mexico, refusing to recognize the Archduke Maximilan as the ruler of the nation and placed the Army under Phil Sheridan’s command just north of the Rio Grande in case action was necessary. In the end, Seward had one of the most successful tenures as Secretary of State in the nation’s history.

But Seward also became somewhat infamous for other reasons. He was a big proponent of letting the South back in on easy terms. As Johnson sought to put a rapid end to Reconstruction and reunite the nation with few real changes for the freed slaves, Seward was on board. The former abolitionist became the greatest ally to the incredibly unpopular and increasingly unhinged president. Seward encouraged Johnson on his disastrous 1866 campaign swing to support his policy of Reconstruction. Republicans were shocked and horrified that their former stalwart had turned turncoat. In fact, some put the blame for Reconstruction’s problems on him, not Johnson. Said Maine Senator William Fessenden of Johnson, “he began by meaning well, but I fear that Seward’s evil counsels have carried him beyond the reach of salvation.” Seward managed Johnson’s defense during the impeachment trial and while he was not actually a Democrat by 1868, he supported Johnson’s bid for the Democrats to nominate him. That did not happen.

Despite his recent apostasy, Seward endorsed Ulysses S. Grant over the odious Horatio Seymour for the 1868 election. Seward took a big trip to the West in his retirement, meeting with Brigham Young in Utah. As a young man, Young had helped build Seward’s house. He then visited Mexico, where he was seen as a hero by the government of Benito Juarez, and Cuba. Then in 1870, he decided on a world tour, visiting Japan, China, India, the Middle East, and Europe. He went back to New York and started to write his memories. But he could not finish them. He health declined rapidly after his travels and he died at his desk in 1872, at the age of 71.

William Seward is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, New York.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other members of Lincoln’s Cabinet, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Simon Cameron is in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Edward Bates is in St. Louis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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