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William H. Seward (1865–1869) - Secretary of State

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William Henry Seward was born in 1801 in Florida, New York. He graduated from Union College in 1820, studied the law, was admitted to the state bar in 1822, and joined a law practice.

From 1830 to 1834, Seward served in the New York state senate as a Whig before making a failed bid to become governor in 1834. He was more successful four years later and sat as governor of New York from 1839 until 1843. Choosing not to run for a third term in 1842, Seward resumed his law practice and came to specialize in fugitive slave law cases.

Seward entered the United States Senate in 1849 and remained until 1861, switching his allegiance from the Whig Party to the Republican Party. In 1856, and again in 1860, he sought the Republican nomination for President but failed on both accounts. Instead, he served new President Abraham Lincoln as secretary of state. His tenure there lasted from 1861 to 1869, during which time he worked to prevent European recognition of the Confederacy during the Civil War, monitored the French invasion of Mexico (1864), and purchased the Alaskan Peninsula from the Russians.

When John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in 1865, a coconspirator wounded Seward as part of the same conspiracy. Seward required months of recuperation and never really recovered from the attack. He ultimately left office in 1869 and retired to New York. William Henry Seward died in 1872.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Elizabeth R. Varon

Professor Varon is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. Her writings include:

Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008)

Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (Oxford University Press, 2003)

We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 1998)