Reference Entry

Seward, William Henry

Dinah Mayo-Bobee

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Seward, William Henry

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William Henry Seward, one of seven children born to the slaveholders Samuel Sweezy Seward and Mary Jennings Seward, became one of the most prominent antislavery politicians of the antebellum period. Trained as a lawyer, Seward served in the New York State Senate from 1830 to 1834 and was elected governor of New York in 1839. While he was governor, Seward signed legislation that protected the rights of New York's black citizens. The laws provided for jury trials in runaway cases, helped recover persons kidnapped into slavery, guaranteed education to black children, and freed slaves brought into the state. After leaving the governor's office in 1843, Seward continued his antislavery activism. In 1846 he defended Henry Wyatt and William Freeman, African Americans charged with murder in Auburn, New York. In each case, Seward defended the accused on the ground of insanity, but public outrage and hostility over the crimes were so intense that both men were speedily convicted and condemned to death. In 1848 Seward was elected to the U.S. Senate. His tenure in Congress witnessed the escalating controversy over slavery. When the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, northern congressmen attempted to pass a proviso prohibiting slavery in the territory acquired in the treaty that ended the war, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). Through 1849 President Zachary Taylor, a slaveholder, exasperated southerners by agreeing with Seward in his objection to the expansion of slavery. Taylor accelerated the crisis by trying to bypass the territorial stage and admit California and New Mexico, part of the territory acquired in the treaty, to the Union as free states. This move was challenged as unconstitutional, but Seward and other antislavery legislators eschewed compromise. Slave state politicians scheduled a convention to prepare for secession if any antislavery legislation was passed. Amid the heightened fervor Seward delivered a speech on 11 March 1850, binding policy makers to a “higher law.” He explained that slavery was antithetical to democracy, and as an accidental and inorganic development in the nation, it merited eradication. The Constitution gave Congress the power to reject new slave states, but regardless of their interpretation of constitutional law, Seward argued, legislators were bound to a higher law. Divine disapproval of slavery, which superseded the Constitution, ordained its annihilation. Seward's speech resonated with both pro- and antislavery Americans. Proslavery pundits disparaged Seward as a radical, and opponents of slavery applauded his appeal to the “higher law” and embraced him as their spokesman. However, Seward was no radical. Although Seward argued that slavery hindered national progress and compromises with slaveholders fostered racial injustice, he accepted the feasibility of gradual, compensated emancipation in the slave states. The controversy ended when, after Taylor's sudden death, the Compromise of 1850 defeated the proviso and strengthened the federal Fugitive Slave Law. Antislavery sentiment soon galvanized in the North, especially when the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and the Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott case (1857) presaged the entry of slavery into northern territories. Seward continued to advocate the extermination of slavery to cleanse the Union, warning in one speech that the juxtaposition of slavery and freedom created an “irrepressible conflict” in which freedom would triumph with the Union unscathed. That speech won the praise of abolitionists and made Seward appear far more radical than he probably was. This perception cost him the Republican nomination in 1860. Seward became the secretary of state in 1861 and labored to save the Union. He mistakenly assumed that Southerners placed the Union above the perpetuation of slavery and proposed constitutional safeguards for slavery where it existed, without expansion. His efforts failed, and the country entered the Civil War. Early on Seward embraced Emancipation and was one of two cabinet members with whom Abraham Lincoln first discussed the Emancipation Proclamation. After the war, with slavery permanently abolished, Seward rechanelled his energies into foreign affairs and purchased Alaska from Russia (1867) before leaving the U.S. State Department in 1869. Seward traveled and began writing his autobiography, which he did not complete before his death in 1872. Inconsistencies in Seward's activism confounded contemporaries and still perplex historians. For instance, during Reconstruction, Seward's inability to correctly gauge southern recalcitrance led him to support Johnsonian policies that facilitated the disenfranchisement and violence African Americans experienced across the South. In his writings Frederick Douglass discussed Seward's virtues and shortcomings. Douglass praised Seward for being a good friend who had supported Douglass's newspaper, the North Star, and for leading a courageous fight to end slavery. Still, he candidly criticized Seward's conservative posture during the secession crisis and the war. When reflecting on the success of the antislavery movement, Douglass maintained that Seward had been an invaluable ally in Congress and added that neither he nor anyone else should ever belittle or underestimate Seward's contributions to the antislavery cause. Despite his ideological shortcomings, Seward had a profound influence on antebellum politics and played a crucial role in escalating the conflicts that led to the abolition of slavery. See also Antislavery Movement; Civil War; Compromise of 1850; Confederate States of America; Constitution, U.S.; Douglass, Frederick; Dred Scott Case; Emancipation; Emancipation Proclamation; Fugitive Slave Law of 1850; Kansas-Nebraska Act; Laws and Legislation; Lincoln, Abraham; Mexican-American War; North Star; Reconstruction; Religion and Slavery; Slavery; Slavery and the U.S. Constitution; Supreme Court; Violence against African Americans; and Voting Rights.

Reference Entry.  1104 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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