William H. Seward was born May 16, 1801, in the village of Florida, Town of Warwick, Orange County, New York. His father, Dr. Samuel S. Seward, was a physician of good standing and the first Vice-President of the County Medical Society. Dr. Seward was a farmer, as well as physician, and also the magistrate, storekeeper, banker and money-lender of the little village. He lived to a good old age, dying after his son’s election to the United States Senate, in 1849.
The family was of New Jersey origin. John Seward, the grandfather of William Henry, served in the war of the Revolution, beginning as Captain and ending his campaign as Colonel of the First Sussex Regiment.
William Henry was the fourth of six children, and following the custom of those days, was selected as the least physically robust, to receive a college education. The village school, the academy at Goshen, a term or two in a short-lived academy at Florida, gave him his preparatory training, and at the age of fifteen, he passed the examination for the junior class at Union College, Schenectady, though the rules as to age at that institution compelled him to enter as a sophomore.
He graduated in 1820, having also spent six months of his senior year teaching in Georgia. He was admitted to the bar in 1822 and settled in Auburn, N. Y. He soon distinguished himself in his profession, and acquired a wide reputation for originality of thought and independence of action. He took an active interest in politics and in a public address he outlined the history of the so-called “Albany Regency, “a political clique, who were in complete control of state affairs at that time. His expose of their intrigues led to their political overthrow in 1828. In 1830 be was elected to the State Senate by the Anti-Masons, who at that time were politically powerful in Western New York. He was probably the youngest man ever elected to the Senate at that period, not being quite thirty years of age. He soon became the leader of his party in that body, and was a recognized political force throughout the State. In 1834 he was a candidate for Governor but was defeated. In 1838 he was elected Governor by a large majority, and his administration was in many ways the most remarkable in the history of the State.
In 1843, declining a re-nomination, he resumed his law practice in Auburn. In 1847 he was invited to speak in New York City on the life and character of Daniel O’Connell, and this is said to have been one of the most brilliant oratorical efforts of his public career.
In 1849 he was elected to the United States Senate, and at once took a prominent position in the affairs of his party, and soon thereafter was the recognized leader of the administration party. In 1850 he delivered his famous speech on the admission of California as a state, in which he made use of the expression, “there is a higher law than the Constitution,” that has since acquired wide fame. Another of his felicitous phrases, which is so frequently quoted as giving character to the history of his time, is from a speech delivered in Rochester in 1858, in which he’ declared that there was “an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces,” and that “the United States must become either entirely slave or entirely free.” He was re-elected to the Senate in 1855, and the news of his re-election was received with rejoicing throughout the free states. In 1860 he was the most conspicuous candidate of the Republican party for the Presidential nomination, receiving one hundred and seventy-three votes on the first ballot. He was defeated by Mr. Lincoln, but he immediately entered the campaign and gave him his most hearty support, making many speeches throughout the West. After the election of Mr. Lincoln he was invited to become a member of his cabinet, and was appointed Secretary of State, a position which he filled for eight years with almost unparalleled industry, energy and success. During this period he negotiated nearly forty treaties, most of which were of historic importance. Without doubt his finest acts of statesmanship were his management of the Trent affair, his dignified and determined action at the time of the French invasion of Mexico, the purchase of Alaska, the last of which was an act of judgment and foresight not fully appreciated by the public for many years.
In April, 1865, while he was confined to his room because of injuries from a fall from his carriage, President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth and at the same time another assassin, named Paine, entered the room of Mr.. Seward, dangerously wounded his son, and with a poniard, inflicted wounds upon him that at first it was thought would prove fatal but from which he slowly recovered.
In 1869 he made an extended tour of California and Alaska, and in 1870-71 he made a journey around the world and was received with distinction everywhere. He died at his home in Auburn, October 10, 1872.