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William Seward

the man who bought Alaska

William Seward

William Henry Seward was born in Florida, New York, on May 16, 1801. He was educated in local schools before entering Union College at age fifteen; he graduated from Union in 1820, read law, was admitted to the bar in 1821, and established a practice in Auburn in 1823. He married Frances Adeline Seward on October 20, 1824; the couple ultimately had six children -- Augustus Henry, Frederick William, Cornelia, William Henry Jr., Frances Adeline, and Olive Risley (adopted).

Seward began his political career as an active member of the Anti-Masonic Party, but then gravitated to the Whig Party. He supported Whig economic programs, particularly internal improvements, but was criticized for supporting the demands of Catholics to have their children taught in public schools by Catholic teachers speaking the same language. He served in the New York State Senate from 1830 to 1834, and as Governor of New York from 1839 to 1842. After being defeated for re-election in 1842, Seward spent the next seven years focusing on his law practice. A staunch opponent of slavery, he and his wife opened their home to runaway slaves.

As a member of the U.S. Senate from 1849 to 1861, Seward argued against passage of the Compromise of 1850, and supported the unconditional admission of California as a free state. When his fellow Senators remarked that the Constitution allowed slavery, Seward replied by saying that "there is a higher law than the Constitution." He also declared that conflict between the North and South was unavoidable. He joined the newly-formed Republican Party in 1855.

Seward expected to be the Republican nominee for President in 1860, but that honor went to Abraham Lincoln instead. Although he was disappointed at not winning the nomination, he actively campaigned for Lincoln in the North and West. Upon his election, Lincoln named Seward Secretary of State, in which capacity he served until 1869. As Secretary of State, Seward's skillful handling of foreign affairs kept European nations from supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War. In 1862 he helped negotiate the Lyons-Seward Treaty, in which the U.S. and Great Britain agreed to enforce an end to the Atlantic slave trade. On April 14, 1865, he was stabbed several times as part of the same conspiracy to topple the government that resulted in Lincoln's assassination; he survived the attempt, but carried its scars for the rest of his life. A staunch believer in American imperialism, Seward advocated the taking of the Danish West Indies, Panama, Hawaii, and other lands that could be beneficial to the United States, but was only successful with the annexation of the Brook Islands (in which Midway Island is located) in 1867. His most important accomplishment was the purchase of Alaska from Russia on March 30, 1867. Although most of the country thought that the acquisition of 586,412 square miles for $7,200,00 was "Folly," the discovery of gold in the territory in 1897 reversed that general opinion and proved Seward's foresight.

one of the many editorial cartoons that ridiculed Seward for his purchase of Alaska
ridiculing Seward

Seward retired following the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant and spent the rest of his life traveling and writing. He died of rheumatic fever in Auburn, New York, on October 10, 1872, and was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.

See Also

Abraham Lincoln
Secretary of State
Civil War
Purchase of Alaska
Ulysses S. Grant

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The Robinson Library >> United States >> Middle 19th Century >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on August 03, 2018.