William Henry Seward 1801-1872
By June Allen
March 27, 2006
We Alaskans don't seem to remember the state holiday until it
happens, but every year Seward's Day rolls around, always on
the last Monday in March. This year it will be March 27. There's
generally someone or several someones who say, "A state
holiday? For Seward? Oh yeah. He had something to do with buying
Alaska, didn't he? Say, do you know if the banks are closed?"
"The weather of
this broad climate of Alaska is severely criticized
in outside circles for being too wet and too cold
it must be a fastidious person who complains
of climates in which, while the eagle delights to soar,
the hummingbird does not disdain to flutter."
--William H. Seward in a speech at Sitka, 1858
Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
William Henry Seward ought
to be a more shining figure to Alaskans if only for the fact
that he did indeed almost single-handedly engineer the Purchase
of Alaska. He visited this great land generations before its
majesty earned the description as the home of America's
Crown Jewels. He fell in love with Alaska just like those of
us who live here have done.
Also to his credit, Seward claimed the distinction of being the
beloved President Abraham Lincoln's best friend. Both men are
large figures in American history, and both are immortalized
in totem poles in Saxman Totem Park just south of Ketchikan.
A top-hatted Lincoln stands alone and high atop a starkly uncarved
pole a position of high honor. His image was, however,
carved from an oval-framed photograph that ended at his knees.
His top-hatted totem likeness, too, is missing his lower legs.
Seward is also at the top of his more traditional pole, the totemic
features of his face painted bright red. The Tongass Tlingits
explain today explain that it is red because it is a shame pole
noting the fact that the Secretary of State didn't bring gifts
to the potlatch thrown in his honor during his visit to Alaska
in 1868, a year after Alaska's Purchase from Russia. Maybe. and
maybe the red face represented still unhealed scars from Seward's
attack the night of Lincoln's assassination.
The two famous men differed in background. Seward was born into
a wealthy family and was a sophisticated New York lawyer as well
as an openly ambitious politician. And like Lincoln, Seward was
a statesman, an orator, and one of the most popular politicians
of his day. In fact, Seward had been expected to receive his
party's nomination for President of the United States, an honor
that unexpectedly went instead to Lincoln!
Both men were attorneys and shared similar political beliefs.
Lincoln delighted in portraying himself as the rumpled backwoods
bumpkin he always claimed to be. In fact, the President and his
wife were seen in just that eyebrow-raising, rustic light by
most in Washington D.C.'s refined social circles. Today,
Lincoln is one of our most revered presidents in history.
Is there any American, any schoolchild who can't picture the
tall, gangly Lincoln, his craggy features, top hat and all?
Unlike Lincoln, Seward, was born into a wealthy family and became
a sophisticated New York lawyer. He was a short man and his most
outstanding feature was a very large nose! In fact, Seward must
have delighted in that "noble" Roman nose of his because
many of his photographs are posed in profile. He also had a bit
of a receding chin with small wattles down to his Adam's apple
that that made his nose seem even more prominent. Add to that
his overly large ears and quizzical eyebrows that just naturally
angled up toward each other like a baffled arch and you have
a picture of William Henry Seward. Not pop star material. But
just maybe it was that unprepossessing appearance that put others
at ease, and masked the quick intellect, the persuasive powers
of his silver tongue as well as an uncanny ability to change
the minds of even the most obstinate of men.
On quiet evenings during his presidency, Lincoln would sometimes
stroll the several blocks from his home through Washington D.C.'s
dark, rutted streets thick with mud and horse dumplings to Seward's
three-story brick house in order to spend a relaxing hour or
two with his friend, telling jokes and maybe having a nip of
fine whiskey. Not everyone could tolerate the thick and acrid
smoke from chain-smoking Seward's cigars. His temporary home
was thought of as a "bachelor" retreat for himself
and at times his adult sons. Mrs. Seward had preferred to remain
in the couple's home in the more civilized town of Auburn, N.Y.
Politically, Seward was something of a zealot. At a time when
Manifest Destiny, allied with the "Go west, young man"
position, was in vogue, Secretary of State William Henry Seward
had even larger ambitions. Manifest Destiny, loosely defined
as part of the belief that the United States would eventually
expand across the "hips" of the North American continent
to the Pacific Ocean, was just the beginning for Seward. He had
his eye on Canada, too, by annexation or otherwise! The jutting
peninsula of Alaska was also part of that vision, in order to
control most of the Pacific Coast. He was not alone in this visionary
prediction of the future; there were others who shared it. There
were those who called this mindset Manifest Destiny, and there
were others who called it American Imperialism.
