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William Henry Seward


WILLIAM HENRY SEWARD, the son of Dr. Samuel S. Seward, for seventeen years a county judge, and a man of more than ordinary business ability and practical philanthropy, was born at Florida, Orange county, New York, on the 16th of May, 1801.  Manifesting from childhood an earnest love of knowledge and taste for study, he was sent, when nine years old, to Farmers' Hall Academy, at Goshen, in his native county. Rapidly advancing in his studies there, and at an academy afterwards established in his native town, he was fully prepared, at the age of fifteen, to enter college. Matriculating, as a sophomore, at Union College, in 1816, he manifested a peculiar aptitude for rhetoric, moral philosophy and the classics. In 1819, in his senior year, he spent some six months in teaching at the South, and, returning to college, graduated with high honors; being one of the three commencement orators chosen by the college society, to which he belonged. The subject he selected was, " The Integrity of the American Union." Entering, soon after his graduation, the office of John Anthon, of New York city, he commenced the study of law, continuing and completing his preparation with John Duer and OgdenHoffman, of Goshen, New York, with the latter of whom he became associated in practice. In January, 1822, he was admitted to the bar, and removing to Auburn, New York, formed a partnership with Judge John Miller, of that place, whose youngest daughter became his wife in 1824. 

As a lawyer, his originality of thought and action, as well as his great industry, soon brought him an extensive and lucrative practice. Politics also claimed much of his attention, and, as was natural, he followed in the political footsteps of his father, who was a prominent Jeffersonian Republican. In October, 1824, despite his youth, be was chosen to draw up the Address to the People of the Republican Convention of Cayuga county, which document was an exposure of the origin and designs of the Albany Regency. In 1827, he contributed largely, by his eloquent speeches, to the success of the popular movement in behalf of the Greeks, then struggling for their freedom. In 1828, he presided with distinguished ability over a very large convention of young men favorable to the election of John Quincy Adams to the presidency, held at Utica, New York, and the same year declined a proffered nomination to Congress.  When the National Republican party was dissolved by Jackson's election as President, Mr. Seward fraternized with the Anti-Masonic organization, the only opposition then existing to the Albany Regency, and from that party accepted, in 1830, a nomination to the State Senate. 

He was elected by a majority of two thousand, in a district (the seventh) which had given a large majority the other way in the previous year. Scarcely thirty years old, he entered the Senate as the youngest member who had ever attained that honor, and found himself, politically, in a small minority, at a time when party lines were sharply defined. Yet he fearlessly entered the lists, throwing down the gauntlet to the Jackson power and the Albany Regency, taking part in all debates, advocating the claims of abolition of imprisonment for debt, the amelioration of prison discipline, opposition to corporate monopolies, the extension of the popular franchise, the common-school system, the Erie railroad and internal improvements, etc. His maiden speech was on a militia bill, in which he proposed, substantially, the same system of volunteer uniform companies as that at present in use in New York State; and during the second session of his term he delivered a speech in advocacy of a national bank, which, with others of similar import, gave rise (by concentrating an opposition in the Senate) to what subsequently developed as the Whig party. In the summer of 1833, during the recess of the Senate, Mr. Seward made a hurried visit to Europe, adding largely to his reputation by the letters which he wrote home, and which were published in the Albany "Evening Journal." 

In September, 1834, he was nominated for governor by the Whig State Convention, against William L. Marcy, but was defeated, although running ahead of his ticket in every county. Resuming his practice, Mr. Seward, in 1836, settled in Chautauqua county, as the agent for the Holland Land Company; and, in 1838, was again nominated by the Whigs, and elected governor by ten thousand majority. In 1840, he was re-elected. During his administration occurred the celebrated anti-rent difficulties; the Erie canal was enlarged; the State lunatic asylum was founded; imprisonment for debt, and every vestige of slavery were eradicated from the statute-books ; important reforms were effected in elections, in prison discipline, in bank laws, and in legal courts. One of the most important events of his administration was the controversy with the Governors of Virginia and Georgia, in which the latter claimed from him the rendition of certain colored sailors, charged with having abducted slaves from said States. Governor Seward refused compliance, and argued the ease with a firmness and ability which attracted the attention of the whole country; and when his course was denounced by the Democrats, after their accession to power, and he was requested to transmit their resolutions to the Governor of Virginia, he declined to do so—remaining inflexible, despite the retaliatory measures threatened by the State of Virginia against the commerce of New York. A similar instance of firmness and sagacity was manifested by him, in his refusal to surrender, to the British Government, Alexander McLeod, charged with burning the steamer Caroline, during the Canadian rebellion of 1837, a refusal in which he persisted, in spite of the British minister's threats of hostilities, the advice of President Tyler's administration, and the strong intercession of many of his own political friends. In January, 1843, Mr. Seward, declining another nomination, resumed the practice of law, devoting himself; for the ensuing six years, assiduously to business, attaining a large practice in the highest State courts, and—owing to a particular aptitude for mechanical science—having a considerable number of patent-cases, which brought him into association with the best legal talent of the country. He also gave freely, not only his professional services but his means, in behalf of certain friendless unfortunates, whose cases and trials form some of the most interesting records of criminal jurisprudence.. Conspicuous among these was the case of the insane negro Freeman, the murderer of the Van Nest family, in Orange county, New York, a case which, in spite of derision, obloquy and reproach, Mr. Seward never forsook, until the death of his client, "caused by the disease of the brain, satisfied even the most prejudiced, that his course had been as wise as it confessedly was humane and generous." He also gratuitously defended, before the United States Supreme Court, in 1847, the case of John Van Zandt, charged with aiding fugitive slaves to escape from Kentucky; his argument in the case being pronounced "a masterly exposition of the inhumanity and unconstitutionality of the Fugitive Slave act."

