William Henry Seward: New York’s #1 Antislavery Politician

William Henry Seward (1801-1872) was a New York Anti-Mason State Senator, a Whig Governor and US Senator, and Republican Secretary of the State. As governor, he signed several important laws to protect fugitive slaves from being sent back to slavery and free black people from being kidnapped and sold as slaves. As US Senator, he hid escaped slaves from the South en route to Canada in his basement and formed a close friend- and partnership with Underground Railroad leader and legend Harriet Tubman, opposed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 proclaiming that there was a “higher law” to adhere to than the constitution, and called the existence of slave and free states within one nation an “irrepressible conflict”. As Secretary of the State, he negotiated the treaty with England to end the Transatlantic Slave trade. Seward was a polarizing, controversial politician, too radical for conservatives and Southerners, too compromising for radical progressives. He was the Republican’s frontrunner for the presidential nomination in 1860 but due to his fervent anti-slavery speeches, he lost the nomination to Lincoln, who made him his Secretary of the State and most trusted advisor. He was the second victim of the assassination plot in which Lincoln was murdered but survived severely injured and disfigured and went on to spearhead to purchase of Alaska for which he is mostly known today.

Early Years

Seward was born on May 16, 1801, in Florida, a small town in Orange County, NY. His father, Samuel Seward, a wealthy land- and slaveowner. Although the family’s slaves were treated well and their children were sent to school, young Seward saw the wrongness of slavery early. At age 15, he took up studies at Union College, Schenectady. Despite being an excellent student, he left in his final year after a fight with his father about money and, only 17 years old, accepted a job offer as principal in a school in Georgia, where he inevitably experienced the inhumane treatment of slaves. His family persuaded him to return to New York, and he graduated from college in 1820 top of his class.

After studying law for 2 years, he passed the bar exam and in 1823 started as Junior partner in the law firm of Elijah Miller, a retired judge, in Auburn. Miller was the father of Frances Adeline Miller, whom Seward knew as his sister’s friend and former classmate at Emma Willard School. William Henry Seward and Frances Miller married in October 1824. In the same year, he met newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed who later became his close principal advisor.

Seward became quickly involved in politics, joined the Anti-Masonic Party, and became a known figure in the New York political landscape. In 1830 he accepted the Anti-Masonic nomination for State Senator and was elected with the support of Thurlow Weed. Tweed by then was a political force in Albany and served as Seward’s political advisor, campaign manager, and confidant for the next 30 years.

As State Senator, Seward managed to pass legislation, such as penal reform measures, in the Democrat-controlled Senate by working with dissident Democrats. After Andrew Jackson‘s re-election as president with Martin Van Buren as VP, and the formation of the Whig Party, Seward, and Weed, like many Anti-Masons, joined the new, promising party.

In 1834 Seward was the gubernatorial candidate for the Whigs but was defeated. With his Senate term expired, he returned to Auburn to practice law and began to get involved in real estate. During the economic crisis (the Panic of 1837) he saw a chance to succeed in the 1838 election and ran again.

Governor of New York 1838 – 1842

During the election, New York’s abolitionists had asked the gubernatorial candidates about their opinion and plans regarding anti-slavery goals: jury trials for black people accused of being fugitive slaves, freeing slaves from other states when brought to NY by their masters, and suffrage for black New Yorkers. Seward – clearly aware that completely embracing abolitionist goals would not give him the votes necessary to unseat the three-term governor, Democrat and Slave-South friendly William Marcy – did not indicate too much interest in the rights of black people and gave rather mixed, passive, non-committal answers, which cost him the endorsement of NY’s abolitionist, but he was elected Governor of New York at age of 38, ending the year-long control of NY State politics by the political machine Thurlow Tweed called “Albany Regency” and leading to radical changes in New York politics.

After his election, Seward adjusted his approach to abolitionist goals. First, in 1839, he openly refused to extradite men accused of assisting slaves escaping slavery to the South. After an escaped slave from Virginia had been captured on the ship he escaped on and had to be returned according to the Federal Fugitive Slave Clause, Virginia also demanded the surrender of the three free black sailors who had encouraged and helped him. Seward did not cooperate, writing “there is no law of this state which recognizes slavery, no statute which admits that one man can be the property of another, or that one man can be stolen from another.” The incident – known as the Virginia Controversy – gained him the reputation as an abolitionist (however, he was in favor of gradual emancipation, not immediate, radical abolition), the hate of Southern Slaveholders, and a trade embargo imposed by Virginia on New York.

Once Democrats also lost their majority in the Senate to the Whigs in 1839, Seward pushed through several pieces of legislature that provided abolitionists with significantly stronger legal tools and gave fugitives and free black greater rights and protection than they had in any other northern state at that time, maximizing what could be legally done under federal laws.

