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.