In 1851, he defended, at Detroit, fifty men on trial for conspiracy, who could find but one lawyer in Michigan courageous enough to undertake their case. It was a four months' trial, 
involving the examination of four hundred witnesses, and he secured the acquittal of thirty-eight of the number. Besides all this professional labor, Mr. Seward did good service in various political campaigns; especially in 1844, in favor of a tariff; against the annexation of Texas, and the Mexican War; against disenfranchisement of foreign-born citizens, etc. In 1846, he was largely instrumental in securing the calling of the convention for the revision of the Constitution of the State of New York. In September, 1847, he delivered, at New York, an address on the life and character of Daniel O'Connell, which was one of his finest efforts; and in April, 1848, he pronounced, before the Legislature of New York, a touching and felicitous eulogy on John Quincy Adams. When General Taylor was nominated for the presidency, in 1848, Mr. Seward became one of the prominent public speakers, canvassing New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Massachusetts, making, as heretofore, the great principles of human freedom the central topics of his speeches, and was everywhere greeted with the hearty and unanimous applause of his audience. Shortly after Taylor's election, Mr. Seward was elected to the Senate of the Thirty first, Congress, and soon became recognized as the foremost advocate of the administration policy—enjoying the intimacy and confidence of the President until his untimely decease. During the first session of this Congress, Mr. Seward took a prominent and very influential part in the contest which resulted in the passage of the Compromise act, and it was in the discussion of these measures that he used the phrase "the Higher Law," which has achieved so great and wide-spread a significance. Three years before, he had said, in the Van Zandt case "Congress had no power to inhibit any duty commanded by God on Mount Sinai, or by his Son "on the mount of Olives," and now (March 11th, 1860), speaking of the admission of California, he said, "We hold no arbitrary authority over any thing, 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 purpose." In short, Senator Seward waged an "irrepressible conflict" against any compromise of the slavery question, a course of conduct which brought him not only into collision with the Democratic party, but also with Clay, Webster, Fillmore, and other prominent men of his own party. From this time party lines became more sharply drawn between the Pro-Slavery men and Abolitionists; and to the Southerner, "Bill Seward," as he was called, became an object of abuse, misrepresentation, and open contempt, in many cases, when they passed him on the street. But this effort to ostracise him was utterly futile. His rare abilities and elevated character made him proof against the scorn and derision of little minds; he held the even tenor of his way, and on all great national questions he took a part in the debate, and even his enemies could not but listen in admiration of his statesmanlike views. The subjects of Public Lands; indemnities of French Spoliations; Kossuth; the survey of the Arctic and Pacific Oceans; American Whale Fisheries; and American Steam Navigation; were handled by him, in public debate, with a grasp of intellect and a force of eloquence worthy of his high reputation. During the Thirty-second Congress, Mr. Seward advocated the Continental railroad, and opposed the removal of duties from railroad iron; and, in the summer of 1853, after the adjournment found time, besides engaging in several important legal cases, to deliver an oration at the dedication of a university, at Columbus, Ohio, on " The Destiny of America," and another before the American Institute, at New York, on "The True Basis of American Independence," both of which posses: a value beyond the occasions which elicited them.

