Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Seward and His Folly

William Seward was born on this day in 1801 in Florida, New York.

A skilled criminal lawyer, Seward became active in New York state politics by supporting the Anti-Masonic Party, and later entered the state senate in 1830 as an anti-slavery Whig. Beginning in 1838, he served two terms as governor of New York, returned briefly to his lucrative law practice, and was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York in 1849.

Serving in his second term in the Senate as one of the more eloquent anti-slavery partisans, as the 1860 presidential election approached Seward was also one of the more high-profile members of the new Republican Party, and with New York's delegation representing about 1/3 of the votes needed for the Republican nomination, Seward seemed to be the likely nominee of the Party. However, at the convention in Chicago, Abe Lincoln's backyard, Seward and his campaign manager Thurlow Weed found themselves stymied by the momentum forming around the rough-hewn railsplitter from Illinois, and on the third ballot, Lincoln carried the nomination.

Seward, while not confident of Lincoln's abilities, campaigned energetically for him and was rewarded by being appointed Secretary of State. Seward believed his personality and experience would come to dominate Lincoln's cabinet (and he surely was an able leader during the Civil War, shrewdly negotiating with Great Britain, through U.S. minister Charles Francis Adams, to keep the British from recognizing the Confederacy); but Lincoln ignored Seward's naive strategy to unite the South behind a Monroe Doctrine-inspired, manufactured war with France and Spain, later causing Seward to admit that Lincoln was the better man for taking the fight directly to the South.

As the Civil War drew to a close in April 1865, John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators planned the assassinations of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Seward in order to throw the country into electoral chaos; and on the night that Booth fatally shot Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, Booth's compatriot Lewis Payne pistol-whipped Seward's son Frederick and stabbed Seward in his right cheek as he lay in his home recuperating from a recent carriage accident.

Although the stabbing permanently disfigured him, Seward recovered and continued to serve most loyally as Secretary of State to President Johnson, and was the nation's most respected supporter of Johnson's lenient Reconstruction policies. Seward negotiated the annexation of the Midway Islands, as well as the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million (known for many years before the discovery of valuable mineral reserves there as "Seward's Folly"), and retired from politics at the end of Johnson's term in 1869. He died on October 10, 1872 in Auburn, New York.

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