Volume XXXI · Autumn 1978 · Number 1
The Life and Career of William Henry Seward 1801-1872
-- GLYNDON G. VAN DEUSEN
William Henry Seward was born in Florida, New York, on May 16, 1801. He came of English stock, with possibly some infusion of Welsh and Irish blood; his family had migrated to America in the early eighteenth century.
Harry Seward, as he liked to be called in his younger days, was one of five children of Samuel Sweezy Seward, a prosperous, domineering doctor and businessman, and Mary Jennings Seward. He was five feet, six inches in height, red-haired, blue-eyed, and slight of build, bright, charming, and stubborn, with a taste for adventure. At the age of 15 his health was delicate, but he had a studious bent, and therefore, his father entered him in Union College, Schenectady, New York.
The young Union student liked to dress well. His taste in clothes caused grumbling at home as the tailor bills came from Schenectady; his father finally refused to pay them. In January 1819, Harry left college and struck out for the South with a classmate. In Georgia he took a job teaching school. He found life in Georgia pleasant, though he developed a lasting dislike for slavery. Despite family pleas, he did not return home for six months. When he did return he re-entered Union and graduated in 1820, a junior Phi Beta Kappa.
Young Seward studied law in various law offices, becoming a full-fledged lawyer in 1822. The following year he became a partner in the law office of Judge Elijah Miller in Auburn, New York, and on October 20, 1824, married Frances Adeline Miller, the judge's younger daughter.
Frances Adeline was 19 years old at the time of the marriage. She was a beautiful brunette, strong-minded and intelligent, with high standards of morality, and a conventional Christian faith.
The life which Harry looked forward to was vastly different from that which Fanny, as he called her, preferred. He was eminently social, made friends with everybody, and had a calling for public life. Fanny, on the other hand, shrank from society, much preferring a quiet family life with a few close friends.
Though Seward was a competent lawyer, he soon found that his chief interest was in politics. At first a young Federalist, he had a brief Van Burenite period, then became a National Republican as he settled down in Auburn. This last choice was logical. Auburn was in spirit largely National Republican, and Henry's father-in-law was an ardent follower of John Quincy Adams.
In the middle 1820s a new political party, the Anti-Masonic party, made its bow. It had its origin in the 1826 abduction of William Morgan, a member of the powerful and secret order of Masonry. Morgan, who had threatened to expose the secrets of the first three degrees of Masonry, was seized in Canandaigua, New York, by a group of men, presumably Masons, who rushed him to the Niagara Frontier. There all trace of him vanished forever, but it soon became apparent that prominent Masons were hindering the investigation of his disappearance. Bitter attacks on the Masonic Order appeared in the press, and denunciations of Masonry as an enemy of democracy spread throughout the eastern part of the United States. Out of this emerged the Anti-Masonic party, a political organization that grew with great rapidity in that part of the country during the latter 1820s.
One of the most outspoken of the newspapermen who aided and abetted the Anti-Masonic excitement was a Rochester journalist named Thurlow Weed, a supporter of John Quincy Adams and an astute and able politician. He and Seward had become acquainted in Rochester, and as their acquaintance ripened they became political partners; Weed as a newspaper editor, Seward as a candidate for office.
In 1830 the Anti-Masons of the state's seventh district elected Seward to the New York State Senate. There he worked closely with Weed, who founded and edited theAlbany Evening Journal, and became the guiding spirit of the New York State Anti-Masonic party. The leaders of that party sought to make it national in scope, a movement of which the two young men heartily approved. Seward participated actively in fostering this national movement. He was a delegate to a national Anti-Masonic convention in Philadelphia, and in 1831 made a political journey to New England, where he met and talked with John Quincy Adams about the political future. In the New York State Senate Seward spoke and acted for reform legislation, emphasizing the need for a sound paper currency and the usefulness of the United States Bank.
The Anti-Masonic party became more and more closely aligned with the National Republicans, whose principal leaders were John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. This party was shattered by the Democratic party's victory in 1828, when President Adams had gone down to an overwhelming defeat at the hands of Andrew Jackson and the Democrats. National Republicanism was now a waning force, and Anti-Masonry had too narrow a base to become a powerful rival, state or national, to the triumphant Democrats. Seward's political future seemed dark, but he continued to make a name for himself as a supporter of internal improvements and prison reform, and as a critic of the Democratic leadership.