In the Thirty-third Congress, he introduced a bill for the construction of a Pacific railroad, another for establishing steam mails between California, China, Japan, and the Sandwich Islands; besides measures for the modification of the Tariff, the Homestead Bill, Miss Dix's effort for the Relief of the Insane, etc., etc.—all of which matters, however, gave place to the all-absorbing discussion of Senator Douglas's Nebraska bill, which, it is needless to say, met with all the persistent and powerful opposition which Mr. Seward could bring against it. The measure, however, was finally passed. In addition to the elaborate speeches made on this topic, Mr. Seward pronounced chaste and discriminating eulogies on Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and during the summer of this year (1854) delivered the annual oration before the literary societies of Yale College on "The Physical, Moral, and Intellectual development of the American People;" and at the commencement exercises, received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. In October following, he made his celebrated and elaborate argument in the United States Circuit Court in the "McCormick Reaper case."   During the second session of the Thirty-third Congress, Mr. Seward, in addition to his continued advocacy of all the leading measures of public improvement, strenuously opposed Senator Toucey's bill protecting government officers in the execution of the Fugitive Slave act, and gave his affirmative vote to a substitute proposed during the debate, repealing the Fugitive Slave act of 1850.

In February, 1855, Mr. Seward was re-elected to the Senate for the term of six years, notwithstanding a most determined opposition from the "Know Nothing" or American party, and the Democratic party. His election, which was everywhere considered as a triumph of the advocates of freedom, assumed a national interest; and Mr. Seward was tendered public receptions at various places along his homeward route, after the extra session of Congress, all of which, however, he respectfully declined. During the State canvass in the fall of 1855, he delivered at Albany, Auburn, and Buffalo, speeches in which the political issues of the times were sketched with a master's hand—and, having enjoyed an immense circulation in newspaper and pamphlet form, were still further honored by being the subject of allusion in President Pierce's annual message. On the 22d of December, 1855, Mr. Seward delivered, at Plymouth, Massachusetts, an address commemorative of the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers, well worthy of the occasion, and his own high reputation as a statesman and scholar. During the protracted debates on the Kansas difficulties, in the thirty-fourth session of Congress, Mr. Seward bore a conspicuous part; his speeches being elaborate and exhaustive, and his labors indefatigable. The affairs of Kansas were also discussed by him, in two able speeches on the "Army bill," at the extra session in August. After the adjournment, he almost immediately plunged into the canvass of the coming Presidential election, in support of Fremont—two of his speeches, those delivered at Auburn and Detroit, displaying more than ordinary ability. Upon the re-assembling of Congress in December, he pronounced an eloquent and touching eulogium upon his old friend, Hon. John M. Clayton, and during the session he advocated the claims of Revolutionary officers; the prospect of government aid to the proposed Atlantic telegraph; a bill for a telegraph line to California and the Pacific coast; the overland mail route, and also the railroad to the Pacific; a revision of the tariff, by which the popular interests should be protected, etc. He also reviewed the Dred Scott decision, and proposed such a re-organization of the United States courts, as should give all sections of the Union a more equable representation, and meet, more fully, the wants of the growing West. During the Thirty-fifth Congress, Mr. Seward spoke on a larger variety of subjects than usual; opposing manfully the admission of Kansas into the Union under the "Lecompton Constitution," and from first to last, advocating the principle that the people of Kansas should be left perfectly free to decide upon their own organic law; advocating the increase of the army in Utah for the suppression of rebellion there; insisting upon reparation being demanded from the British Government for aggressions committed by their cruisers upon American vessels in the Mexican Gulf; favoring the admission of Minnesota and Oregon into the Union, as States; and various interesting speeches, more or less elaborate, upon the Pacific Railroad, Treasury Notes, the Walker "filibustering" expedition, rivers and harbors, and eulogiums upon Senators Rusk of Texas, Bell of New Hampshire, and J. Pinckney Henderson of Texas, of which the first named has been considered as one of the finest specimens of mortuary eloquence ever delivered before that body. After the adjournment of Congress, Mr. Seward made an argument on the "Albany Bridge case," which added largely to his reputation, by the remarkable knowledge which it displayed of the subject of navigation and the constitutional questions involved. In the autumn campaigns of 1858, lie displayed his usual ardor and ability in the canvass for State officers and members of Congress; his speeches causing profound sensations, especially that at Rochester, New York, in which, speaking of the collision between the free and slave systems of labor, he said, " Shall I tell you what this collision means? They who think that it is accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators, and therefore ephemeral, mistake the case altogether. 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 slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation." These significant words were severely denounced by the Democrats as revolutionary and dangerous, but they became the rallying cry of the hosts of Freedom, and they have been more than vindicated by subsequent events of our national history. Mr. Seward's services during the last session of the Thirty-fifth Congress, were rendered in behalf of those important and beneficent measures of which he was always a consistent and persistent friend, viz., the Homestead bill, the Pacific railroad, etc. In 1859, he made a second trip to Europe, to restore his health, impaired by incessant labor, and returning, devoted himself vigorously, in 1860, to the canvass of the Western States, in behalf of Abraham Lincoln. He had, indeed, himself been the prominent candidate for the presidency, in the National Republican Convention of that year, his nomination being regarded as certain by his friends. On the second ballot he received one hundred and eighty-four and one half votes, but on the third was defeated by Mr. Lincoln. During the same year he entertained at his table the Prince of Tales and his suite, who were then making a tour of the United States—on which occasion he casually intimated to his guests, in a jocular but significant remark—which was afterwards remembered when he was Secretary of State, during the civil war, that it would be a dangerous matter for England to meddle with the United States in any other way, than that of friendly rivalry. Mr. Seward had already foretold the "irrepressible conflict," and when it loomed up in still more threatening guise, and before the expiration of his second senatorial term in March, 1861, he boldly asserted his position thus—"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 of war, with every consequence of honor or dishonor, of life or death."

