(May 16,1801 – Oct. 10, 1872)
On January 10, 1861, 150 years ago this week, William Henry Seward of Auburn, New York, was named Secretary of State in president-elect Lincoln’s Cabinet. Seward is best known for his service under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson and for his management of the purchase of Alaska from the Russians (derisively known as “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox” by those who had not yet taken the time to discover the vast resources of this seeming frozen wasteland).
Born in Florida, NY, he studied law at Union College in Schenectady, and was admitted to the NY State Bar Association in 1821. That same year he met Frances Adeline Miller, whom he married in 1824; he went into a law partnership with his father-in-law, Judge Elijah Miller. He and Frances had five biological children, of whom four reached adulthood. After Frances’ death in 1865, Seward legally adopted Olive Risley, a young woman with no family who had come to serve his household needs.
He spent nearly forty of his 71 years active in the American political foreground – as a state senator, a U. S. senator, governor of New York State, and Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. He was outspoken in favor of abolition, public education, and prison reform.
At the time of the 1860 Republican National Convention, Seward was the acknowledged leader of the six-year-old Republican Party, and he was initially expected to be a shoo-in for president. He lost to Lincoln, however, because Lincoln’s anti-slavery stand was far more moderate than Seward’s. Among the delegates, the idea apread that Lincoln would aggravate the South less than Seward. Although the South’s reaction to Lincoln was highly vitriolic, especially after his election, it would probably have been far worse had Seward been in place.
Despite Seward’s disappointment, he recognized the value and power of a position in the Cabinet. Once Lincoln had made it clear to Seward that he was the one in charge of the presidency, the two men began their work together to keep the Union in one piece. They became an effective team, with mutual deep respect and friendship that grew steadily throughout the Civil War. Seward was an invaluable asset to Lincoln.
Seward was a fascinating man in his own right. His home in Auburn, New York, about 35 miles west-southwest of Syracuse, has been restored and is open to the public as a museum. The entire Seward family exhibited a curious instinct of the value of everyday details in terms of their place in history, a quality which made the restoration of the house and its preparation as a museum far easier than historic sites usually experience. No one ever threw anything away. For example, a receipt for the chandelier in the foyer is in the records of the house, with the purchase price and notes about where it was originally installed. Original architectural drawings are still in the house. Of the 30+ rooms, six or seven of them are still chock full of such memorabilia.
Seward had a passion for photography, a new technology in his lifetime. He had no aspirations to be a photographer, but collected images of famous people. Original framed photographs, many quite large, completely cover the walls of the main stairway, each with a number for identification. Here, amid royalty and statesmen from the world over, King Mongkut of Siam poses with one of his children, the same King who offered Lincoln a gift of elephants for the war effort, the same King whom modern American audiences remember from the 1944 book Anna and the King of Siam and the 1951 musical “The King and I.”
Seward loved to travel, too. In August 1870, he set out on the second and last of his voyages around the world, and came home laden with gifts and souvenirs collected during the 14-month tour. These works of art, historical relics, and rare objects added to the already burdened house. According to a newspaper story printed in 1915, among these articles are found:
a fragment from ancient Carthage in mosaic bearing the classic line “Delenda est Carthage,” a bronze Cupid from the tomb of Xenophon, a suit of armor worn by one of the Crusaders, a medallion blessed by Pope Pius IX and presented by him to Seward, sets of rare Sevres ware given to him by Prince Napoleon, Cloissone and porcelains of the finest workmanship, a mahogany and ebony table from China, ancient buddhas, tapestries and relics from the Far East.
One of these Eastern treasures is a small wooden stool, rather plain, an Abyssinian throne from ancient times. The docents relate its story during a tour of the house: When Seward visited Abyssinia in 1871, he had an audience with the King, who welcomed him warmly and cordially. At the conclusion of their conversation, the King asked Seward if there was anything Seward wanted in his power to give. Seward, with a twinkle in his eye, replied, “I would have your throne.” The King of Abyssinia, with a twinkle in his eye to match, stood up, reached down and picked up the humble stool on which he had been sitting, and handed it to Seward. “It is yours.” This throne is on display at the house.
Should you find yourself in upstate New York, be sure not to miss this wonderful historic site. The Seward House Museum is a worthy destination on its own. While you are there, be sure to visit the Harriett Tubman Home a few blocks away. Seward was a friend and benefactor of Tubman, and they are buried not far from each other in Fort Hill Cemetery situated between the two residences.
Taylor, John M. William Henry Seward New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
“The Seward Home,” The Auburn Citizen, October 21, 1915, p. 18.