In 1833, Seward went to Europe on a sightseeing journey, and his letters to Weed, published in the Albany Evening Journal, bore witness to his insatiable and sometimes naive curiosity. When his coach lumbered up a long hill, Seward would get out and walk, so that he could see as much as possible at close hand. On his return home he plunged again into politics, taking a leading part in the organization of the Whig party. In New York State, this was a combination of National Republicans and Anti-Masons that arose out of opposition to Jackson, and distrust of Van Buren and the reigning Democratic regency.
The New York Whigs made Seward their candidate for governor in 1834, but his Democratic opponent, William L. Marcy, won a decisive victory. For several years after this setback Seward gave politics a minor role, devoting himself to legal work and to family affairs.
The law bored Seward. Nevertheless, his legal practice was large and successful, and it furthered his reputation as a coming man. His popularity was also augmented by settling the Holland Land Company's tangled financial affairs in Western New York. Nevertheless, his achievements had their darker side. His busy life gave him little time for tending to domestic affairs. When in Auburn he spent his days and most of his evenings in his law office. His work for the Holland Land Company kept him for months at a time in Westfield, New York, over 100 miles from home. The care of his two young sons, Augustus and Frederick, was left to a wife whose sense of neglect drove her into a state of hypochondria that was only temporarily relieved by a three-month carriage journey with her husband into Virginia, Washington, and Maryland.
Seward's interest in politics remained as keen as ever, and Whig prospects began to brighten with the panic and depression that began during Van Buren's administration. Seward and Weed saw the signs of the times, and Seward began speaking throughout the state, stressing the need for internal improvements and for reform in education. He also had a hand in framing New York State's Free Banking Act of 1838, a Whig measure. With Weed's clever support, he received the Whig nomination for governor in 1838, despite the opposition of powerful Whig rivals, and was elected to the highest office in the state by some 10,000 votes over the Democratic candidate, Marcy. The campaign was organized and run by Weed, who was also largely responsible for the new governor's major office appointments.
The opportunities afforded by his gubernatorial career marked Seward as a shrewd politician with liberal and progressive inclinations. He championed educational improvements, prison reform, the construction of railroads and canals. But he was handicapped in his ambition for achievement by powerful Whig conservatives and jealous rivals for political leadership in the state. Consequently, his stand on issues that had dangerous political implications was sometimes equivocal. But controversies over slavery, in which he became involved with Southern governors, brought him into national prominence as a leader in the growing antislavery movement.
Interstate bickerings and charges of extravagance in his plans for internal improvements lessened Seward's popularity, and in his campaign for reelection in 1840 he won by only 5,000 votes. He did not seriously consider running for a third term, since during the next two years controversies between liberal and conservative New York Whigs increased in violence, and he was also financially hard pressed.
Seward was by nature extravagant, and his debts weighed heavily upon him. Only Weed's advice and services, together with those of a wealthy New York lawyer and banker, Richard M. Blatchford, saved him from financial disaster, and once again he devoted himself perforce to his law practice.
Life had its problems for Frances and Henry. She hated being the governor's wife, and after the years at Albany were over she complained that his legal work kept him altogether too much away from home. Frederick did well at Union and then joined the editorial staff of the Albany Evening Journal, but their eldest son, Augustus, was a problem. To his mother's horror, he decided upon a military career. She begged his father to get Augustus out of the army, but he refused to take any such action, and Augustus remained a constant worry to her. The lives of Frances and Henry were drifting apart, but two events of this period renewed the ties that bound them together. Their last child, Frances Adeline, was born December 9, 1844. She was sprightly and affectionate, a bond of union in the family. Two years later came an event of a very different nature. In 1846, two Negroes, Henry Wyatt and William Freeman, were brought to trial in Auburn, accused of murder. Seward acted as lawyer for both men. His eloquent appeal for blacks as men entitled to the educational and political privileges of whites brought him wide attention as an opponent of slavery, and the ardent sympathy and support of his wife.
His legal practice, increased by the eloquent defense of Wyatt and Freeman, was further enhanced by a number of suits in patent law cases. One of these took him to New Orleans. He returned home by way of a trip across the Deep South, where he visited friends that he had made as a young schoolteacher in Georgia.