Immediately upon Mr. Lincoln's election to the presidency, he tendered to Mr. Seward the chief cabinet office, that of Secretary of State. It was accepted by the latter, and the difficult and perplexing duties which he thus assumed, were discharged with signal ability and success. His judicious administration of the office during the early part of Mr. Lincoln's first term, tended more than any other cause, to ward off intervention on the part 
of foreign powers, in the momentous struggle then going on between the Government and the rebellious States—and he challenged the respect and admiration of those powers themselves, as well as of his own fellow-countrymen, by the fairness, ability, fullness, and broad statesmanship, with which he discussed and settled the many perplexing and unprecedented questions which came under the notice of the State Department. Conspicuous among these, was the case of the demand by Great Britain for the surrender of Messrs. Mason and Slidell, rebel envoys who were forcibly taken by Captain Wilkes of the United States navy, from a British ship on which they were passengers, in the fall of 1861. Perhaps, at no time since the "War of 1812," has danger of war between England and America been so imminent, as then. It was averted, however, by the judicious diplomacy of the secretary, who, while avoiding a war by surrendering the rebel commissioners to Great Britain, on the ground, that, although they and their dispatches were in reality contraband of war, yet their captor had committed an irregularity in not bringing the ship, and all on board, into port for adjudication—at the same time made the surrender a means of enforcing from that country, the never-before conceded right of the freedom of neutral flags on the high seas.

It is well known that, during Mr. Lincoln's administration, Mr. Seward was, in most matters, the ruling spirit, and in general it must be admitted that he used his power well. There was dissatisfaction, not wholly causeless, at the freedom with which he used the power of arbitrary arrest; some complaint of the capricious, and at times not wholly respectful, manner in which he treated the representatives of the weaker foreign powers; some displeasure at his apparently open defiance of Congress in relation to the Mexican question, in offering to recognize Maximilian, after Congress had voted by a large majority to give moral support only to the Juarez government. These and other measures of his, so greatly dissatisfied the Republicans, that at their National Convention in Baltimore, in 1864, they passed a resolution requesting the President to reconstruct his cabinet. Mr. Seward tendered his resignation, as did some of the other cabinet officers, but Mr. Lincoln, who knew well Mr. Seward's value in the cabinet, in spite of his faults and errors, refused to accept his resignation, and retained him in his place.

Mr. Seward is by nature an optimist, always looking on the favorable side of a subject, and indulging, perhaps too much for the highest order of statesmanship, in glowing reveries and predictions of the wonderful growth, progress, and prosperity of our country in the immediate future. During the war, he excited some amusement by his oft repeated prophecies that it would close in sixty or ninety days. The second of these predictions, in his correspondence on the Mason and Slidell affair, furnished food for mirth among our enemies in the British Parliament for years.

After Mr. Lincoln's second inauguration, he re-appointed Mr. Seward for his second term, and in the closing events of the war in the east, the secretary rendered him great service.

Early in April, 1865, while Mr. Seward was riding in his carriage, the horses became frightened and ran, and in attempting to jump out, he was thrown to the ground, and his right arm was broken, and both sides of the lower jaw fractured. He was severely prostrated by this accident, and, for a time, serious fears were felt for his recovery. While thus confined to his bed, he narrowly escaped falling a victim to the fiendish plan of the conspirators who assassinated President Lincoln. Almost simultaneously with the attack upon Mr. Lincoln, an assassin forced his way into Mr. Seward's chamber, and striking down Mr. Frederick Seward, and overcoming the opposition of a male nurse, who was in attendance, reached the secretary's bedside and inflicted upon him three stabs in the face, which, however, failed of their deadly intent, although they greatly protracted his recovery. The assassin fled, but was subsequently arrested, convicted, and executed.

