On this day in 1801, the prominent 19th-century American politician William Henry Seward was born in the town of Florida, New York. Seward was first elected to political office in 1839, when aged 38 he became Governor of New York. Ten years later Seward gained federal office as a US Senator, and it was here that he first made a prominent name for himself as an anti-slavery advocate. He was one of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, but the task of representing the fledgling Northern, anti-slavery party went to Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln. The President-elect chose his former rival as Secretary of State, leading historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin to term the Lincoln cabinet ‘a team of rivals’. Seward served the State Department loyally throughout the American Civil War, where he worked to prevent foreign nations recognising the Confederacy. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 (when Seward himself was also unsuccessfully targeted), Seward continued in his role under the presidency of Andrew Johnson. It was in this period that Seward made his most lasting contribution to the American nation – orchestrating the acquisition of Alaska in 1867. Seward retired from public life with the beleaguered outgoing Johnson administration, and died in 1872 in Auburn, New York.
“It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation”
– Seward’s prescient 1858 speech regarding the sectional struggle over slavery
Seward’s famous “irrepressible conflict” speech really highlights the key debate that abounds between historians who study the years preceding the Civil War. Without getting too marred in historiographical detail, the debate generally splits between fundamentalists (who argue that by a certain point, war was inevitable – with some even suggesting the Constitutional Convention, which avoided settling the slavery issue), and the revisionists (who believe that there were numerous points at which war could have been avoided e.g. the Mexican War, or that the war was the result of actions of blundering politicians). Beyond this very historically-driven perspective, Seward was an important figure in his own right. It is often in the careers of the ‘what-if’ candidates for the presidency, figures like Seward and Henry Clay who came close to the presidency, that we can see the inner workings of politics. Seward served his country admirably during a very difficult time, and even remained in office as he became increasingly isolated within the Johnson administration that became unsupportive of Reconstruction policies to help the newly freed African-American population.