William H. Seward

12th Governor, 1839 - 1842
William H. Seward

As governor, William H. Seward (1801–1872) supported infrastructure improvements, education reform, and prison reform. He refused to return fugitive slaves to the South and was a leading voice for abolitionism in the U.S. Senate (1849–1861). Appointed Secretary of State by President Lincoln, he helped prevent European countries from recognizing the Confederacy and advised the president on the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1865, Seward was stabbed by an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth. After recovering, he negotiated a treaty for the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, mocked at the time as “Seward’s Folly.”
Painted portrait of William Seward.
About the Artist


Chester Harding (1792–1866) spent his young adult years in New York, and then traveled throughout the United States and Europe. One of his early portraits was of Daniel Boone, and he also painted portraits of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and Civil War General William T. Sherman. 

On loan from the New York State Education Department.


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From The Encyclopedia of New York State

Seward, William H(enry) (b Florida, Orange Co, 16 May 1801; d Auburn, Cayuga Co, 10 Oct 1872). Governor, US senator, and US secretary of state.

The fourth of six children, Seward attended academies in Florida and Goshen (Orange Co) before graduating from Union College in Schenectady in 1820. After studying law in Goshen and New York City, he joined Judge Elijah Miller’s legal practice in Auburn in 1823 and married the judge’s daughter, Frances, a year later; four of their five children lived to adulthood.

On a trip through Rochester in 1824, Seward met Thurlow Weed, who became a lifelong friend and political booster. With Weed’s political backing, Seward won election as an Antimasonic Party state senator in 1830. As the influence of the Antimasons waned, Seward and Weed helped build the state’s Whig Party, which ran Seward as its gubernatorial candidate in 1834. Unsuccessful, Seward served as an arbitrator/ land agent in Westfield (Chautauqua Co) for the Holland Land Co before running for governor again. He won election as the state’s first Whig Party governor in 1838.

While governor, Seward found himself split between enforcing the law and supporting policies he opposed. During the “Helderberg War” of 1839, Seward, though sympathetic to the antirent cause, used the state militia to enforce foreclosure notices at the same time he advocated legislative relief for the aggrieved farmers. Like most Whigs, Seward supported infrastructure growth. His policy of bond financing for canal and railway improvements was a controversial departure from that of his predecessors, who had used surplus canal profits for improvement initiatives. He promoted education, prison reform, and temperance, and refused to honor requests from the southern states for the extradition of fugitive slaves and those who assisted them. After winning reelection in 1840, Seward proposed spending public monies for immigrant schools, a move embraced by the Catholic diocese of New York City, which sought a parochial school system, but derided by the state’s nativists. At the end of his second gubernatorial term in 1842, Seward returned to the practice of law. In 1846 he represented William Freeman, an Auburn resident of black and American Indian descent accused of murder, arguing that Freeman’s insanity should exculpate his actions. Although the insanity defense failed to sway the jury, Seward’s defense was reprinted and widely circulated by capital punishment reform groups.

In 1849 the Whig-dominated legislature elected Seward to the US Senate, where he established himself as a leader in the national antislavery movement. During debates on the Compromise of 1850, Seward argued in favor of California’s admission to the Union but against the Fugitive Slave Act. He chided his proslavery listeners that there was a “higher law” than the Constitution. Seward argued against the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, fearing that it would inflame sectional tensions, and, in an 1858 speech in Rochester, predicted that the disparities between a slave economy and one based on free labor could only result in an “irrepressible conflict.” He and Frances befriended Harriet Tubman, settling her on land in Auburn in 1859, and used their home as a safe house on the Underground Railroad.

By 1860 Seward, by then a Republican, was considered one of the front-running candidates for the party’s presidential nomination. His antislavery activism, however, proved too controversial. Convention delegates sought a more moderate candidate and chose Abraham Lincoln. Although disappointed, Seward accepted the secretary of state’s position within Lincoln’s cabinet. Seward attempted to negotiate a peaceful end to the siege of Fort Sumter and defused the uproar over the Trent Affair. In 1862 he advised the president on the proper time to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, and he wrote the 1863 presidential proclamation establishing a formal Thanksgiving Day. On 14 Apr 1865, the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Seward was brutally stabbed in his Washington, DC, home by Lewis Powell, an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth.

Although savaged by fellow Republicans for supporting Pres Andrew Johnson, Seward returned to the State Department after his recovery and concentrated on foreign affairs. In 1866 he pushed Napoleon III to withdraw French support of Maximilian of Mexico. He negotiated with Denmark to purchase the Virgin Islands in 1867, only to see the treaty rejected by the Senate.

Seward annexed Midway Island in 1867 and attempted unsuccessful negotiations with Spain for Santo Domingo and Haiti in 1869. On 30 Mar 1867 he negotiated a treaty with Russia for the purchase of the Alaska Territory for $7.2 million; Radical Republican and Democratic press dubbed the purchase “Seward’s Folly.” Retiring from the State Department in 1869, Seward began to travel. He visited California and Alaska in 1869 and completed a world tour from July 1870 to April 1872. Following his return to Auburn, he contracted pneumonia and died. His Auburn home, named a National Historic Landmark in 1964, is a museum.


Seward, Frederick William, and William Henry Seward. Seward at Washington as Senator and Secretary of State. A Memoir of His Life with Selections from His Letters, 1846–1872, 2 vols (New York: Derby&Miller, 1891)

Seward, William Henry, and Frederick William Seward. William H. Seward: An Autobiography from 1801 to 1834. With a Memoir of His Life, and Selections from His Letters (1877; repr New York: Derby&Miller,1891

Taylor, John M. William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand (New York: Harper Collins, 1991)

Van Deusen, Glyndon G. William Henry Seward (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 1967)

Peter A. Wisbey


Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 1404-5].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.