The first personal liberty law he signed in 1840 mandated a jury trial for alleged fugitive slaves and prohibited local judges to issuing arrest warrants for fugitives. This took control and power away from corrupt and/or pro-slavery law enforcement officers, judges, and other officials – especially the New York Kidnapping Club – who snatched black people off the streets of NYC accused them of being fugitive slaves, and quickly sent them South without much ado. That law also punished kidnappers with a maximum sentence of 10 years. The measure was so effective that the New York Vigilance Committee which had been fighting kidnappings since 1835 reported that incidents in NYC had “gradually died away”. The law also required county district attorneys to defend accused fugitives and the claimant (the slaveholder or slavecatcher) to post a 1,000 dollar bond for court costs in case the jury determined the accused was not a slave, making it much harder and more expensive for slaveholders to reclaim slaves from the Empire State.

Another law Seward signed in 1840 empowered NYS governors to employ agents to negotiate the release of free black New Yorkers who had been kidnapped and enslaved illegally or start legal proceedings in the slave state at the expense of NYS. It was this law that enabled Governor Washington Hunt in 1853 to rescue New Yorker Solomon Northup who had been kidnapped in Washington after being “Twelve Years a Slave” and helped many other illegally enslaved black New Yorkers to regain their freedom and returning back home.

In 1841, he signed legislation that set slaves brought to New York State immediately free, repealing the 1817 law that allowed slaveholders to bring slaves to NY for up to nine months.

Aside from expanding the rights and protections of black people, Seward promoted public spending to stimulate the economy, and infrastructure improvements, increased funding for public education and advocated for immigration as well as for citizenship for immigrants. A law of 1841 guaranteed public education for all children, regardless of their race. He proposed to fund Catholic public schools for Irish-Americans at a time when public schools used the Protestant King James version of the bible, which caused Irish-American parents to keep their children out of school, who thus didn’t receive formal education. Many of Seward’s anti-catholic and anti-immigrant fellow Whigs were less than happy. Facing backlash and being slammed by newspapers, Seward compromised and supported instead a bill that turned NYC neighborhoods into separate school districts and gave the constituents and Catholic parents to elect their trustees.

After being nominated for a second term, he was re-elected without even campaigning in person, only sharing his stances through letters printed in newspapers with the public. At the end of 1842, after his second term, Seward returned to law practice, urgently in need of money after overspending to maintain a somewhat costly lifestyle (social events which he considered an essential part of his job to build and maintain relationships) and some unsuccessful real estate speculations.

1846 Pioneering the Insanity Defense

Running his law firm in Auburn successfully, Seward became again the center of controversial attention. Being an early advocate for prison reform and mental health reform, he took two pro-bono cases defending men charged with murder using the insanity defense, which was a first in the United States. One was a white prison inmate named Henry Wyatt, who was likely mentally ill, had been abused in prison and stabbed another prisoner to death. Seward gained a hung jury in the first trial, but Wyatt was retried and executed.

His second client was William Freeman, a black man who had been wrongfully convicted of stealing a horse at age 16 and had spent 5 years in prison where he was severely mistreated and sustained a head injury that left him almost deaf and mentally confused. After being released, driven by the idea that someone had to pay for his wrongful imprisonment, he murdered a family of four, including a 2-year-old. Seward took on the case, ardently encouraged by his very progressive wife and despite warnings of retaliation because he not only thought that Freeman was insane, but also that as a black murderer of a white family, he would not receive a fair trial. Seward was not allowed to provide expert testimony and evidence supporting his insanity defense, thus Freeman was convicted and sentenced to death. Seward appealed successfully at the Supreme Court, and a new trial was ordered allowing such evidence and testimony. Unfortunately, Freeman died of Tuberculosis in prison before the second trial could begin.

The color of the prisoner’s skin, and the form of his features, are not impressed upon the spiritual immortal mind which works beneath. In spite of human pride, he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race – the image of our Maker. Hold him then to be a Man.
William H. Seward, 1846 (Defense of William Freeman)

The trials gained Seward publicity across the Northern States, praise from progressives, and an opportunity to resurrect his political career.

State Senator and the Higher Law Speech 1850

In the 1848 presidential election, Seward supported war hero General Zachary Taylor as the Republican candidate, who was elected to be the 12th president of the US, and in 1849 he ran for US Senate representing NYS. Seward, who was said to have had significant influence on president Taylor, entered the Senate in the middle of the debate of Henry Clay‘s Compromise of 1850 and strongly opposed the pro-slavery parts of Clay’s proposal.

In his now famous, three-hour-long speech from March 11, 1850, he argued that slavery and hence a compromise supporting it were immoral and that there was a “higher law than the Constitution” (protecting the rights of slaveholders), namely moral behavior towards fellow humans.

