When he arrived at Union in September 1816, William Henry Seward was a 15-year-old boy unwise to the ways of a nation divided. Yet by the time he graduated in 1820, the education he received here unmistakably helped shape his stature as one of the most important American statesmen of the 19th century.
"He helped to lay the foundations of a great empire – the American empire," said Walter Stahr of one of Union's most distinguished alumni. "And he would be so proud to come back to Union to see what you all are doing, laying the foundation of a great college here."
Stahr gave the keynote address at Founders Day Thursday in Memorial Chapel. In a season of all things Lincoln, it was fitting for him to help commemorate the 218th anniversary of the College’s charter.
As the author of the compelling Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man, Stahr has introduced a legion of readers to Lincoln's secretary of state, closest friend and confidant during the Civil War. The biography, along with Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated film "Lincoln," has thrust Seward back into the spotlight.
In introducing Stahr, President Stephen C. Ainlay said the author preserved the full complexity of Seward, leaving him "at times disappointed for and with Seward, pleased for and with Seward, saddened for Seward and by Seward. In the end, however, Walter Stahr’s biography left me knowing much more than I had about mid-19th century politics and amazed by this remarkable alumnus of Union College."
During his talk, Stahr recounted the life of man who served as governor of New York, a state and U.S. senator, who survived an assassination attempt. As secretary of state, Seward engineered the $7.2 million U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, which has been mocked as "Seward's Folly." Stahr called that a myth, stating that newspaper coverage at the time was mostly favorable, which was borne out by the fact the deal passed the Senate, 37-2.
Stahr also touched on Seward's time on campus, including his thoughts about longtime President Eliphalet Nott ("very able smart good old man Great Orator clever but strict" as he wrote to his father); his academic prowess (a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Seward said the debates of Adelphic Society were the most useful part of his college education); and his relationships with the faculty ("I am resolved never to purchase popularity with the faculty by any cringing, which is very common here. As far as my duty extends I will do, and further I do not esteem the honor of the faculty as worthy of having").
After a fight with his father over finances, Seward left Union midway through his senior year and headed to Georgia. By the time he returned to Schenectady in January 1820, the man who later helped write and sign the Emancipation Proclamation confronted a bitter North-South debate over slavery.
Yet in his commencement speech, Seward was confident the "American Union will probably be permanent" and predicted Americans would "worship the same God…on the banks of the Hudson or the Mobile or the Missouri."
"The view of the Union that Seward first expressed here, at Union College, remained his view throughout his life," Stahr told the audience.
Earlier in the day, Stahr and President Ainlay appeared on WAMC, Northeast Public Radio's program, The Roundtable. To listen, click here.
To read a story on Seward in the Times Union, click here.
Also at Founders Day, Therese A. McCarty, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs, presented James Iacketta, a music and band teacher at Sillwater (N.Y.) High School, with the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award. The award, named for the 1809 graduate of Union who was New York state’s first superintendent of public education, is given to secondary school teachers who have had a continuing influence on the academic life of Union students.
Iacketta was nominated by Samantha Griffiths '15, an electrical engineering major who performs in the College's jazz ensemble and pep band.
"He has taught me a lot, and not just how to make some ink dots on a page sound beautiful," Griffiths said of her former high school teacher. "I have made lifelong friends and gained priceless knowledge of leadership and teamwork with each festival and concert."
The ceremony also featured the Union College Chorales, under the direction of John Cox, performing Lay Me Low, a traditional Shaker tune, and I Got a Key, a traditional Negro spiritual.
The celebration opened with remarks from William A. Finlay, College marshal and chair of the Theater and Dance Department; Mark Walsh ’76, chairman of the College’s Board of Trustees; Ron Bucinell, associate professor of mechanical engineering and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee; and Justin Reilly ’13, Student Forum president.
The hour-long ceremony concluded with Ode to Old Union, led on organ by Professor of Music Dianne McMullen.
Past speakers at Founders Day have included Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Richard Russo and James M. McPherson; Paul LeClerc, retired president and chief executive officer of the New York Public Library and a former professor at Union, and Ira M. Rutkow ’70, a surgeon and author whose writing has focused on the history of American medicine.
For Ainlay's Founders Day greeting, click here.
For Walsh's welcome, click here.