During this period of legal activity, Seward never lost his interest in politics. He supported Clay for President in 1844 and Zachary Taylor in 1848. He also remained a firm and increasingly vocal opponent of slavery, but urged that freedom for slaves should go hand in hand with compensation for the economic loss that freedom would entail for the slaveholders. He had no enthusiasm for the Mexican War, fearing that its outcome would increase slave territory and thus the political power of the slaveholders. He would counter this by the enactment of the Wilmot Proviso, which would prohibit slavery in any land acquired from Mexico, by giving free male Negroes suffrage, and by extending the same privilege to the foreigners who were flocking to America. These ideas appeared in some of his speeches. Both he and Weed sensed the growing strength and political power of the antislavery movement, but they both felt that caution must be their watchword, for already their political objective was the White House.
The Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor for President in 1848 with Millard Fillmore, a New Yorker but no friend of Seward, for Vice President. Under Weed's astute guidance, a Whig majority in the New York State legislature elected Seward to the United States Senate, where he took his seat immediately after Taylor's inauguration in March 1849. Seward used all his charm and hospitality to make friends among the Senators of both North and South. He also established such influence over Taylor that, to Fillmore's disgust, he obtained virtually complete control over federal patronage in New York State.
Tension between North and South over slavery rose steadily in 1849, and when the Senate assembled for the session that began in December, war between the two sections seemed imminent. Clay's compromise, introduced early in February, brought months of debate. It was an attempt to calm the passions of both North and South by granting something to both sides. Under terms of the compromise, California, where the sentiment for freedom was predominant, would be organized as a state without reference to slavery. The remaining territories conquered from Mexico would be organized without restriction as to slavery. Slaves should not be brought into the District of Columbia for sale, but there should be a more rigorous fugitive slave law, and there should be no interference in the slave trade between slaveholding states. Clay defended the compromise as essential for the maintenance of the Union, at the same time declaring that there was no such right as secession. Webster spoke in support of this proposal.
Seward spoke on March 11 in opposition to the compromise. His speech had been weeks in preparation, and he and Weed had agreed on its main themes-the grandeur of the nation's destiny as a nation, the certainty of slavery's destruction, the impossibility of dissolving the Union. The compromise was unnecessary because slavery was a transient institution. Compromise was also unnecessary as a means of preserving a Union where natural and economic factors made a permanent cleavage between North and South impossible.
Seward's speech was able and eloquent, but in it he made a statement that, misconstrued, was to be used with considerable effect against him. The Constitution, he said, devoted the public domain to noble purposes, but there was "a higher law than the Constitution" that devoted the public domain to the same high ends. This statement, as Greeley said, reinforced a constitutional obligation by the sanction of divine law, but Seward's opponents declared that he had overridden the Constitution, and presumed to legislate as the steward of God Almighty.
Despite the criticisms of Seward's opponents, the speech was in great demand. It made him one of the leaders of the antislavery forces. Taylor died July 9, 1850, and with Fillmore in the White House Seward's influence in national political affairs decreased. Clay's compromise became law in September, the Whig party divided on slavery, and in 1852 the Democratic candidate for President, Franklin Pierce, won an overwhelming victory over Whig Winfield Scott.
The Whig party now began fragmenting. It went to pieces after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854, but not before the New York Whigs had renominated Seward for the United States Senate. He won reelection, despite the efforts of the conservative Whigs, the Democrats, and the newly formed, anti-foreigner Native American party.
As the Whig party disintegrated, the new Republican party began to form, one of its main planks being opposition to slavery. Seward joined it after his reelection to the Senate, and promptly became one of its leaders. He urged internal improvements, and attacked the rendition of fugitive slaves and the Native American party. He was an opponent of Stephen A. Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska bill, which would have opened those territories to slavery. His speeches on these subjects kept him before the public eye.
Seward wanted the Republican presidential nomination in 1856, but Weed and other close advisers felt that the time was not yet ripe. Reluctantly, he refused to allow his name to go before the convention, and the dashing explorer of the West, John C. Fremont, led the fight against Democrat James Buchanan.
The election of 1856 showed the Whig party in a state of collapse. The Native Americans split over the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and Buchanan received only 45.3 percent of the national vote. The Republican party, in its first national election, with no voting strength south of the Mason-Dixon line, captured one third of the popular vote and swept New England, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Fremont had run on what was essentially a Seward platform, and it was logical for the New Yorker to expect that he would be the next Republican candidate for the Presidency.
