10 Resolute Facts About William Seward

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Abraham Lincoln's most trusted advisor may have also been the most divisive politician of his time. William Henry Seward (1801-1872) had an incredible career that took him from the Governor's Mansion in Albany to the White House Cabinet Room. Along the way, he made countless enemies—one of whom almost sliced his face off. Yet Seward's admirers were just as plentiful. A gifted statesman, he was a driving force behind emancipation, school reform, and, most famously, the Alaska purchase.

1. He attended the first national political convention in U.S. history.

Third parties are a storied tradition in America. The first of any real consequence was the short-lived Anti-Masonic Party, which—as the name implies—sought to abolish the secretive fraternal order known as Freemasonry. Founded in 1828, the party had no difficulty attracting followers—many of whom hated America's most famous Freemason, Andrew Jackson.

Enter William Seward. When the lawyer, who hailed from the town of Florida, New York, relocated 200 miles upstate to Auburn in 1822, he soon got involved with the local Anti-Masonic scene. In 1828, the party nominated him for a Congressional seat. He declined the offer, but remained active with the group.

In 1830, Seward became a State Senator for the Anti-Masonic Party. That same year, he helped make history: On September 11, he and 95 other Anti-Mason delegates gathered in Philadelphia. This week-long event was the first national convention to ever be orchestrated by an American political party.

2. While governor, he took a stand for education.

Once the Anti-Masonic party started to fade, Seward joined an upstart group called the Whigs, and was elected Governor of New York on that party's ticket in 1838. But despite being the state's most prominent Whig, he didn't always agree with his party colleagues. Down in New York City, a powerful demographic was on the rise. Irish immigrants had been arriving in droves since 1816. Their influx prompted opposite reactions from the two major parties. While Democrats courted the Irish vote, most Whigs denounced them.

Governor Seward refused to play ball. He frequently sat down with immigrant leaders and even took it upon himself to champion one of their causes. At the time, most Irish-American children didn't receive any formal education. This was partly because public schools were run by the aptly-named Public School Society (PSS). As a mostly Protestant-run organization, it insisted that the King James Bible be used as a teaching tool. Since Catholic parents found this blasphemous, they often kept their kids out of school altogether.

To solve the problem, Seward proposed creating new Catholic schools—with some funding from the state. "The children of foreigners," he told the legislature in 1840, "… are too often deprived of the advantages of our system … I do not hesitate, therefore, to recommend the establishment of schools in which they may be instructed by teachers speaking the same language with themselves and professing the same faith."

Immediately, there was a backlash. Nativists were disgusted by the idea, and their newspapers slammed it with vigor. Realizing he'd have to compromise, the Governor threw his support behind a compromise drawn up by New York Secretary of State (and Superintendent of Common Schools) John C. Spencer. The bill, sponsored in the legislature by Democrat William Maclay in 1842, would would turn every Big Apple neighborhood into a separate school district whose constituents could elect their own trustees—thus giving Catholic parents more of a voice. State Democrats barely passed the bill, and Governor Seward was more than happy to sign it into law on April 11, 1842. Little did he know that this minor victory would cost him big-time one day …

3. He devised an expansionist bird poop law (that's still on the books).

In 1849, Seward was elected to the U.S. Senate where he represented the Empire State (a position he held until 1861). On Capitol Hill, the man's passionate anti-slavery speeches attracted national attention. But that wasn't the only issue on his mind: Like many Americans in those days, William Henry Seward spent a lot of time worrying about bird feces.

Dried avian poop, or guano, was a hot commodity in the time before artificial fertilizers. But grade-A bird poo was also quite expensive. The most nutrient-rich guano available came from Peru, where Britain held the exclusive right to export it. As such, merchants from the UK could demand top dollar for their droppings.

To end Britain's fecal monopoly, Seward introduced the Guano Islands Act of 1856. On August 18, it became law—and remains so today. Under this act, U.S. citizens are allowed to claim any guano-covered "rock, island, or key" for America (provided, of course, that nobody lives there and it doesn't "fall within the jurisdiction of any government"). So far, the Act has been responsible for turning more than 100 islands into U.S. territories. Such is the power of poop.

