William Henry Seward

Published 13 Jun 2017

Early beginnings and family

Born to a family of English origins as well as Welsh and Irish descent, William Henry Seward was raised in Florida, New York where he was born on May 16, 1801. His father, Samuel Sweezy Seward was a wealthy doctor and businessman who migrated to America together with wife, Mary Jennings Seward, his family in the early eighteenth century. He stood at five feet six inches in height yet he stood tall amidst friends and other people because he was a bright and charming man who befriended everyone. It was this political inclination that spurred him relentlessly to greater heights because it was here where he also excelled. It seems that politics was indeed in his blood because even if he strayed away from it, it beckoned to him ever so strongly at crucial points in his career. Even if his health bothered him at times, his father saw his potential and sent him to study at Union College, Schenectady, New York. He gave eloquent speeches that demonstrated his intelligence and desire to serve people. He delivered a speech about the certainty of slavery’s destruction.

Public Office

Seward was a great speaker and he traveled all around the state to stress the need for internal improvements and for reform in education. He was responsible as part of the others who were assigned, to frame New York State’s Free Banking Act of 1838, which was a Whig measure. He received the Whig nomination for governor in 1838. His friend Weed was responsible for that. Seward was responsible for several actions that had repercussions on the country. During the War between the States, America could only protest the French occupation of Mexico. But once the war was over, the United States sent a large force of troops to the Mexican border and Secretary of State William Seward demanded that the French troops be withdrawn. In the face of pressing political problems in Europe, Napoleon III bowed to Secretary of State Seward’s demand and withdrew the French troops. Archduke Maximilian, thinking he had the support of many of the Mexican people, tried to continue his rule of Mexico without the aid of France. But he was soon deposed and executed. The United States had not specifically mentioned the Monroe Doctrine in this incident, but the principle laid forth in that doctrine had been upheld and strengthened

The Purchase of Alaska

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the spirit of national expansion, which had run particularly high in the 1840’s, was still very much alive in the hearts of many Americans. William Seward, secretary of state under Presidents Lincoln and Jognson, was especially anxious to see the United States expand beyond its borders. When Russia expressed interest in disposing of its possessions to the northwest of Canada, Secretary of State Seward quickly drew up a treaty providing for the purchase of Alaska for $7,200,000. However, many Americans were not convinced that buyinbg a wilderness region so far north was a wise investment. Alaska was referred to as “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Ice Box.” After much persistence on the part of Seward, the Senate ratified the treaty in 1867. Only later was the full value of the purchase of Alaska realized. Another European power was removed from the Western Hemisphere. In addition, the United States acquired 600,000 square miles of land that proved to contain a vast wealth of natural resources—fish, fur, timber, coal, gold, oil and natural gas. Alaska’s resources are still being discovered and developed. On January 3, 1959, Alaska became the forty-ninth state in forty-seven years. Because of Bering Strait from the Soviet Union, it is also important today to U.S. defense. Air and naval bases there are constantly on alert for an enemy attack.

The Election of 1860

The Republicans, sniffing victory and generally insensitive to the depth of southern feeling against them, met in Chicago on May 16 to nominate a presidential candidate. The initial frontrunner, Senator William Seward of New York, had two strikes against him: he had a reputation for radicalism and a record of strong opposition to the nativist movement. What a majority of the delegates wanted was a less controversial nominee who could win two or three of the northern states that had been in the Democratic column in 1856. Abraham Lincoln met their specifications: he was from Illinois, a state the Republicans needed to win: he had a more moderate image than Seward; and he had kept his personal distaste for Know-Nothingism to himself. In addition, he was a self-made man, whose rise from frontier poverty to legal and political prominence embodied the republican ideal of equal opportunity for all. After trailing Seward by a large margin on the first ballot, Lincoln picked up enough strength on the second to pull virtually even and was nominated on the third

The platform, like the nominee, was meant to broaden the party’s appeal in the North. Although a commitment to halt the expansion of slavery remained, economic matters received more attention than they had in 1856. With an eye on Pennsylvania, the delegates called for a high protective tariff; other planks included endorsement of free homesteads, which was popular in the Midwest and among working people, and federal aid for internal improvements, especially a transcontinental railroad. The platform was cleverly designed to bring most ex-Whigs into the Republican camp while also accommodating enough renegade Democrats to give the party a solid majority in the northern states

Though Seward was a competent lawyer, he soon found that his chief interest was in politics. At first a young Federalist, he had a brief Van Burenite period, then became a National Republican as he settled down in Auburn.

This last choice was logical. Auburn was in spirit largely National Republican, and Henry’s father-in-law was an ardent follower of John Quincy Adams. He had strong beliefs about opponents of slavery. He claimed that with compensation for the economic loss, that freedom would mean the slaveholders. In the end, he sensed the growing strength and political party of the antislavery movement. In sum, Seward was a charismatic person who acted efficiently during his time, giving speeches which made him renowned all over the country.

Works Cited

  • Divine, Robert, Breen, T.H., Fredrickson, George and Williams, R. Hal. American Past and Presence. Longman publishing.
  • Lowman, Michael, United States History. 1983. A Beka Book Publications.
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon. “The Life and Career of William Henry Seward.” University of
  • Rochester Library Bulletin.
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