William H. Seward

Lincoln's Political Rival Became His Secretary of State

Engraved portrait of a seated William H. Seward
William H. Seward. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William H. Seward was a major political figure in mid-19th century America, serving as governor of New York, a United States senator, and secretary of state in Abraham Lincoln's administration.

Seward's rise in Republican Party politics made him a front-runner for the party's presidential nomination heading into the election of 1860. Lincoln edged him out for the nomination, but later chose Seward to fill what was considered the most important post in his cabinet.

After nimbly managing American foreign affairs during the Civil War, and ensuring that foreign powers did not intervene, Seward became known for arranging the purchase of Alaska from Russia. The distant territory was given the nickname "Seward's Icebox."

Early Life of William H. Seward

William H. Seward was born May 16, 1801 in Florida, New York, where his father, Samuel Seward, was the village doctor. Seward's grandfather, Col. John Seward, had served in proximity to General George Washington in the American Revolution.

Seward attended a local school and entered Union College at the age of 15. In his late teens he had a serious disagreement with his father over finances, and ran away from home.

Seward traveled to Georgia, where he made a living teaching school while learning about slavery and the role the institution played in southern life. He eventually returned to New York State, and graduated from Union College in 1820.

Early Political and Legal Career

After studying law, Seward became an attorney and began practicing in the town of Auburn, New York, in 1822. He married his wife Frances, the daughter of a prominent local judge, and began to getĀ involved in politics.

Thurlow Weed, an influential political figure in New York State, took an interest in Seward and began to advise him.

In 1830 Seward was elected a state senator, and after becoming affiliated with the Whig Party, he was elected governor of New York in 1837, at the age of 36.

Seward served two terms as governor, and began to establish himself as an opponent of slavery as he clashed with southern governors over a volatile issue, the return of fugitive slaves. In 1842 he left public office and returned to the practice of law.

Seward remained politically active in the sense of becoming an advocate against slavery. In 1849 he returned to politics and was elected a United States senator from New York. He attained some prominence with his vocal opposition to the Compromise of 1850.

A speech Seward gave in the U.S. Senate denouncing compromises with slaveholders propelled him to a leadership role in the growing political movement against slavery.

Seward's Rise to Prominence in the Republican Party

In 1854 Seward was reelected to the U.S. Senate, and he continued his vigorous opposition to slavery. He opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act championed by Stephen A. Douglas, the powerful senator from Illinois.

Seward gained a national reputation through his speeches. In one oration, delivered on the stump while campaigning for Republican candidates in 1858, Seward referred to the escalating tensions between North and South: "It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation."

As the presidential election year of 1860 began, Seward was positioned as a leading candidate for the Republican nomination. When Abraham Lincoln came to New York City in February 1860 to deliver his address at Cooper Union, it was something of a strategic move on Lincoln's part to speak in the heart of Seward's territory.

Seward attended Lincoln's address, and spoke very briefly afterward. Following his appearance in New York, Lincoln spent two weeks in New England, giving speeches and consolidating support within Republican circles.

Lincoln Defeated Seward, But Brought Him Into His Cabinet

At the Republican National Convention in 1860 Lincoln's supporters, through some skillful political maneuvering, were able to gather enough support to defeat Seward in the balloting. Lincoln became the Republican nominee, even though Seward had been the favorite in many minds before the convention.

After the election of 1860 Lincoln sent an emissary to Seward and after some delicate negotiating got him to accept a post in his cabinet. Given Seward's prominence in the Senate, he was offered the prime position of secretary of state.

Seward and Lincoln began working together even before Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861. Seward has been criticized for his actions very early in the administration, when southern states were still seceding from the Union. But Lincoln had confidence in his judgment.

Seward Served as Secretary of State During the Civil War

Seward managed the foreign affairs of the United States throughout the Civil War. There was a period, particularly in the first two years of the war, when it seemed possible that European powers might recognize the Confederacy or even actively participate in the war. But Seward was capable of dissuading England and France from entering the conflict.

On April 14, 1865, the night Lincoln was assassinated Seward was at home in bed, recuperating after a serious carriage accident. One of John Wilkes Booth's conspirators, Lewis Powell, gained entrance to Seward's residence and attacked him, stabbing him with a knife and nearly killing him.

Seward recovered from his wounds, and continued on as secretary of state in the administration of President Andrew Johnson.

In the years following the Civil War, Seward successfully negotiated to get France to withdraw its troops from Mexico. And in a move that was mocked at the time, he negotiated with Russia and arranged for the United States to buy Alaska.

A nickname for Alaska was "Seward's Icebox," but it was, over the long run, a very smart move.

After leaving government service, Seward spent time traveling. He died at his home in Auburn, New York, on October 10, 1872.