4. His Auburn home was part of the Underground Railroad.

Exactly how many fugitives traveled through the Seward house is unknown. Still, the place was apparently a well-regarded stop. According to an 1891 article in the Auburn Herald, "It is said that the old kitchen was one of the most popular stations of the Underground Railroad, and that many a poor slave who fled by this route to Canada carried to his grave the remembrance of its warmth and cheer."

Not every guest had a pleasant experience there, though. In 1855, an unlucky traveler was bitten by the family bulldog, Watch. "I am against extending suffrage to dogs," Seward noted after the fact.

5. Seward once sold a plot of land to Harriet Tubman.

Seward and Tubman met in the early 1850s. Born a slave, she'd run away from her masters in 1849. From then on, Tubman made it her life's mission to liberate those still in chains. Over a 10-year period, she helped free over 300 African Americans through the Underground Railroad. "Excepting John Brown," Frederick Douglass once said, "… I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman]."

The second half of her life was mostly spent in Auburn. Here, Seward—illegally—offered her a two-story house and seven acres of land. Tubman bought the property for $1200 in 1859. She and Seward remained friends until the end of his days. When Tubman married Nelson Davis (another ex-slave) in Auburn on March 18, 1869, Seward attended the wedding.

6. In 1860, Abe Lincoln upset Seward to clinch the GOP presidential nomination.

Almost nobody saw this coming. At the time, Lincoln was a relative unknown. Conversely, Senator Seward had (after joining the GOP in 1855) emerged as one of America's most famous Republicans. Most newspapers therefore assumed that he was a shoe-in for the party's presidential nomination in 1860. Confident in his chances, Seward embarked upon a lengthy trip to Europe in 1859. Across the pond, kings, queens, and dukes greeted him with open arms as the presumptive next president of the United States.

So how did he lose the nomination? One of Seward's biggest liabilities was his own anti-slavery rhetoric. After all, this was the man who had said that freedom and slavery were in "irrepressible conflict" as recently as December 1859. With such an attitude, many Republicans feared that Seward couldn't win more moderate states like Illinois and Pennsylvania. Moreover, his pandering to immigrants alienated the Republicans who had recently joined from the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings. Over in Europe, Seward could do little to dissipate these concerns back home.

Nevertheless, his self-assurance was palatable. As the Republican National Convention unfolded in Chicago, Seward wiled away at his Auburn house with some friends, all of whom anxiously read telegrams from supporters in the Windy City. Outside, a cannon lay in wait—ready to fire off a celebratory ball or two.

The first few dispatches seemed promising. "Everything indicates your nomination today sure," one telegram said. Then, without warning, his candidacy unraveled. Seward failed to gain the necessary 233 delegates during the first ballot. Two ballots later, Abraham Lincoln became the official nominee. Seward was devastated, but—to his credit—he campaigned vigorously for his fellow Republican during the general election.

7. He helped revise Lincoln's first inaugural address.

Upon completing his first draft of the speech, the president asked Seward to take a look at it. Honest Abe couldn't have picked a more thorough editor. In a point-by-point breakdown of the address, Seward came up with more than 50 suggestions. Overall, the Senator felt that Lincoln's tone was both partisan and hostile.

At Seward's request, the president deleted two paragraphs. He also softened his language—referring, for example, to southerners who'd besieged Union property as "revolutionary" rather than "treasonable." Lincoln gave the address on March 4, 1861. One day later, the Senate confirmed Seward as his Secretary of State.

8. Mrs. Lincoln strongly disliked him.

By day, the President and his Secretary of State saw a lot of each other at cabinet meetings. After working hours, Lincoln could often be found relaxing at Seward's mansion, located in D.C.'s Lafayette Square neighborhood. In her book Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin wrote that "Between official meetings and private get-togethers, Lincoln spent more time with Seward in the first year of his presidency than with anyone else, including his family."

This fact was not lost on Mary Todd Lincoln. The First Lady deeply resented Seward, whom she called a "dirty abolition sneak." Mrs. Lincoln couldn't even bear the sight of Seward's mansion and instructed her coachman to avoid driving past it.

9. An associate of John Wilkes Booth almost killed him.

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865—but he wasn't the only person marked for death that night.