But during the next four years misfortune and bad judgment dogged Seward's path. Greeley, offended because he felt his services inadequately recognized, withdrew his support. Seward outraged Republican leaders by declaring that he cared nothing for party, but only for the nation's good. He cultivated the good will of prominent Southerners. He alarmed many when, in a widely quoted speech, he warned of the "irrepressible conflict" between North and South over human bondage.
This mélange of views and actions, together with the hostility of northern Know-Nothings, doubts as to Weed's probity, and Lincoln's growing reputation as a statesman, weakened Seward's candidacy. Skillful promises of Cabinet posts and other offices by Lincoln's campaign manager outdid Weed's efforts in that direction, and Lincoln received the Republican nomination on the third ballot.
Seward, bitterly disappointed, received the news with outward equanimity at Auburn, and campaigned vigorously for the Republican ticket. In December 1860, he accepted Lincoln's offer of the Department of State.
During the months that elapsed from Lincoln's election in November 1860 to March 4, 1861, eight Southern states, headed by South Carolina, passed ordinances of secession. The one faintly hopeful aspect of the situation was that the guns were still silent. There was no open war. In this critical period Seward devoted himself to Union-saving efforts.
Believing that secession was the work of a minority of radicals rather than what most Southerners wanted, Seward tried to find ways of arousing latent Southern loyalty to the Union, and at the same time provide a barrier to the extension of slavery. He offered three resolutions that Lincoln favored: (1) an amendment forbidding any alteration of the Constitution that would allow Congress to interfere with slavery where it already existed, (2) legislation granting jury trial to fugitive slaves, and (3) a recommendation to the states that they repeal personal liberty laws that were in conflict with the Constitution. Only the first of these passed the national legislature. He also proposed building two transcontinental railroads, one north and one south, as a measure of reconciliation.
Seward also flirted with the idea of war with some foreign power as a means of uniting the country in a burst of patriotism. As will be shown, this idea had considerable attraction for him. But while seeking some constructive action, he was grossly underestimating the strength of the secessionist movement.
When the President-elect arrived in Washington, Seward shepherded him around the capital and gave suggestions, some of which Lincoln followed, about the inaugural address. He was also ready with advice about the Cabinet, but Lincoln made up his official family without following Seward's advice, finally deciding on a Cabinet that was a combination of old Whigs and old Democrats. On March 2, Seward, dissatisfied, asked "leave to withdraw." On inauguration day Lincoln asked Seward to "countermand the withdrawal," also making it clear that his intention to have a balanced Cabinet stood firm. Seward agreed to remain. His attempt to "take the first trick," as Lincoln expressed it, had failed.
As Secretary of State, Seward's immediate objectives were twofold: to keep the border states that had not yet seceded in the Union, and to deal with the Southern Confederacy in such a manner that it would wither away. To obtain these objectives he stood out against relief for the Union garrison in Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina, and suggested a vigorous foreign policy that included a threat of war against France and Spain. Lincoln would not accept either of these proposals, and sent a naval force to relieve Fort Sumter. Bombardment by the Confederates forced the surrender of the fort. The Civil War had begun.
Seward still had plenty of room for action. His zeal for accomplishment sometimes overreached the bounds of prudence, especially in regard to relations with Great Britain. Lincoln held him in check, however, and as it became apparent that the British government had no immediate intention of recognizing the Confederacy as a legitimate and independent power, Seward's attitude toward the British government became more friendly and constructive.
In November 1861, two Confederate agents, Mason and Slidell, were forcibly taken from a British steamer on the high seas by a Union warship. The English government demanded their return in no uncertain terms. Tempers rose high in both England and the Union, but Seward was determined to avoid war with Great Britain. He agreed to surrender the prisoners in a note that skillfully emphasized the consistency of this action with a policy regarding seizures on the high seas for which the United States had long contended. The surrender of Mason and Slidell to the British government, Seward declared, was in accordance with fundamental American principles. A treaty that Seward negotiated in 1862 with Lord Lyons, British minister to the United States, provided agreement as to the right of search on the high seas.
