In Part 1 and Part 2, I told about Seward’s participation in the Underground Railroad, his early political career, and the assassination attempt on his life as a member of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. During the final decade of his life, Seward went on to defend Andrew Johnson’s shaky presidency after Lincoln’s death and continued to serve as the president’s Secretary of State until Ulysses S. Grant’s election. Seward is perhaps most known for his acquisition of the Alaskan Territory from Russia.
Seward had been in New York State and Washington, DC, politics for several decades by this time, but he still garnered ridicule from his peers. He was a progressive politician before progressivism became popular (and which was later perverted by socialists in the mid 20th century). Seward’s adherence to what we now called “Manifest Destiny” is contended by historians. “Manifest Destiny,” the ideology that the United States was “destined” to expand across the continent, was largely promoted by the Democrats at the time and sharply criticized by the Whigs (to whom Seward belonged until the party merged with another party and became the Republicans). Yet Seward’s purchase of the enormous tract of desolate land to the north hint of Seward’s expanionist beliefs. Seward definitely believed, along with fellow Whig John Quincy Adams, that the United States had an obligation to keep Europe out of the Northern hemisphere.
In 1859, an economically-strapped Russia offered their territory to Britain and the United States. Britain sniffed at the proposal and the U.S. was too embroiled in abolition and the Civil War to consider the deal. After the war, however, William Seward as Secretary of State reignited negotiations and purchased 586,412 square miles for $7.2 million dollars — 2 cents an acre! — in 1867.
Seward’s action was immediately met with extreme ridicule. The purchase was named “Seward’s Icebox” and “Seward’s Folly,” and the embattled politician was the brunt of cartoons and angry jests. Seward cared not about the opinions of small-minded men. When asked what was his greatest achievement, Seward replied, “The purchase of Alaska. But it will take the people a generation to find it out.” The guy had guts.
Seward was greatly honored by the native Alaskans and the house contains many gifts and unusual treasures from the territory. Today, Alaska celebrates the purchase in October as “Alaska Day.” And after the Bolshevik takeover of Russia 50 years later, aren’t we all thanking God above that Seward got Alaska for us.
Seward died in 1872 at his home in Auburn. His departing words to his children were “Love one another.” He is buried in Fort Hill, Auburn, NY.
I have spoken very little about his home in Auburn. It’s a magnificent home surrounded by beautiful gardens. He also had homes in Albany, where he served as governor, and in Washington, DC, where he served in Congress and in the president’s cabinet. His wife, Frances, was raised in this home and spent her entire life here. The house is remarkable in that it retains the original Seward style and possessions. Seward’s son inherited the house, and the home passed on — relatively unchanged — to the grandson. It became a public museum in 1955!
The visit was quite an education for me, a personal experience as well, as I was raised in this area. While I grew up knowing that this area is rich in history and populated by independent-thinking people, I had no idea how deep these roots ran. Where before I knew very little about William Seward, I now respect his self-sacrificing work for the abolition movement, his defense of the Constitution and recognition of God’s laws as supreme, his stamina after his wife and daughter’s deaths, and his boldness and confidence despite ridicule and personal attacks. The quintessential New York Whig.