John Wilkes Booth wanted the president's murder to be the centerpiece of a bloodbath that the North would never forget. Before the Civil War had ended, he and his co-conspirators had tried to kidnap Lincoln on March 17, 1865. That plan fell through and, less than a month later, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.

With the Confederacy defeated, Booth's team decided that the time had come for a more drastic measure. Their new plan called for three simultaneous assassinations. While Booth shot Lincoln, a German immigrant named George Atzerodt would murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and southern veteran Lewis Powell would kill Secretary Seward.

Of the three targets, Seward looked most vulnerable. That's because, on April 5, he'd been involved in an ugly carriage accident. Thrown from the vehicle, Seward ended up breaking an arm and his jaw. On April 14, he was still bed-ridden at his Lafayette Square mansion.

At around 10:30 in the evening, Powell knocked on the front door. When he was greeted by Seward's waiter, George Bell, Powell introduced himself as a messenger from Seward's doctor—but the servant didn't buy it. Giving up the charade, Powell pushed Bell aside and marched upstairs. Before he could get to the bedroom, Powell encountered Seward's son, Frederick. After an argument, he aimed his pistol at Frederick. The gun didn't work, so Powell proceeded to bludgeon the young man's head with it.

Over the next few minutes, Powell wounded two of Seward's other children—Augustus and Fanny—along with the Secretary's bodyguard, George Robinson. Then, he arrived at Seward's bedside. Drawing his bowie knife, Powell slashed away at the Secretary of State. Repeatedly, the blade was plunged into Seward's face and neck until—at last—Powell was pulled away by Robinson and Augustus and the attacker raced off into the night.

Astonishingly, Seward managed to survive. In one of history's most ironic twists, it was the metal brace around his jaw—which had been put there after the carriage accident—that protected his jugular vein. As for Powell, he was swiftly arrested. Along with three co-conspirators, the schemer was hanged on July 7, 1865.

10. There's a long-standing myth about Seward and the Alaska Purchase.

Atzerodt (who was also executed for his involvement with Booth's scheme) never even tried to assassinate Andrew Johnson. With Lincoln gone, Johnson became America's 17th president. Under the new administration, Seward remained Secretary of State—and it was during these years that he negotiated America's acquisition of Alaska.

In March 1867, Seward discussed the terms with Edouard de Stoeckl, Russia's Minister to the United States. By the end of the month, they'd agreed on a $7.2 million price tag—which works out to roughly two cents per acre. Not a bad deal.

Today, it's often claimed that the decision to purchase Alaska was deeply unpopular. Moreover, the American press is said to have immediately balked at Russia's multimillion-dollar fee and nicknamed the territory "Seward's Folly," or "Seward's Ice Box."

But that's a myth. According to Seward biographer Walter Stahr, most newspapers praised the decision. "[It] is of the highest importance to the whole country," declared the Daily Alta California, "… that the territory should be consolidated as soon as possible." The New York Times and Chicago Tribune concurred, as did the National Republican, which called Alaska's purchase "the greatest diplomatic achievement of the age.'

Seward himself got to see the future state in all its glory during the summer of 1869. By then, he'd retired from politics altogether and dedicated his remaining years to travel and family. On October 10, 1872, he passed away in his Auburn home.

This list was republished in 2019.

11 Fun Facts About Dolly Parton

Brendon Thorne, Getty Images
Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. You won't find Dolly Parton on a Dollywood roller coaster.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. Dolly Parton once entered a Dolly Parton look-alike contest—and lost.


Getty Images

Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. Dolly Parton spent a fortune to recreate her childhood home.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. Dolly Parton won't apologize for Rhinestone.


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Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. Dolly Parton is Miley Cyrus's godmother ... sort of.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. Dolly Parton received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
Getty Images

In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBTQ members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted. "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. Dolly Parton started her own "library" to promote literacy, and has given away more than 100 million books.

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. There's a statue of Dolly Parton in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. The cloned sheep Dolly was named after Dolly Parton.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. Dolly Parton turned down an offer from Elvis Presley.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. In 2018, Dolly Parton earned two Guinness World Records.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born on January 19, 1809.

1. Edgar Allan Poe was the original Balloon Boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. Edgar Allan Poe dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later for Edgar Allan Poe.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. Edgar Allan Poe had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. Edgar Allan Poe's death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

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