Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

11.1 Secretary of State William Seward, the Hillary Clinton of His Time


The Hillary Clinton of his day, William Seward

The Hillary Clinton of his day, William Seward

It could be said that William Seward should have been our 16th President of the United States, instead of Abraham Lincoln.

It could also be said that he was the Hillary Clinton of his day;  here’s why.

Seward, a prominent member of the Whig party before it dissolved, and one of the stars of the Republican Party when it was first formed in 1854, was actually the popular frontrunner for his party’s nomination in 1860 (sound familiar?)  But on the advice of his friend and political advisor Thurlow Weed, overly confident about his future, and cautious about making any controversial statements before the nomination process, Seward left the country for an 8 month tour of Europe instead.  He returned shortly before the vote to find that a relative (and very underestimated) newcomer to the national political scene, Abraham Lincoln, had been campaigning vigorously during his absence, lining up support within the party’s leadership.  Despite the fact that he had been a heavy favorite for the Republican title, Seward lost the nomination.

Seward had many more credentials for the Presidency than Lincoln.  In 1860, he was a second term Senator from the state of New York, and had also served two 2-year terms as Governor of the state.  Known for his fierce resistance to slavery, he opposed the Compromise of 1850 (which defined certain territories such as California and Texas as being either “free” states or slavery states), as well as the Fugitive Slave Law, which required citizens of free states to return runaway slaves to their owners.

A lawyer by profession, Seward defended a number of fugitive slaves in court to gain them safe haven in free states.  In the 1846, he also gained fame for his defense of two prominent murder suspects in New York.  The first, a white man, was accused of killing a cellmate in prison; the second, a black man, was accused of breaking into a home and killing 4 people there.  Seward, well aware that both defendants suffered from mental illness and abuse, was one of the first lawyers in the country to employ the insanity defense.  Not surprisingly, he was a firm believer in prison reform and in better care standards for the insane.

When he lost his party’s nomination in 1860, he fell in with the party line and became a supporter of Lincoln, going so far as to campaign for his rival (again, the echoes of Clinton are clear.)  Once Lincoln was elected, he appointed Seward as his Secretary of State, in which Seward served from 1861-1869 (he continued in the role after Lincoln’s assassination and during Andrew Johnson’s Presidency.)

The office that Clinton is inheriting is, of course, in some ways vastly more complex than the one that Seward did.  There were not the pervasive external threats–in the form of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism–to American security in Seward’s time that there are now.  However, Seward’s challenges were formidable;  we were embroiled in a costly and vicious Civil War that required delicate diplomacy with countries such as Great Britain, who had a separate relationship with Confederate leaders.  Seward’s legacy also includes his dedication to westward expansion–he was keen on extending the United States’ sphere of influence into the Pacific, and it was under his leadership in 1867 that the United States purchased the vast wilderness that was the Alaska territory (afterwards known as “Sewards Folly.”  And just think:  they didn’t even know about Sarah Palin yet.)

Many people may have forgotten that the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Seward was also targeted.  John Wilkes Booth’s associate Lewis Powell broke into Seward’s home on that tragic night (April 14, 1865), where he attacked two of Seward’s sons before stabbing Seward multiple times in the face and neck.  Seward survived, but his wife died two months later from shock; a year later, Seward’s daughter died of tuberculosis.

He spent his years after office traveling the world, and died at his home in Auburn, New York in 1872.  His last message to his children was reported to have been “love one another,” fitting words for a man who had seen the ravages of war tear his country apart.

It’s also a fitting message for our new Secretary of State, as she begins her very critical work around the world.


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