William H Seward

From the Peninsula to Maryland: Seward's role in the summer of 1862

Photograph of William H Seward
Photograph of William H Seward
Library of Congress

Quick Facts

Significance:
Secretary of State
Place of Birth:
Florida, NY
Date of Birth
May 16, 1801
Place of Death:
Auburn, NY
Date of Death
October 10, 1872
Place of Burial:
Auburn, NY
Cemetery Name
Fort Hill Cemetery

William H. Seward was a well-established Republican politician known for his stance against the spread of slavery and lauded as the top Republican presidential candidate in 1860, before accepting service as Secretary of State to President Lincoln. Seward had a long political career including service in the New York State Senate, U.S. Senate, and as Governor of New York. Seward was so confident in the strength of his political experience that he believed it was nearly a foregone conclusion that he would secure the Republican nomination for President for the 1860 election. He was so confident in fact, that he feared that political overexposure was the only thing that could cost him the nomination.

In order to minimize this risk, in 1859 he embarked on an eight month tour of Europe. During this time the relatively unknown Abraham Lincoln campaigned aggressively and rapidly built up support amongst the Radical Republicans even as Seward's opinions became more moderate on the issue of slavery, costing him additional support. As a result Lincoln was able to secure his nomination as the Republican Presidential candidate at the 1860 Republican Convention.

Once it was clear that Seward would not be the nominee he dutifully put his support behind Lincoln, campaigning on his behalf. Because of his vast experience Seward was appointed to Secretary of State in 1861. As the most powerful member of Lincoln's cabinet Seward was part of many influential decisions including the timing of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Like everything else in Lincoln's administration, the slavery issue was fraught with political pitfalls. On one hand, Lincoln was under pressure to attack slavery from Congress, influential citizens like Horace Greeley, and even from some of his own generals.

But Lincoln was also beholden to the Union border states of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, where some slave owners were loyal Union men. He was afraid to seize their private property (their slaves) and lose those states to the Confederacy, so he exempted them from his Emancipation Proclamation.

The timing of the proclamation was also highly political. Lincoln penned his first copy in July 1862, when Union armies were losing one battle after another. But Seward persuaded Lincoln that emancipation then would look like the "last measure of an exhausted government . . . stretching forth its hands to . . . Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government." (In the mid-19th century, black Americans were sometimes called Ethiopians.) So Lincoln decided to wait for a victory on the battlefield. The Battle of Antietam gave him his opportunity.

On the night of April 14, 1865 when John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln his actions were part of a coordinated plot to assassinate several high ranking members of the Lincoln administration. George Atzerodt was meant to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, though he backed out at the last minute, while Lewis Powell and his lookout David Herold were sent to assassinate Secretary Seward. Seward was at home and bedridden following a recent carriage accident. Powell was able to gain entry to the home by saying that he had medicine for the Secretary. Once inside the home Powell attacked two of Seward's sons, soldier and nurse Sergeant George Robinson, and knocked Seward's daughter Fanny to the floor before brutally stabbing William H. Seward in the face and throat.

The attack left Seward with permanent facial scars but he would survive and continue to serve as Secretary of State for the Johnson administration. Perhaps his greatest achievement during this time, though it was commonly derided as "Seward's Folly" was helping to negotiate the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.