Secretary of State Seward served his President well during their
first term together. With Lincoln's re-election to a second term,
the two men entered the year 1865 with optimism. But then came
April 14 of that year. The Lincolns would attend a play at Ford's
Theater that night. Seward was confined to his bed at home after
a serious carriage accident that left him bruised and battered.
And both would fall prey to an assassin.
Lincoln and Seward were part of the larger assassination plan
for the night that targeted not only President Lincoln and Secretary
of State Seward but Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Gen. Ulysses
S. Grant as well. President Lincoln was fatally shot at the theater
by John Wilkes Booth. At the last minute another assassin lost
his resolve and made no attempt on the Vice President, his assigned
target. Gen. and Mrs. Grant had cancelled plans to attend
the theater at the last minute, thus escaping the threat to their
Seward, however, did not fare as well as Johnson and Grant. He
was recuperating at home from a rather serious carriage accident
a few days before when a wild-eyed man named Lewis Payne rushed
into Seward's third-story bedroom brandishing a pistol! The intruder
pointed the gun at the bedridden Seward and pulled the trigger,
but the weapon misfired. So the panicked assassin pulled out
a knife and started to attack him. But by that time Seward's
son Frederick had entered the room and grappled with the man
for the knife. Payne apparently lost his nerve and fled down
the stairs, out the door, and jumped on his horse to make his
escape. Secretary Seward was cut and bloody from the struggle
but was not more dangerously harmed.
Seward regained his health and went to work as Secretary of State
for the slain Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson. The assassins
and their cohorts, eight in all, were captured. All were tried
an convicted. Four were hanged, including a woman. One died in
jail. Three received presidential pardons in 1869.
One of Seward's responsibilities as Secretary of State was to
deal with foreign powers. So, when in 1867 the United States
of America was offered the chance by Russia to purchase the northwestern
shoulder of the North American Continent called Alaska, it was
Seward who handled the negotiations. And he put his heart and
soul into it.
The Czar had named a dapper little Frenchman, a member of the
Russian diplomatic corps, to negotiate the deal. His name was
Edouard de Stoeckl, a man who had married an American heiress,
called himself a baron, and boasted a silver tongue said to have
equaled Seward's own. This dapper little diplomat was charged
with negotiating the sale only if the price were high enough
with a preferred offer of no less than five million dollars.
Negotiations began on Friday, March 29, 1867. Working non-stop,
Seward haggled the price up to $7,200.000, at which point he
became stubborn about going any higher. In addition to the tensions
of haggling, Seward was especially aggressive because the U.S.
Senate was due to adjourn almost immediately. He had to hurry
to strike while the iron was hot, before the Senators had too
much time to think about it. Agreement had to be reached and
soon. De Stoeckl was also feeling the pressure.
And so, under the hiss of gaslights and billowing clouds of cigar
smoke the two men, their weary aides and secretaries watching,
wrote out provisions of a sale agreement and finished at four
o'clock in the morning of Saturday, March 30. It was the final
day before the Senate's adjournment.
Groggy but determined, Seward took the sale agreement to the
Senate that day. His popularity had cooled in the two years since
Lincoln's assassination and his own close call with death. The
Senators were lukewarm at best. They knew little about Alaska
and cared less. But their Secretary of State still had his silver
tongue, all his well known powers of persuasion. After several
tentative votes, the final tally counted, and the Purchase of
Alaska was a reality by one vote! Just one.
William Henry Seward took a voyage to Alaska the following year.
He stopped first at the Tlingit village at the mouth of Portland
Canal and, according to the Indian legends, made his long-remembered
blunder with the Tongass tribe. From there he sailed to Sitka,
which was, back in 1868, about all there was other than Native
villages, about the only town of any size at all in the new American
There Seward made a speech in which he told the small assemblage
of Russians and at-attention American military that Alaska was
all he knew it would be - beautiful, rich in natural resources,
strategic in its location. He also was the very first to predict
that one day Alaska would become a Territory and then a full
state, a contributing member of the United States of America!
He was so right.
SEWARD'S DAY MARCH 30: Celebrating
the Alaska Purchase
By June Allen
SitNews - March 21, 2003
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