William Henry Seward

Associated Locations:

  • Florida, New York

Associated Dates:

  • May 16, 1801 – Born

William Henry Seward is one of the eminent spirits who appeared to President Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple on August 21, 1877. This interesting story is detailed in the Eminent Spirits Appear to Wilford Woodruff wiki.

As the great political defenders Henry ClayJohn Calhoun, and Daniel Webster neared the end of their lives, many wondered if there would ever again arise such men of destiny. The younger men seemed unlikely candidates, and the public took little note of them. They were nevertheless men of integrity and devotion. Abraham Lincoln was then almost unknown, and William Seward, who was to play a key role as Lincoln’s Secretary of State, was just entering the U.S. Senate.

As Secretary of State, Seward’s suburb diplomacy kept the European nations from taking advantage of this troubled land during the Civil War. His loyal support to Benito Juarez finally helped drive the French out of Mexico. After the death of Lincoln he helped implement Lincoln’s ideas for peaceful repatriation of the South. Seward’s gifted diplomacy saved his country in many instances, and his iron will helped restore a badly shattered nation. Seward is perhaps best known for his purchase of Alaska from Russia. This purchase is often referred to as “Seward’s Folly,” for many at the time thought the purchase was worthless. However, Alaska has returned to this country many times the value of the purchase price.

“There is a higher law than that of the Constitution which regulates our authority.”

– William Henry Seward

Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy.

American Statesman 1801-1872

Early Life

William Seward

William Seward was born in Florida, New York, on 16 May 1801. His father was Samuel Seward, and his mother, Mary Jennings. His father’s family were of Welsh descent, and his mother’s family were English-Irish.

Seward was not a strong child and his health was poor. However, his mind was extremely active, so his father determined to get him an education. His thirst for knowledge sometimes got him into trouble. Once it almost cost him his life. When he was about twelve years old, and driving the cows home from the field, he read a book as he walked, glancing now and then at his charges. A group of boys spied the young scholar abstractly driving his herd and tried to attract his attention by tossing rocks at him. Seward was resolved not to be disturbed in studies, and he merely turned his back towards them and walked backwards and his eyes still on the book. Not knowing that he had come to a bridge over a small stream, Seward missed the bridge and fell into the creek, hitting his head and knocking himself unconscious. An elder brother had been watch the incident, and he rescued Seward from drowning.

Like other boys of the day, Seward had many chores. “It was my business to drive the cows, morning and evening to and from distant pastures, to chop and carry in the fuel for the parlor fire, to take the grain to mill and fetch the flour, to bring the lime from the kiln, and to do the errands of the family generally.” He was a hard worker, but he wanted to attend school. He ran away to school before he was old enough to attend.


Still although he loved to learn, school did not always go smoothly. One day when he felt overloaded with Latin assignments, he rebelled and threw away his books. His father appealed to his sense of the future, telling him that some day he might become a great lawyer like some of the famous men of his day. Interestingly, this argument seemed to reach young Seward, and he began to double his attention to his studies.

When Seward was fifteen he passed the entrance exam at Union College. He did so well on the examination that he would have been placed as a junior, but because of his age he had to enter as a sophomore. His favorite studies were rhetoric, moral philosophy, and the ancient classics. He accustomed himself to rise at four in the morning, a habit that he maintained throughout most of his life.

Seward was well liked. Once of his father’s friends observed in a letter that “the confidence which he [Seward] has in himself and the ease of his manners renders him quite pleasing.” But his pleasantries did not quell his strong will, which at times bordered on stubbornness. One day Seward thought an instructor of his had not treated him fairly, and he refused to give his recitation. He was so adamant that only with the personal intervention of the president of the college was the matter settled.

He was also sensitive to the opinion of his fellow students. When they ridiculed him because he spent extra time being tutored by the Latin teacher, he promptly quit and used his extra time in tutoring some of the students in other subjects. When they commented on his country clothes, he visited a tailor shop and acquired a new set of clothes. He had the bill sent to his father. His father was a rather stern and strict man, and the purchase was not in accordance with his wishes. He refused to pay the bill. When the creditors came knocking at his door, Seward resolved to abandoned his college career and seek employment. Without notifying his family, he left Union College with a friend and sailed south to Savannah where teaching jobs were being offered. Seward obtained a teaching job and stayed in Savannah, observed firsthand the oppressive nature of slavery.