Seward's diplomacy during the Civil War covered a wide field of action. It helped to keep other states, as well as England, from giving official recognition to the Confederacy. It paved the way for future adjustment of the Alabama affair, the Alabama being a Confederate cruiser that was built in British shipyards during the Civil War and, despite Union protests, slipped out to wreak havoc on the North's commerce. When Napoleon III established a monarchy in Mexico, placing Archduke Maximilian of Austria on the Mexican throne in 1864, Seward gave notice that any monarchy so established could not be viewed with indifference by the United States, a clear warning that there could be little prospect of security, let alone permanence, for a monarchy so established in Mexico.
Between 1861 and 1865 Seward's attitude toward Lincoln in part remained the same, and in part changed markedly in character. While from the first he gave the President tactful advice about social procedures, and made himself useful in various other ways, he harbored a feeling of bitterness over his rejection at Chicago and a belief that this "Illinois lawyer" was not competent to handle the great burdens of the Presidency. Seward believed that he himself would have to be the real head of state, originating policies and formulating plans of action. Out of this frame of mind came his proposal for using a foreign war to facilitate reunion between North and South, and his stern, almost bellicose attitude toward England in the early part of 1861.
This attitude made him a problem to the President, one that Lincoln tactfully but firmly set right. The foreign war never became official policy. A harsh note that Seward prepared for delivery to the British government was simply sent to Charles Francis Adams, minister to Great Britain, to use at his discretion. The President told his Secretary of State, quietly but firmly, that the direction of policy lay in his hands, not in those of the Secretary of State.
Once it became clear to Seward that the great decisions as to foreign policy were to be made at the White House, the two men began to work in harmony. Their personal relationship became close and friendly. Lincoln developed great respect for Seward's skill in carrying on diplomatic relations, and valued him as a balance between the radical and conservative elements in the Republican party. In 1862 Lincoln adroitly foiled an effort by Seward's opponents to force him out of the Cabinet, an effort that arose partly out of a belief that the Secretary of State was dangerously irresponsible, and partly out of political animosity.
Seward was critical of the Emancipation Proclamation, fearing that it would promote a bloody servile insurrection and permanently embitter North-South relations. He did see value in fostering disaffection among slaves, promoting their use in the Northern military effort, and producing a favorable reaction abroad to the Union cause. His acceptance of the Proclamation was grudging, however, for he believed that a Northern victory would inevitably mean the end of slavery. He finally did accept it, though he grumbled to his friends, and relations between himself and the President remained unchanged.
The assassination plot that culminated on April 14, 1865 involved both Seward and the President. The Secretary of State, seriously injured a few days previously in a carriage accident, was confined to his bed. Lewis Powell, a half-mad Confederate who had had two brothers killed in the war, gained entrance to Seward's home on pretense of bringing medicine to the wounded man. Powell forced his way to Seward's bedside, and knifed him repeatedly in the face and neck before making his escape from the house.
Seward lost much blood, and his recovery from his injuries was slow and painful. He began attending Cabinet meetings in the latter part of May, but it was not until late in June that he fully resumed his work at the State Department. These tragic events overwhelmed his wife, who had previously become a neurotic invalid. She died on June 21, 1865.
The new President, Andrew Johnson, began developing a plan of action that followed Lincoln's ideas as to reconciliation between the sections, and Seward thoroughly agreed with Johnson's policy. The Secretary's main objective was to bring the South back into the Union as quickly and harmoniously as possible. Negro rights were important, Seward held, but in his view of the future they should be held as of secondary consideration. He held this point of view primarily because of his fixed belief that the Negro was basically inferior to the white man, and that establishing the Negro's place in society must inevitably be a slow and difficult procedure.
Seward's views on reconstruction earned him the hatred of those radical reconstructionists who believed that the rebellious states should be kept under a firm hand. They also aroused the fear and dislike of those who were deeply interested in the immediate improvement of the Negro's place in the nation's social order. These varying viewpoints complicated governmental procedure in the reconstruction of the Union.
This complication was especially apparent in the relations between the executive and legislative departments of the government. The less punitive Lincoln-Johnson views on reconstruction stirred bitter opposition at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. There, Congress, especially Congressional radicals, wanted to have an important part in remodeling the Union.
The situation in regard to reconstruction was made still more difficult by differences between Johnson and Seward as to the role that Congress should play in producing a new Union. Seward recognized that the national legislature had a right to participate in the reconstruction process, and bent his energies to developing a policy that would produce at least a modicum of harmony between the executive and legislative branches of the government. In this he might have succeeded had it not been for Johnson's obstinacy. His stubborn opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment did not accord with the technique of the Secretary of State.