The right to have a slave implies the right in some one to make the slave; that right must be equal and mutual, and this would resolve society into a state of perpetual war. But if we grant the original equality of the states, and grant also the constitutional recognition as slaves as property, still the argument we are considering fails. Because the states are not parties to the Constitution as states; it is the Constitution of the people of the United States […] But there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part, no inconsiderable part, of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe […] Shall we, who are founding institutions, social and political, for countless millions; shall we, who know by experience the wise and the just, and are free to choose them, and to reject the erroneous and the unjust; shall we establish human bondage, or permit it by our sufferance to be established?

The speech (although many of his Senate colleagues didn’t manage to pay attention for its full duration) was widely reprinted and discussed in national newspapers and turned Seward into the leading anti-slavery politician of the country, widely praised by progressives in the North, while considered incendiary and undermining the Constitution and State rights by his opponents.

Unfortunately, President Taylor, who had also firmly opposed Clay’s suggestions , died suddenly after only 16 months in office in July 1850, and Seward’s influence wained as pro-Compromise Millard Fillmore assumed office and the package of bills was passed. The Compromise of 1850, and especially the Fugitive Slave Act as part of it, widened the rift between North and South and led many Northers to violate the federal law requiring them to return fugitive slaves and made it a crime punishable by imprisonment to aid fugitive slaves – among them Frances and William Seward, who sheltered runaways in their basement.

Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman

In the 1850s, the Sewards started to use their Auburn home as an Underground Railroad stop, hiding fugitive slaves on their way to Canada in the basement kitchen, most likely after Frances’ father died in 1851. Although Seward publicly supported the abolitionist movement, actively participating to this extent and disregarding federal law while serving in the U.S. Senate was risky, given his high public profile and political ambitions (including running for president). No records were kept (obviously) to know how many fugitive slaves found shelter in the Seward house, but according to an article in the Auburn Herald from 1891 “the old kitchen was one of the most popular stations of the Underground Railroad” characterized by “warmth and cheer.”

The Seward House in Auburn

Because William Henry Seward was most of the time in Washington or traveling, Frances, who was a dedicated and much more radical abolitionist than her husband, ran most likely the Underground Railroad operation in their house. However, he was fully aware and took part whenever he was home, as evidenced by numerous letters between the couple. In 1855, when Francis was away and he was in Auburn, the wrote to her “[t]he underground railroad works wonderfully. Two passengers came here last night.” In the same letter he also mentions that one of them was bitten by the Seward family’s dog “Watchie”.

In the early 1850s, the Sewards met Harriet Tubman, who after escaping from slavery herself, helped over 300 other enslaved people to gain freedom. They assisted her in her illegal Underground Railroad activities in Auburn, accommodated her niece in their house, offered a home to Harriet’s elderly parents, and in 1859, Seward sold her (also illegally) a house and land she used as headquarters. Tubman and the Sewards remained friends and neighbors for the remainder of their lives.

William Seward and Harriet Tubman Statue, Schenectady, NY

Seward also financially supported Frederick Douglass‘ antislavery newspaper and Albany’s Underground Railroad conductor Stephen Myers.

Losing the Republican Presidential Nomination

In the mid-1850s, William Seward and Thurlow Weed found it was time to leave the deteriorating Whig Party, and after his re-election to the Senate Seward joined the new Republican party. As the most prominent Republican, Seward was considered as candidate for the 1856 presidential election, but following Weed’s advice, Seward decided to wait until 1860 when the new party would be stronger and the Democrats beatable.

However, while campaigning for the midterm elections, Seward gave another polarizing and controversial speech on the topic of slavery on October 25, 1858, in Rochester. It became known as “Irrepressible Conflict Speech“, applauded by one side, called “repulsive” by the other. Seward believed the slave system to be “intolerable, unjust, and inhuman. He also indicated that having slave states and free states was incompatible and that “it is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.” He insisted that a decision must be made about slave states and free states “even at the cost of civil war.”

Our country is a theatre, which exhibits, in full operation, two radically different political systems; the one resting on the basis of servile or slave labor, the other on voluntary labor of freemen […] The two systems[…] are incompatible […] these antagonistic systems are continually coming into closer contact and collision results. Shall I tell you what this collision means? They who think that it is accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators, and therefore ephemeral, mistake the case altogether. It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation.
William H. Seward, 1846 (Defense of William Freeman)

This was very similar to Lincoln’s “House Divided Speech” from the same year, however, Lincoln was not well known while Seward caused an uproar by slaveholders and Democrats who saw it as a call for forcible abolition of slavery and a declaration of war on the Southern way of life. Seward’s speech made him appear more radical than he was after he came to regret it quickly.

