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Who Is William Seward?

Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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William Seward was an American politician during the 19th century. He served as governor of New York and as a US Senator, as well as Secretary of State under both President Abraham Lincoln and his successor, President Andrew Johnson. His part in purchasing the state of Alaska from Russia was one of the most notorious purchases in American history, and it was then known as "Seward's Folly" because the public believed the land was not worth anything to the United States. Seward was almost assassinated the same night Lincoln was assassinated, but he lived through the ordeal and continued his work as Secretary of State.

As governor of New York, William Seward was an outspoken opponent of slavery in the United States. He and his wife were known for providing aid to fugitive slaves, and his experiences as a boy largely dictated his feelings toward slavery, as his parents were slave owners. Other causes Seward championed as governor included education and prison reform; he was supportive of providing aid to schools to improve the quality of education, and he was a proponent of overhauling the penal system to make it more humane.

Seward was eventually elected to the United States Senate, where he continued his anti-slavery stance first as a member of the Whig Party and then in the Republican Party. He had ambitions of running for president, and his opportunity came in the late 1850s. The outspokenness William Seward had become known for was both a blessing and a curse for the man, and in preparation for his White House run, Seward decided to take a trip abroad to allow tensions to ease in his absence. While he was gone, Abraham Lincoln, a far lesser known candidate, mounted a strong campaign, winning the Republican nomination and eventually the presidency.

Seward supported Lincoln throughout the campaign, and when Lincoln won, William Seward was chosen as the Secretary of State. He and Lincoln shared common views about slavery, and while they felt that slavery should be abolished, they both felt it should be done through policy rather than war. When war finally erupted, Seward worked closely with Lincoln to salvage the Union. As the war drew to a close in 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated; that same night, Seward's life was almost taken by an assassin, but Seward survived and continued to work under the new president, Andrew Johnson.

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