Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Seward Award: William Henry Seward

William Henry Seward
Born: May 16, 1801 in Florida, New York
Died: October 10, 1872 in Auburn, New York

Governor of New York (1839-42)

U.S. Senator from New York (1849-61)
U.S. Secretary of State (1861-69)

One of the most renowned statesmen of the mid-19th century, William Henry Seward was, first and foremost, a family man. Jovial, talkative and friendly, he was a devoted husband to Frances, his wife of 41 years, and loving father to Augustus, Frederick, Cornelia, William Jr. and Fanny. A lifelong resident of the state of New York, Seward also went on to become one of the most important secretaries of state in U.S. history.

A lawyer by trade, Seward entered politics relatively early in his career, winning election to the State Senate in 1830 at the age of 29. He would go on to become governor of New York, winning close elections in 1838 and 1840, as well as a distinguished U.S. senator, a position he held for 12 years, from 1849 to 1861.

But prior to his role as secretary of state, the role that shaped his career in public service, and gained him fame (and infamy) at home and abroad, was as an outspoken opponent of slavery. A family trip to the South in the 1830s left Seward and his wife scarred for life with images of the cruelty of the practice, and from his mid-30s on, through the governorship, Senate and State Department, Seward would forever be associated with his firm views against slavery. In a landmark legal case in 1846, Seward argued for the defendant William Freeman, a black man who had been accused of murdering four white people. Seward declared that Freeman, who was mentally ill, was not guilty by reason of insanity, a verdict that the Supreme Court of New York would eventually agree with on appeal. Though Freeman died in jail, Seward became renowned for his defense, and was both celebrated and reviled in different parts of the country.

By the time 1860 rolled around, Seward had two terms in the U.S. Senate under his belt and was easily the most renowned figure in the fledgling Republican Party. While the party included other notable men like former Ohio governor Salmon Chase, 1856 presidential nominee John Fremont of California, former Congressman Edward Bates of Missouri and former Congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, Seward was well-connected, known all over, and was seen as having a virtual lock on the Republican nomination. When the convention opened in Chicago in May, however, fears that Seward's well-known opposition to slavery would cost the party the presidency derailed his path to the nomination. In a stunning reversal of fortune, Seward lost to Lincoln, by then a prairie lawyer from Springfield. Seward was crushed, humiliated and angry. Already 59 years of age, running for the presidency again seemed inconceivable. His life's ambition had slipped away.

It didn't take long for him to pick himself up. After a brief period of recluse, Seward campaigned tirelessly throughout the fall for candidate Lincoln. A gifted orator in his own right, he advocated for the Republican cause and urged Americans to vote for the man who had come out of nowhere to win the nomination in Chicago. In November, Lincoln won the presidency, and owed no small debt of gratitude to Seward.

Recognizing Seward's indispensable talents, Lincoln immediately asked him to serve as secretary of state in the new administration. Seward wavered on whether or not to accept the post, as he and Lincoln had been rivals for the nomination, but eventually agreed to come on board. Assuming that he, and not Lincoln, would really be the person running the government,
he was eager to exercise his power behind the throne. Lincoln, after all, was just a prairie lawyer, and didn't really know what he was getting himself into. With the country on the brink of civil war, Lincoln was unfit for command.

It wasn't long, however, that Seward realized his initial assumptions about Lincoln couldn't have been farther from the truth. While keeping the country from devolving into total chaos, Lincoln proved to be more than fit to be commander-in-chief in such a time of crisis, and his brilliance and strength of character were not lost on Seward. Seward became Lincoln's closest friend and most trusted adviser in the Cabinet. The two men spent virtually every night together, debating, philosophizing, sharing laughs and telling stories. On a great many issues, including the Emancipation Proclamation (on which Seward helped put the finishing touches), Seward was Lincoln's closest confidante - not the power behind the throne, per se, but certainly the right-hand man to a great leader.

The night Lincoln was assassinated, an attempt was also made at Seward's life. His face and neck were stabbed and he very nearly lost his life. As a result of the attack, which also injured several members of Seward's family, his beloved wife Frances collapsed and died two months later. But Seward miraculously recovered, and served as secretary of state throughout President Andrew Johnson's administration. After leaving public service, he traveled the world with his remaining family members and died at his beloved home in Auburn, New York in 1872, at the ripe old age of 71, his country better off for having known him.

The one big mistake in his remarkable life? The purchase of Alaska. Known as "Seward's Folly" at the time, it did end up being a hotbed of gold, oil and gorgeous scenery - but also produced the vice presidential nomination of Sarah Palin some 150 years later, rendering all its other benefits moot. In recognition for his otherwise outstanding service, however, The Danifesto forgives Seward for that isolated error in judgment, and thanks him for his important and inspiring service to his country.

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