Seward opposed the amendment as a whole when Johnson polled the Cabinet, thereby earning the President's approval, but privately indicated his willingness to accept the first and second sections, which declared that all persons born or naturalized in the United States were citizens of the United States and of the states where they had residence. Johnson's stubborn opposition to the amendment foiled Seward's effort to effect an adjustment between the views of Congress and the White House.
While politics in one form or another remained a fundamental part of Seward's public life, his major interest as Secretary of State was in the field of diplomacy. There his immediate concern was the situation in Mexico. The Mexican republic was in a chaotic state, marked by contention between monarchists and liberals, which left President Benito Juárez unable to maintain order or fulfill his treaty obligations. Napoleon III, Emperor of France, believed that this situation afforded a good opportunity to reinstate the monarchical principle in Latin America, and thus decisively check the advance of republicanism and democracy in the Western Hemisphere. His immediate plan was to take advantage of American preoccupation with the Civil War, and establish Archduke Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico, backed by French troops. In April 1864, Maximilian had accepted the Mexican throne.
Seward and Lincoln had watched French maneuvers in Mexico with misgiving, and had made it clear to the French government that the United States could not view with indifference the interference of any European power in the internal affairs of Mexico. They were reluctant, however, to take any step that might complicate or delay a Northern victory in the Civil War, so they had to be content to watch and wait.
The Civil War ended in April 1865. Action as to Mexico had to be postponed until Seward had recovered from the attempt at his assassination, but in June 1865 he instructed John Bigelow, minister to France, that there had been no change in the attitude of the United States toward France and Mexico. Subsequently, Seward's instructions to Bigelow made clear the determination of the United States to compel French abandonment of its Mexican venture. This attitude, together with increasing French difficulties in Europe, led Napoleon's government to withdraw from its ill-fated Mexican venture. Seward's policy toward France and Mexico had been both wise and adroit.
Seward was likewise skillful in thwarting the attempt of the Irish Fenians to involve the United States in their offensive operations against the British government. He also endeavored to effect a settlement of the dispute with Great Britain over the Alabama. That Confederate raider, built in an English port during the Civil War, had escaped to the high seas despite strenuous protests by the American government, and had inflicted great damage on the North's merchant marine. Seward's able statements of the American case in this controversy were without immediate success, but his efforts kept the Alabama claims question alive. It was settled substantially upon the grounds for complaint that Seward outlined, two and one-half years after his retirement from public office.
Seward's diplomacy as Secretary of State also embraced two other aspects of foreign affairs in which he took deep interest. One of these was the expansion of American commercial activity. The other was the enlargement of American territory.
The Secretary of State had always been at heart an expansionist. He and Weed had speculated at times on the future of America, and, like John Quincy Adams, the Auburn statesman had visualized it as that of an ever-increasing empire, expanding territorially north, east, and west. It would be, he prophesied, a democratic imperialism, partly economic, partly territorial, adding to the grandeur of the American nation, but nurturing everywhere the virtues of the democratic tradition. It would not be afraid to welcome new concepts to its shores, however radical they might be, and in consequence would absorb the best ideas of Europe-social, economic, and political-transmuting them into a newer and higher civilization. He intended to take part, and if possible to play a leading role, in the realization of this great dream.
The restoration of the Union opened the way to this new era, Seward felt, and he made many efforts to promote the spread of American influence and power. He fostered immigration. He lent his support to a project for building a telegraph line that would circle the globe. He promoted good relations with the states of Latin America. He urged building a canal in Panama that would be under the control, but not the sovereignty, of the United States. He sought to promote trade and good relations with China and Japan. Seward's positive accomplishments in these various directions were minimal, however, due to a lack of public interest and a suspicious and recalcitrant Senate, but there can be no question as to his foresight.
As an accompaniment to Seward's efforts at economic and ideological expansion, he sought island outposts for the United States in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Pacific north of the Panama isthmus. He tried to enlist interest in the purchase of Iceland and Greenland, not only on account of their geopolitical position, but also because of their fisheries and mineral resources. Congress was apathetic, however, about what Ben Butler scornfully described as "the ice fields of Greenland."