In an attempt to control the damage, Seward was sent to “take a vacation” and leave the country for a few months until the storm had passed. But when he came back from his tour of Europe and the Middle East in December 1859, after John Brown‘s raid on Harper’s Ferry and execution, Seward was accused of provoking the attack with his rhetoric and being morally responsible. although he had no connection to Brown and had never advocated for violence. A Southern newspaper even published a letter offering a $50,000 reward for his head.

Seward had been the favorite to win the Republican nomination in 1860, but Republicans started to fear that Seward’s militant reputation and anti-slavery image would cost him the vote in moderate key states that they had to win. In addition, his pro-immigrant, anti-nativism stance was considered a weakness. Everything that had helped Seward to succeed so far, worked against him now. Republicans decided to go with the second choice, a less known, less outspoken candidate – Abraham Lincoln.

Although reacting calmly to the unexpected defeat, Seward was devasted and initially thought about retiring, but after being urged by many of his supporters who were shocked that the most popular Republican was not the party’s presidential candidate and didn’t trust Lincoln to stay involved, he embarked on a tour campaigning for Lincoln and securing his victory.

Secretary of the State and Lincoln’s closest Advisor

Lincoln offered Seward the position of Secretary of the State and appointed him in March 1861. Before giving his inaugural address, he asked Seward to review and edit his draft. Seward, who felt that it sounded hostile and partisan, came back with 50 suggestions in order to soften tone.

Although Lincoln had taken from Seward the reward he had worked for over decades, they developed a close relationship based on mutual regard and trust. In fact, they became so close, that it caused resentment among other Cabinet members as well as Lincoln’s wife. Lincoln spent more time with Seward than with anyone else, often walking over to Sewards mansion after work to talk and relax.

On April 5, 1865, Seward got severely injured in a carriage accident. The horses got startled and began to run, so 64-year old Seward (with his son, daughter and friend present) jumped off the carriage to reign them in, but fell and broke his arm and jaw. When Lincoln heard about the accident, he was about to return to Washington, but Mrs. Lincoln stopped him saying Seward was alright. But when he finally came back from Virginia on the evening of General Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, he went straight to Seward instead of home. Seward’s son Frederick later recounted Lincoln laying down beside Seward to talk to him telling him “I think we are near the end at last”. 5 days later Lincoln was dead.

On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated and killed by John Wilkes Booth as part of a plot to murder not only him but also Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson simultaneously. George Atzerodt, who was supposed to kill Johnson, got drunk instead. But Lewis Powell entered Sewards mansion, attacked and injured Seward’s son Frederick who wanted to stop him, his other son Augustus, his daughter Fanny, and his bodyguard. He then slashed the bedridden William H. Seward with a bowie knife, repeatedly stabbing him into his face and neck until the bodyguard and Augustus could pull him away.

Seward was incredibly lucky to survive the assassination attempt – ironically thanks to his injuries from the accident. The brace on his broken jaw probably protected his jugular vein, and because his doctors had him placed on the edge of the bed for his broken arm to dangle, he either fell or rolled himself out of the bed. When Seward’s daughter Fanny saw him bloody on the floor, she started to scream “Father’s dead!”, but according to the bodyguard (and soldier) Seward despite multiple stabwounds to his face and neck managed to say “I am not dead. Send for the police and a surgeon, and close the house.”

The assassin was quickly arrested and all conspirators were hanged. Seward’s son Frederick was in a coma for several days, and his other son Augustus was also severely injured. They all survived, and Seward, despite his grief over Lincoln’s death, his worries about his children, and his own injuries began quickly working again. But Seward’s already frail wife Frances’ health declined rapidly from the shock and stress, and she died only 2 months after the events. The next year, daughter Fanny died of tuberculosis, only 21 years old.

The Purchase of Alaska and a Final Wold Tour

William H. Seward, devasted by the loss of his wife, daughter, and Lincoln, disfigured and scarred for life, continued to work as Secretary of State under Andrew Johnson, who is one of the less celebrated presidents. Seward’s decision and commitment to stay until Johnson left office in 1869, was seen as political suicide. But it was in these final years that he accomplished what he is most known for today – the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Seward was not done with preserving the Republic but determined to expand it through territory and trade. He negotiated trade treaties with Japan, Madagaskar, Venezuela and the Sandwich Islands, and aimed for the territories of Hawai and the Panama Canal Zone.

In 1869, after retiring at age of 68, despite ongoing pain and health issues from his injuries, Seward who thought that “rest was rust” went on a 15-months long voyage starting with the new transcontinental railroad (which he had championed as Senator), then visiting British Columbia, Alaska, Cuba and Mexico, Japan, China, and Europe. He passed away at home on October 10, 1872, surrounded by his family. According to his son, his final words were “Love one another”.

Further Reading

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