This Month In History
May 2016

This Month in NYS History – Former New York Senator, Governor and U.S Secretary of State William Henry Seward is Born – May 16, 1801

William Henry Seward was the 12th Governor of New York and 24th United States Secretary of State.
William Henry Seward was the 12th Governor of New York and 24th United States Secretary of State.
William Henry Seward, the 12th Governor of New York and 24th United States Secretary of State, was born on May 16th, 1801 in the town of Florida (Orange County), New York. As a boy in the rural town, Seward was obsessed with educating himself. At just 15 years old, Seward found himself attending Union College in Schenectady. He did not complete school initially, as he joined another student and moved to Georgia, seeking work. Though he would eventually return to Schenectady and Union College to complete his degree, his witnessing of the treatment of slaves in rural Georgia influenced his later abolitionist stance as a politician.

Upon graduation, Seward sought to practice law, and passed the bar exam in 1822. He settled in Auburn, on the outskirts of Syracuse, to form a law practice. Seward, by chance, encountered Thurlow Weed, one of the earliest political bosses in New York. Seward shared many political ideologies with Weed. Weed influenced Seward to run for office, although Seward felt his political stances did not align with any of the major factions of the time. Eventually, Weed helped Seward get elected to the State Senate, beginning his political career.

Seward was one of the earliest members of the Whig party, which sought to fight against the policies of Andrew Jackson and fellow New Yorker Martin Van Buren. During his term as governor, Seward was staunchly pro-abolitionist, causing trade riffs with southern states such as Virginia. After leaving office, Seward sought to bring his abolitionist policies to a national level, and won election to become one of New York’s two senators in 1848, the beginning of a contentious time in the lead up to the Civil War.

Seward chose to run for the Presidency in 1860 as a heavily pro-abolitionist and was the favorite at the convention, fighting former Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln and Ohio Governor Salmon Chase. However, Lincoln would end up winning the nomination after several convention ballots, infuriating Seward. Though Seward felt jilted, he understood the gravity of the election, and campaigned relentlessly for Congressman Lincoln, helping lead to his election as President. Lincoln, seeking to bring about opinions from even those he disagreed with into his administration, nominated Seward to be the 24th Secretary of State.

During his tenure and through the outbreak of the Civil War, Seward’s major goals were keeping the union together and, failing that, devoting the administration to the Union Army’s cause. Seward was one of the main targets of the Lincoln assassination plot, and was stabbed several times the night of Lincoln’s assassination. He survived the attack, and continued to serve as Secretary of State in the administration of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. He would be the driving force behind the United States’ acquisition of Alaska from Russia, one of the landmark deals in U.S. expansion westward.

After his tenure and endorsing Ulysses S. Grant for President in 1868, Seward returned to Auburn to live out the remainder of his life until his death at the age of 71.