Union Notables

William Henry Seward    class of 1820


William Henry Seward by Edwin Goodwin; courtesy of Union College Permanent Collection

Born in 1801, Seward graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Union College in 1820, where he impressed classmates with his “remarkable assiduity and capacity of acquirements.” Admitted to the bar in 1822, he later entered politics as an anti-Masonic State Senator, and then served two terms as Governor of New York as a Whig (1839-1843). Among his many proposals for social reforms were better treatment of prisoners, the insane, debtors, and immigrants. He gained a reputation in some quarters as a radical for championing a law encouraging rescue of free African Americans kidnapped into slavery. Seward earned the everlasting enmity of nativists by his support of immigration and equal educational opportunity for Irish Catholic children.

Seward was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1849 and 1855. Shortly after Seward’s election in 1849, Union College President Eliphalet Nott wrote, urging the new Senator to continue “advocacy of liberal principle without distinction of caste or color” and to stake his future on adherence to those principles. Although he had built a reputation as a passionate opponent of slavery, his commitment to preserving the Union put him in opposition to radical abolitionists, including those in Congress. Seward’s “Higher Law Speech” (1850) and his “Irrepressible Conflict Speech” (1858) provoked angry attacks from Southern Senators. After the first speech, Nott wrote that “I am glad to see that you do not lose your temper, that you do not return railing for railing, but that no array of talent, no manifestation of rage deters you from speaking and acting as a freeman ought to speak and act everywhere and in the face of all men.”

Partly because of the opposition of nativists, Seward lost the Republican nomination for President to Abraham Lincoln in 1860. As Lincoln’s Secretary of State he gradually became the president’s closest confidante and social companion. Seward came to see that he and Lincoln had much in common: adherence to principle tempered by pragmatism, a deep commitment to saving the Union, principled opposition to slavery, and a taste for story-telling. Seward’s greatest accomplishment as Secretary of State consisted of the complex diplomacy that kept Great Britain and France from recognizing and assisting the Confederacy. Seward continued as Secretary of State under Andrew Johnson and negotiated the purchase of Alaska.

Seward Postage stamp
Seward Postage Stamp; courtesy of Special Collections, Schaffer Library, Union College

Although Seward is generally considered one of the greatest secretaries of state in American history, his later years in the office were personally harrowing. He was badly injured in a carriage accident in 1865. Soon afterward, on the same night that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln, Seward and his son Frederick, were each gravely wounded by a knife-wielding Lewis Powell, one of Booth’s conspirators. Two months later Seward's wife died, and their only daughter, Fanny, his favorite child, died a year later. Seward commented ruefully in 1867 or 1868, "I have always felt that Providence dealt hardly with me in not letting me die with Mr. Lincoln. My work was done, and I think I deserved some of the reward of dying there."

William Henry Seward died at his home in Auburn, New York, on October 10, 1872.