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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  People of the North  >  Politicians
William H. Seward, 1801-1872
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William H. Seward was commissioned as U.S. Secretary of State on March 5, 1861, and served until March 4, 1869, under two presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.

Seward was born in Florida, Orange County, New York, on May 16, 1801. He was admitted to the bar and practiced law in Auburn, New York, and was later voted into the state Senate, serving from 1830 to 1834. His political aspirations led him to the post of Governor from 1838 to 1842, then U.S. Senator from New York from 1849 to 1861. Seward's run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860 failed, but Lincoln selected him for his Cabinet in March 1861.

A month later, the April 6, 1861, edition of Harper's Weekly featured a portrait of Seward on its cover, with a biography inside that spoke of his political beginnings with the Whig party, his later allegiance to the new Republican party, and his anti-slavery stance. As for Seward's failed run for the presidency, Harper's wrote:

"When the Chicago Convention met in May, 1860, it was generally expected that he would be the candidate of the party. He was passed over, and Mr. Lincoln was selected in his stead. He did his share of the campaign; he stumped the entire Northwest, and part of New England and New York, speaking every where to enormous audiences, and no doubt contributed largely to the success of the party. It was generally understood that he would not accept office, at least at home, under Mr. Lincoln; but the unexpected troubles which followed the election compelled him to reverse this intention, and he accepted the post of Secretary of State as soon as it was offered him."

The Harper's writer also gave this physical description of Seward: "In personal appearance Senator Seward is remarkably unassuming, of middle size, with light hair toned down by age, prominent features, and heavy, overhanging eyebrows. His smile is cordial, and there is a luminous depth in the searching glance of his keen eyes that betrays a warm heart."

On April 14, 1865, Seward was stabbed in his Washington home on the same night that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater. Seward's attacker was Lewis Powell, later found to be a co-conspirator with John Wilkes Booth. Seward recovered from his wounds and went on to serve as Secretary of State for President Andrew Johnson.

Perhaps Seward's greatest legacy was the negotiation and purchase of Alaska from Russia for the sum of $7.2 million. But it was a hard sell within Congress, and the editorial cartoonists and other pundits referred to Alaska as "Seward's Folly" and "Seward's Icebox." The treaty was ratified in the Senate by only one vote more than the required two-thirds majority, and Seward signed it on March 30, 1867. (He also tried to buy the Virgin Islands, but was unable to persuade the Senate to approve that purchase.)

Months after leaving office, Seward made a speaking tour to the Pacific Northwest, and addressed the citizens of Sitka. (See excerpt below.)

Following a yearlong trip around the world, Seward returned to his Auburn, New York, home in 1871. It was there that he died on October 10, 1872. His biographers note that his last words to his family were, "Love one another."

In Alaska, the last Monday of every March is Seward's Day, celebrating the purchase of Alaska from Russia, and place names throughout the state memorialize his name: the town of Seward, Alaska; the Seward Peninsula; Juneau's Seward Street; Fort Seward in Haines (formerly Fort Chilkoot); and the Seward Highway, among many.

Excerpt from William H. Seward's address at Sitka, August 12, 1869:

Within the period of my own recollection, I have seen twenty new States added to the eighteen which before that time constituted the American Union; and I now see, besides Alaska, ten Territories in a forward condition of preparation for entering into the same great political family. I have seen in my own time not only the first electric telegraph, but even the first railroad and the first steamboat invented by man. And even on this present voyage of mine I have fallen in with the first steamboat, still afloat, that thirty-five years ago lighted her fires on the Pacific Ocean. These, citizens of Sitka, are the guarantees, not only that Alaska has a future, but that that future has already begun. I know that you want two things just now, when European monopoly is broken down and United States free trade is being introduced within the Territory: these are military protection while your number is so inferior to that of the Indians around you, and you need also a territorial civil government. Congress has already supplied the first of these wants adequately and effectually. I doubt not that it will supply the other want during the coming winter. It must do this because our political system rejects alike anarchy and executive absolutism. Nor do I doubt that the political society to be constituted here, first as a Territory, and ultimately as a State or many States, will prove a worthy constituency of the Republic. To doubt that it will be intelligent, virtuous, prosperous, and enterprising is to doubt the experience of Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, and Belgium, and New England and New York. Nor do I doubt that it will be forever true in its republican instinct and loyal to the American Union, for the inhabitants will be both mountaineers and seafaring men. I am not among those who apprehend infidelity to liberty and the Union in any quarter hereafter; but I am sure that, if constancy and loyalty are to fail anywhere, the failure will not be in the States which approach nearest to the North Pole.

Fellow citizens, accept once more my thanks, from the heart of my heart, for kindness which can never be forgotten, and suffer me to leave you with a sincere and earnest farewell.

Excerpt from "Climythology," Sen. Ernest Gruening's address to the American Meterological Society, June 27, 1962:

Climythology, as far as Alaska is concerned, came into existence sometime between March 30, 1867, when William Henry Seward consummated the purchase of Alaska, and 1868, when Congress was called upon to pay the bill.

That bill, for $7,200,000 or approximately two cents an acre, loosed a storm in the House of Representatives. I shall not attempt to say whether it was a hurricane or a tornado, but it was accompanied by a lot of wind, a great flood -- a flood of oratory -- and some verbal thunder. The sum and substance of it was that while Seward had taken Alaska, he and the United States had been "taken," in the contemporary colloquial sense.

Alaska was pictured on the floor of the House of Representatives and in a substantial section of the press as a frozen waste with a savage climate, where little or nothing could grow, and where few could or would live. . . .

. . . And so a lot of denigrating epithets were fastened on Alaska, such as Icebergia, Polaria, Walrussia, Seward's Polar Bear Garden, Seward's Icebox, and the one coined by the press, which has endured the longest, Seward's Folly.

It is a well-known axiom of social psychology that error accented as verity can be as potent as truth.

The consequences of this Alaskan climythology were soon evident. Having established and propagated the concept of Alaska as a worthless waste with a savage climate, Congress proceeded to act accordingly. It immediately forgot its new acquisition.

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