Frances Miller Seward

Soon his father found out where he was and sent a letter demanding his return to college. Seward, however, was in no hurry to leave. He remained in Savannah six months before he returned to college, where he graduated with the senior class with honors at the age of nineteen. The title of his commencement address was ‘’The Integrity of the American Union’’.

Pursuing Law

Seward pursued his law degree and accepted an offer in the law office of Elijah Miller. Not long after, Seward married Elijah’s daughter, Frances. They had a happy marriage. Seward was a successful lawyer, and his fame grew fast. In 1830, he was elected to the state senate and later became known for his support of internal improvements and his advocacy of the abolishment of imprisonment for debt. He also advocated new and better organization of the public schools, supporting certain claims of the parochial schools for help. In 1844, he supported Henry Clay for the presidency and made speeches for him at public meetings.

One of his recurring themes was the immorality of slavery. In a memorable speech in 1848, he stated, “They party of slavery upholds an aristocracy founded on the humiliation of labor as necessary to the existence of a chivalrous republic.” In 1849, he was elected to the U.S. Senate receiving three-fourths of all the votes. Then in 1850, while promoting the admission of California as a free state, he uttered these immortal words: “The Constitution regulates our stewardship; the Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defense, to welfare, and to liberty. But there is a Higher Law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes.” He contended that the country was involved in a “irrepressible conflict” that would end only in the nation becoming all free or all slave.

Because Seward was the organizer of the Republican Party, Lincoln chose him to be his Secretary of State. This proved a providential choice, for during the Civil War Seward’s “brain was pitted against all Europe and always won.” It was through his diplomacy that the efforts of the Confederates to gain recognition by foreign powers were frustrated.

Near-Death Experiences

Lewis Powell attacking Frederick Seward

In the spring of 1865, Seward was thrown from his carriage, breaking his jaw and arm. Later, on 14 April 1865, just five days after the close of the Civil War, Lincoln was assassinated. One of the co-conspirators burst into Seward’s bedroom with a bowie-knife and slashed and stabbed him in the face and throat. Seward’s son was injured in the attack and his daughter helped to drive the man off. Seward survived, but his wife, who was an invalid, received such a shock that she died within two months. His only daughter, who helped to fend off the assassin, never recovered from the effects of the scene and died within the year.

When Seward recovered he returned to serve under President Andrew Johnson. Seward and Johson stood virtually alone in pursuing Lincoln’s ideals of peaceful reparation and immediate and full recognition for the Southern States. Seward’s stand offended a majority of his own party, and he was banished from national public life. Johnson’s and Seward’s policy, however, was triumphant, and a new spirit of nationalism took root and began to grow.

Support to Mexico

William Henry Seward

Throughout the Civil War, Mexico was also involved in a civil war, fighting for her very survival against the French and their appointed Emperor, Maximilian. Seward steadfastly refused to recognize Maximilian’s government. His diplomacy did much to keep supplies from reaching the French in Mexico. In a symbolic gesture, he held a presidentail ball to honor Margarity, Benito Juarez’s wife, who had fled with her children to the United States for safety. This act declared to the world that the U.S. stood firmly behind Juarez as the rightful leader of Mexico.

Early in his career Seward had been a key supporter of “Manifest Destiny,” a policy which sought the extension of our boundaries. But when Mexico was freed from her civil war, a war which was caused by the intervention of the French, Secretary Seward became Mexico’s greatest ally and defender of her territory. Always he was a devoted friend of Juarez.

Seward’s private life was impeccable. His public carrer spanned stormy times, but he always maintained a steady course in the pursuit of liberty for all men. He stood for the abolishment of slavery, and was always ready to help the poor and defend and needy. He was not afraid to take a dangerous position, even if it meant standing alone. His headstone reflected how he wished to be remembered. It said simply: “He was faithful.”

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. 1

  1. Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.
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