Seward's first attempt at expansion in the West Indies nearly succeeded. He concluded a treaty with Denmark, acquiring the islands of St. Thomas and St. John for $7,500,000. A plebiscite in the islands favored annexation, and Seward enlisted the support of Senators Sumner and Stevens. Then came a series of setbacks. A hurricane, a tidal wave, and an earthquake in the islands diminished interest and aroused scorn in the project. Sumner became cool and delayed the treaty in the Senate. The growing quarrel between Congress and President Johnson and the hostility of President-elect Grant ended the possibility of ratification by the Senate. Seward's efforts to obtain footholds in other West Indian islands met a similar fate.
Seward's roving vision turned west as well as east. He sought acquisitions in the Pacific, and repeatedly urged a reciprocity treaty with Hawaii as a first step toward annexation. The fear of competition from Hawaiian sugar, and popular indifference to expansion in general, stifled these moves toward what later became the fiftieth state in the Union. Other projects were stillborn in the fertile mind of the Secretary. The only mid-Pacific acquisition during Seward's two terms as Secretary of State was Midway Island, occupied by the Navy in 1867. Seward recommended its survey for the establishment of a naval base, but the government paid little attention to the establishment of such a faraway outpost until the twentieth century.
Fortuitous circumstances and Seward's unpopularity with Congress had been major impediments to his expansionist plans. However, another effort to enlarge United States territory had a more fortunate outcome.
The Russian government of Alexander II had little interest in a large chunk of earth which Russia had acquired far from St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), which was then the capital of the Russian empire. It saw Alaska as a losing venture in the frozen wilds of the North Pacific region, and feared that a possible influx of United States settlers would be a source of worry and weakness. This was the negative aspect of the problem. On the positive side, the sale of Alaska to the United States would possibly open the way to American acquisition of parts of western Canada and thus weaken the prestige, if not the power, of Great Britain. The Russian Czar and his ministers decided, late in 1866, to sell Alaska to the United States if they could get an offer of at least $5,000,000.
News of Russia's interest in selling Alaska came to Seward from various quarters, among others from Hiram Sibley, president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, who visited St. Petersburg in the Winter of 1864-1865. This information found Seward eager to buy. He knew that the territory would be strategically valuable to the United States, and he felt that its purchase could be important in promoting the prestige of President Johnson and himself, just when Congress was proposing to take over control of reconstructing the South. He was so eager to buy that, when word came of the Emperor's willingness to sell, the Secretary of State urged immediate action. Early in the morning of Saturday, March 30, 1867, Seward and the Russian minister, Edward de Stoecki, prepared the treaty of transmission for presentation to the Senate. The price agreed upon was $7,200,000 in gold for a territory more than twice the size of the state of Texas.
There was at first some opposition to the purchase of this vast territory, mainly on political and financial grounds. The New York Tribune was, of course, opposed, declaring that, as a bargain, it was on a par with the argument of Dickens' Mrs. Toodles that it was a good idea to buy 178 empty watch boxes so that they would be handy, if ever wanted. But on April 9, 1867, the Senate, by a vote of 37 to two, ratified the treaty making Alaska the property of the United States. On October 18, 1867, the formal transfer to the United States took place.
A final obstacle to the transfer appeared when the House of Representatives threatened in 1868 to refuse the appropriation necessary for payment, and there is good evidence that $200,000 of the purchase money was used in promoting the passage of the necessary bill. Then Alaska was finally and indubitably in the possession of its new owner. Seward, or possibly Sumner, chose its name, a variation of an Aleut word meaning "mainland." Seward always claimed that it was an immensely valuable acquisition, but even he, with all his exuberance, did not foresee its immense resources in fish, furs, gold, and oil, to say nothing of its strategic value in the field of geopolitics-this last a consideration that Russian Communists have not been slow to appreciate.
The purchase of Alaska marked the virtual close of Seward's public career. He dreaded retirement and would willingly have stayed in the State Department, but Ulysses S. Grant had no love for any such reminder of the Johnson administration, and this Seward very well knew. Characteristically desirous of avoiding any semblance of feud with the incoming President, he wanted to be present at the inaugural ceremonies, but on the morning of March 4 Johnson kept the members of his Cabinet busy with last-minute duties until it became too late to attend the inauguration.
Seward went back to Auburn, where he spent two months disposing of his belongings, making plans for enlarging his old home, and answering scores of letters. There was usually whist in the evening, a game of which he was passionately fond. There was also another interest, one that caused his family increasing anxiety. It concerned a young girl by the name of Olive Risley.
