A truly eminent American statesman, William H. Seward, was born in Florida, Orange county, New York, May 16th, 1801.
He graduated with much distinction when only nineteen at Union College, Schenectady, New York, then taught school in Georgia six months when he entered a New York law school, and was admitted to the bar in 1822; commenced the practice of law at Auburn in connection with Judge Miller, whose daughter he afterward married.
In 1824 he entered upon his political career by preparing an address for a Republican convention in opposition to the Democratic clique known as the ‘Albany Regency,’ thus commenced a contention which only ended when the association was broken up in 1838. He presided over a young men’s convention in New York in favor of John Quincy Adams’ re-election to the presidency. In August, 1828, on his return home he was offered a nomination as member of Congress but declined. He was elected to the State senate in 1830, when he originated an opposition to corporate monopolies which has since ripened into a system of general laws. After a rapid tour through Europe in 1833 he returned home to become the Whig candidate for governor of New York, being defeated by W. L. Marcy. But in 1838 he was elected over Marcy, his former opponent, by a majority of 10,000 votes.
Placed now in a position where he could exercise that mighty mind which he unmistakably possessed, he achieved National distinction in the measures he prosecuted. Prominent among these measures was the effort to secure the diffusion of common school education, advocating an equal distribution of the public funds among all schools for that purpose. Imprisonment for debt was abolished, the banking system was improved, the first lunatic asylum was established, and every vestige of slavery was cleared from the statute books.
He also became famous through his controversy with the Governor of Virginia. The latter issued a demand on Mr. Seward, as the Governor of New York, for the delivery of two men charged with abducting slaves. Seward maintained that no State could force a requisition upon another State, founded on an act which was only criminal by its own legislation, and which compared with general standards was not only innocent, but humane and praiseworthy. This correspondence between the two executives known as “The Virginia Controversy” was widely published, and was largely instrumental in bringing about his triumphant re-election in 1840.
At the close of his second term he once more resumed the practice of law, becoming a practitioner in the United States Courts. He was also a great criminal lawyer, and especially aided, not only by gratuitous service, but money also, in aiding people whom he thought unjustly accused. Becoming a United States Senator, he announced his purpose to make no further concessions to the slave power. In his speech on the admission of California, March 11th, 1850, the judgment of the man, his ability to forecast events, and his oratorical powers are displayed. Among other things he said:
“It is true, indeed, that the national domain is ours. It is true, it is acquired by the valor, and with the wealth of the whole nation. But we hold, nevertheless, no arbitrary power over it. We hold no arbitrary authority over anything, whether acquired lawfully, or seized by usurpation. The Constitution regulates our stewardship; the Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defence, to welfare, and to liberty.”
“But there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part, no considerable part, of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe. We are his stewards, and must so discharge our trust as to secure in the highest attainable degree their happiness.” In another speech, delivered at Rochester in 1858, in alluding to the constant collision between the system, of free and slave labor in the United States, he said:
“It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing 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.” Thus, while others dodged this issue, William H. Seward came squarely out in language which could not be misinterpreted. When the Whig party had proved its incompetency to deal with the slavery question, Mr. Seward, in conformity with his past public career, withdrew and figured most conspicuously in the founding of the new Republican party.
In the last session of the 36th Congress, when the war clouds were threatening, and desertion of the Union cause became an epidemic, high above the breathings of secession was heard the voice of William H. Seward, exclaiming: “I avow my adherence to the Union with my friends, with my party, with my State; or without either, as they may determine, in every event of peace or war, with every consequence of honor or dishonor, of life or death.” In conclusion he declared: “I certainly shall never directly or indirectly give my vote to establish or sanction slavery in the common territories of the United States, or anywhere else in the world.”
His second term closed with the thirty-sixth congress, March 4th, 1861. In the National Republican convention he was the most conspicuous candidate for the presidency for 1856-60. He made quite an extended tour through Europe, Egypt and the Holy Land in 1859. Upon the accession of Mr. Lincoln to the presidency Mr. Seward was called to fill the seat of honor in his cabinet.
At the outbreak of the civil war Mr. Seward had already shown himself a very able man, but his management of the foreign affairs of our government during those trying hours indelibly stamped him as the most able of able Secretaries of State. He was one of the few men who have been conceded to be a great success in the office of Secretary of State. His management of the complicated Trent affair, the manner of his declination of the French proposal to unite with Great Britain and Russia in mediating between the Federal and Confederate governments, and his thorough reorganization of the diplomatic service abroad, thus insuring a correct interpretation by foreign powers of the issues before the government; in fact his management of the high office did him great credit, and more than once averted a foreign war.
When Mr. Lincoln had drafted his famous proclamation he submitted it to Seward for approval. Many people at the North were dissatisfied with some measures of the administration, and the rebellion had been characterized as a “Nigger war,” even at the North, besides all this the Union arms had met with terrible loss, and Mr. Seward wisely saw the evil results which might follow such a proclamation at this time. Therefore, through his advice the paper was held until after the victory at Antietam, when the country was further educated and better able to understand and receive the real issue of the war.
Early in the spring of 1865 he was thrown from his carriage, and his jaw and one arm were broken. While confined to his bed by these injuries he was attacked by a would-be assassin, and very severely wounded, being cut several times with a knife—his son Frederick W. came to his rescue and was also injured. It was on the same night that President Lincoln was shot, April 14. The assassin escaped from the house, but was soon arrested and hanged with the other conspirators, July 7.
Mr. Seward’s recovery was very slow and painful, and it is thought the shock given by the accident, and this murderous attack impaired his intellectual force, for when he again resumed his duties under President Johnson, he supported the President’s reconstruction policy, becoming at dissonance with the party he had so satisfactorily served, until now. At the close of his official term in March, 1867, he retired from public life, and soon made an extended tour through California, Oregon and Alaska; the latter having been acquired during his secretaryship, and mainly through his efforts.
Accompanied by his family he made a tour around the world, returning to Auburn in October, 1871. He was everywhere received with honor and great distinction. The observations made during this extensive voyage are embodied in “Wm. H. Seward’s Travels around the World,” prepared by his adopted daughter, Olive Risley Seward. He died at Auburn, New York, October 10th, 1872, lamented by a nation.