There have been those, even among the strongest friends of Mr. Seward in the past, who have been so uncharitable as to regret, for his sake, that the assassin failed of the complete accomplishment of his purpose at that time; for, they have argued, his career up to that time had been honorable to himself and a glory to the nation, and he would have died in the odor of sanctity, and with a martyr's halo around his brow, and have been remembered in all the future as the great statesman, who loved his country intensely, and laid down his life for her sake.

Without avowing any sympathy with this view, candor compels us to say, that Mr. Seward's course since his recovery from those wounds of the assassin, was not wholly worthy of his previous illustrious career. Forgetful, apparently, of his past intense loyalty and devotion to freedom, he sustained Mr. Johnson in every attempted usurpation, of power; assumed a supercilious tone in addressing the people, while yet their servant, was vacillating and self-contradictory in his intercourse with foreign powers, and attempted to distract the attention of Congress from the usurpations and crimes of his chief, by the purchase of extensive territories away from our previous geographical limits, and of which we stood in no need. These purchases were made without any consultations with Congress, and solely upon his own judgment; the prices he offered for them were exorbitant, and they were understood to be but the stepping stones to further and still more extensive negotiations.

His purchase from Russia of the territory of Alaska, for seven and a half millions of dollars in gold, was regarded by most of our people as unwise, but the negotiations had already proceeded so far, that it was consummated; but when he proceeded to buy from Denmark, at eight or ten times their value, the islands of St. Thomas and Santa Cruz, the home of earthquakes and hurricanes; entered upon negotiations with San Domingo for the bay and harbor of Samana, and turned longing eyes upon the island of Cuba, all felt that his greed for land was growing too great to be longer tolerated, and his negotiations were brought to an ignoble conclusion. His ulterior object of distracting attention from Mr. Johnson's usurpations failed as signally, and he was involved, even more fully than any of his colleagues, in the disgrace of the President.

We are glad to say that with his retirement from the cabinet in March, 1869, his eyes seemed to be opened to his departure from the principles to which his life had been for so many years devoted. With the glamour, which in official position had deceived him, removed from his vision, and the stern realities of a future life in which he must give an account of his stewardship, confronting him, in feeble health and with a partially paralysed body, this man prematurely old, from the hot fevers of partisan strife and political action, had leisure to review his career, and to see clearly the errors he had committed. When he had partially recovered from his illness, his active and restless spirit, impatient of confinement, led him, feeble as he still was, to undertake a journey round the world. Traversing first our neighbor republic of Mexico, where, notwithstanding his former inclination to recognize Maximilian's Empire, he was received with great cordiality and many honors, he subsequently traversed our Pacific States, and thence by steamer visited Japan, China, India, Palestine and Egypt, and the principal states of Europe. Everywhere he was received with high honor, and his ability and statesmanship fully recognized. In the autumn of 1871, he returned to his luxurious home at Auburn, and has since been engaged in the preparation for speedy publication of a narrative of his journeyings.

He will, not in all probability, take any part hereafter in public or political life, and perhaps has no desire to do so; but there is a lesson for all statesmen to learn from his career. While engaged in the defence of a great principle, the advocacy of a great right, or the attack on a great wrong, they can afford to sacrifice present popularity for the abiding and deliberate judgment of the future; they can be sure that they will not long remain misunderstood ; but if these same statesmen when known, honored, and loved, depart from the principles they have so long and fearlessly advocated, if tempted by the glittering gauds of office, fame and political power, they forget to practise those great doctrines which it has been their glory to sustain, no length of public service, no deeds of past patriotism, no lofty aspirations in the past, will save them from that deep and settled distrust, on the part of the masses, which will eventually bury them beneath the waters of oblivion.

Mr. Seward, though a man of rare gifts and extraordinary talents, is not prepossessing in personal appearance; small of stature, slender and pale, careless in dress and manner, and with an habitually sad expression of countenance, he wins confidence but slowly; yet he has the art to attach his friends to him "as with hooks of steel."

Let us hope that, when he shall sleep under the clods of the valley, there may be in the hearts of the people a kindly remembrance of his great services to his country during forty 
years and more of his public career, which shall partially, if it cannot wholly, conceal the errors of his later life.

Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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