Hanson Risley was an old-time Whig and Republican whom Seward had come to know in 1335 when he had been in Westfield attending to the affairs of the Holland Land Company. Risley had two daughters, Olive and Hattie. Olive was now in her middle twenties, just about the age Fanny Seward would have been had she not died of tuberculosis in 1866. Seward had been deeply attached to Fanny, and had grieved over her death.
Olive Risley was a mildly pretty girl of no more than average mentality. Seward found her interesting, and Olive devoted herself to pleasing her famous admirer. He believed that her mind was capable of real development, and seems to have regarded her as a substitute for the daughter he had lost. He heaped favors upon her, which she received with much appreciation. The relationship was soon noticed. The gossips of Auburn observed that he took her driving in his carriage. They were seen together almost daily, and the rumor spread that they were going to be married.
The narrowing scope of his life made Seward restless. His physical vigor was noticeably weakening, but he still had much of his old zest for life, and his love of travel remained undiminished. In 1868 he decided to take a trip to the West Coast, visiting both Alaska and Mexico. Frederick and Anna, his son and daughter-in-law, decided to accompany him, and he invited the Risleys to join the party. Risley turned down the invitation, a decision that greatly disappointed both Olive and Seward. The latter wrote to Olive that he had become deeply dependent upon her. She asked him to bring her sealskins from Alaska, and declared that she was certain he loved her.
Despite Seward's disappoinment at Olive's failure to accompany him, the trip went very well. Seward spoke at various places on the West Coast. In his speech at Sitka he praised Alaska's scenery and its resources, and predicted that it would become one of the states in the Union. The party spent over two months in Mexico and several weeks in Havana before returning to Auburn.
Seward's age now steadily, even though slowly, took its toll. The paralysis that made his right arm and hand nearly useless was now appearing on his left side. He had lost his old exuberant vivacity, but his love of travel remained. In August 1870, he started on a trip around the world with a party of six, including Olive Risley and her younger sister, Harriet. Gradually the party diminished to Seward and the two girls, and to stop the tongues of gossip, Seward adopted Olive as his daughter. Their journey took them from Japan and China, via India and Egypt, to Paris and London. They reached New York on October 1871, and then went directly to Auburn. They had been met and entertained by various notables during the long journey. Seward calculated that he had traveled 44,000 miles, an average of over 100 miles a day. George Bancroft wrote that it was a feat such as would greatly astonish the psalmist, "if he should ever get news of it. When did a man of three score years and ten ever before go round the world?"
Seward had grown physically weaker during the trip, and before it ended he had two personal servants in attendance. But he now began work on his autobiography, which he had carried down to the New York state election of 1834. Then, working with Olive's help as editor, he began William H. Seward's Travels Around the World. It was published in 1873, a massive volume of 720 pages that sold over 60,000 copies.
Seward grew steadily weaker, but his interest in politics remained. It was Grant against Greeley in 1872, and Seward was beseeched to name his choice. On September 17, the dying Auburn veteran of many a campaign wrote in a published letter that he saw no reason to withdraw his support from the principles and policy of the party that had carried the country through the Civil War. It was a pledge to vote Republican, but there was no mention of Grant.
Seward did not vote in the election of 1872. He died at four o'clock on the afternoon of October 10, 1872. There was a quiet funeral. Old Auburn friends came to pay their last respects. So did some who had been close to him in political and diplomatic life, such as John Bigelow and Thurlow Weed. Burial took place in the Auburn cemetery.
Seward had many faults. He talked too much, and in so doing made statements and took attitudes that hurt him in public life. He underestimated the potential of the black man for standing as a peer with whites. His cockiness, his self assurance, disgusted many of his contemporaries. Too often he gave the impression of moving from calculation, rather than from the heart. He was fascinating, able, often impressive, but altogether lacking in that great quality, humility. Nevertheless he was a leader in the antislavery movement, and an able Lincoln lieutenant in the State Department. He strove his best to save President Johnson from some of his worst errors. Most significant of all, from the viewpoint of American history, was his vision of America's future. His determination that the United States should remain a united nation, and his efforts to expand the prestige and power of the United States, demonstrated his foresight and his enduring faith in America as a world leader. This vision, and his efforts to build a more splendid future for his country, entitle him to rank as one of America's greater statesmen.