Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans – William Seward

Apr 2, 2015 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans – William Seward

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. William Seward is a name that some historians know about and some scholars of history know about, but not all Americans may be aware of his contributions to this country. What was his early childhood like? Where did he grow up and when?

William H. Seward was born on May 16, 1801, in Florida, New York. His parents were wealthy, and in a surprising twist actually owned slaves until the state abolished the institution within its boundaries in 1827. Seward attended school in Florida and in nearby Goshen until he was 15. He then began to attend Union College in Schenectady, New York. Because of his academic ability, he entered as a sophomore. Seward did well at Union, and was selected for admission into Phi Beta Kappa.

But before he reached graduation, he and his father had a serious disagreement in December of 1818 that caused Seward to leave school. Most historians believe that the dispute between the two centered on Seward’s allowance while in college. Seward decided to accompany a friend to the state of Georgia to become teachers at a private academy. Even though Seward was only 17 years old, he was hired, and he taught there for the next few months. He and has father reconciled, and in June of 1819 Seward returned to Union. He graduated with highest honors the following year. Seward then studied law for two years, and passed the New York bar examination in 1822.

He began to practice law in Auburn, New York, a place that he would consider his home for the rest of his life. Soon after entering the legal profession, Seward became active in politics. In 1830 he ran for a position in the New York state senate, and won by 2,000 votes. In 1834, Seward (who by then had become a member of the new Whig Party) unsuccessfully ran for governor, and returned to the practice of law. Four years later he ran again for governor, and this time won the election.

He served two terms as governor before stepping down in 1842. His efforts during the next seven years focused primarily on his law practice, but he continued to campaign for Whig candidates. He was rewarded for this loyalty in 1849, when the New York state legislature selected him to fill a vacant seat in the US Senate. Seward would serve in that capacity until 1861, when Abraham Lincoln asked him to become his secretary of state.

  1. How did he get involved in public service?

Soon after entering the legal profession, Seward became active in politics. In 1830 he ran for a position in the New York state senate, and won by 2,000 votes. In 1834, Seward (who by then had become a member of the new Whig Party) unsuccessfully ran for governor, and returned to the practice of law. Four years later he ran again for governor, and this time won the election. He served two terms as governor before stepping down in 1842. His efforts during the next seven years focused primarily on his law practice, but he continued to campaign for Whig candidates. He was rewarded for this loyalty in 1849, when the New York state legislature selected him to fill a vacant seat in the US Senate. Seward would serve in that capacity until 1861, when Abraham Lincoln asked him to become his secretary of state. Seward would remain the secretary of state under Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination. In 1869, newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant chose not to retain Seward as secretary of state, and he returned to his home in New York. Seward died there three years later.

  1. He is best known for what was then called ” Seward’s Folly “. How did that entire event come about?

In July of 1841, a Russian explorer named Alexei Chirikov sailed close enough to the coastline of Alaska to see Mount St. Elias. This gave Russia a claim to that territory. During the next century, the Russians established a fur trading business in Alaska, but only a few thousand Russians ever moved there. In the 1850s Russia fought a conflict known as the Crimean War, and one of its foes was Great Britain. After the conflict ended in 1856, Russia feared that it might once again have to go to war against the British. The Russians recognized that because of Britain’s control of Canada, it would be fairly easy for the British to mount an expedition to conquer Alaska. In an attempt to at least gain something for its colony, Russia approached the United States to see if it had any interest in purchasing Alaska.

Because the United States was preoccupied with the deepening sectional crisis in the late 1850s, this possibility did not come to fruition. When Seward became the American secretary of state, however, he was very favorable to the idea. He wanted more American seaports in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and felt that Alaska offered what he desired. Seward also knew that gold had been discovered in that region. He asked Russia’s representative to the United States to negotiate the sale of Alaska, but for reasons that are still unclear the Russians now proved unwilling to sell. But in March of 1867 the Russians again reversed course and asked if the United States wanted to Purchase Alaska.

Over the next few weeks Seward worked out the details of the transaction, and on March 30 a treaty of acquisition was presented to the Senate. The Senate ratified the treaty on April 10, and for 7.2 million dollars Alaska became an American possession. Ironically, the purchase of Alaska might never have taken place had it not been for a serious carriage accident in 1865 that Seward had been in. He had broken his collar bone in that accident, and his arm was put in place by a brace and Plaster of Paris.

On the night that Lincoln was assassinated, an accomplice of Booth tried to also kill Seward by stabbing him. Fortunately, the cast and brace prevented the assassin’s dagger from penetrating through to Seward’s heart. Had the assassin succeeded, it’s anyone’s guess whether Seward’s successor would have responded favorably to the Russian overture in 1867.

  1. What was the immediate reaction and response to Seward’s Folly?

Many people felt that Seward had committed an egregious mistake by paying so much for a remote territory—hence the name “Seward’s Folly.” Indeed, many people assumed that the Senate would never appropriate such a sum to purchase Alaska. Ironically, the Russian Revolution eventually provided a reason for why the Senate confounded many by ratifying the treaty. After the Bolsheviks overthrew the czar in 1917, they opened the Russian archives to show to the world just how corrupt that regime had been. Documents proved that the Russian government had secretly paid $100,000 in bribes to US senators to get them to vote in favor of the treaty. But by that time the discovery of major deposits of gold in Alaska had convinced many Americans that the purchase of Alaska had been worth the price.

  1. What were some of his other contributions?

While largely known solely today for his purchase of Alaska, Seward should also be remembered for his efforts to help win the Civil war. Although he stumbled badly during his first month as secretary of state, after that Seward rarely missed a step in his efforts to keep the Confederacy from gaining aid from any foreign country. He was also responsible for convincing Lincoln to wait for a Union victory before announcing the Emancipation Proclamation. Seward thus gave much greater service to his country than simply acquiring Alaska for it.

  1. Looking back is there really any way to quantify his contribution to this country?

Seward is generally regarded as being one of the most effective secretaries of state that the United States ever had. He helped keep the rest of the world neutral during the Civil war, and acquired a territory that has proven invaluable to the United States. Perhaps the proof of this lies in some counterfactual history. If we had never purchased Alaska and Russia had somehow been able to hold onto it, how much different would the Cold war have been with the Russians having a possession on the North American continent?

Clearly Seward’s Folly was an event that history has proven to be one of the most lastingly beneficial for the United States.

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