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The Alaska purchase is just one reason Seward is among the most important men in US history

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 8, 2015

Two years from now, Oct. 18 will mark the 150th anniversary of the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States. Plans to celebrate the sesquicentennial are already afoot. They include a proposed statue in Juneau depicting William H. Seward, the American politician and diplomat who negotiated the deal and, we now learn, conducted his final act of diplomacy in the Tlingit town of Klukwan. (See "The great diplomat's last treaty" in this section.)

Alaskans know Seward as the man who bought Russian America for $7.2 million and there's good evidence that he considered the purchase his crowning achievement. But his long list of accomplishments is so significant that had he never heard of Alaska he would still be reckoned as one of the most important men in American history: governor, senator, presidential candidate, secretary of state during the Civil War and a crucial voice in the fight to end slavery.

Three experts from the Seward House Historic Museum in Auburn, New York, will visit Alaska next week to help a traveling exhibit that will tour the state during the sesquicentennial celebration. Billye Chabor, the museum's executive director; historian and facilities manager Mitch Maniccia; and exhibits and collections manager Matt MacVittie will be guests at the Cook Inlet Historical Society meeting in Anchorage on Thursday, Oct. 15.

It will be her first trip to "Seward's Folly," said Chabor. "It's early in the process, but we'll come away knowing a lot more details."

Keeping Europe out

The man responsible for adding the second-largest chunk of territory to the USA (after the Louisiana Purchase) was born in 1801 in tiny Florida, New York. The village consisted of about 10 houses, but his father was an important man, the postmaster and doctor. He had some money. He owned slaves.

Realizing that William was the smartest of his sons, his father sent him to college starting at age 15. He became a lawyer and settled in Auburn, marrying the daughter of a wealthy judge whose spacious home, bequeathed to the young couple and added to over the years, is now the museum.

Seward got involved in politics in the 1820s. He served in the New York legislature and became governor. Among his projects was creating nondenominational public schools at a time when public schools were vocally anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-German and anti-Jewish. His pro-immigration stance cost him votes, but he maintained that position until the end of his life.

He grew increasingly concerned with the state of black Americans, opposing the expansion of slavery into new territories. "He was not an abolitionist at first," MacVittie said. "He believed in gradual emancipation."

In the decade before the Civil War he became a U.S. senator. Famed as a public speaker and anti-slavery advocate, it was generally thought that he would be the Republican Party's presidential pick in the 1860 election. The presumptive nominee was so confident that he went on a grand tour of Europe, meeting with royalty and government leaders rather than tending to politics at home.

In his absence, supporters of nearly unknown Abraham Lincoln laid the groundwork for their candidate. At the same time, Seward was attacked from two directions. The "Know-Nothings" didn't like his position on immigrants and the more strident abolitionists accused him of not being anti-slavery enough.

Seward was stunned when he was defeated for the nomination. It may have been the moment of greatest psychological pain in his life. But, realizing that the future of the union was at stake, he strenuously campaigned on Lincoln's behalf. As president-elect, Lincoln made Seward his secretary of state.

The popular retelling of the War Between the States will always focus on the battles. But historians have long realized that Seward's diplomatic skills were as important to victory as the cannons and bayonets.

"His main goal was to keep Europe out of the war," said MacVittie. Sentiment for the South ran strong on the other side of the Atlantic. Had France or England recognized the Confederacy, using their navies to keep ports open, buying Confederate cotton, loaning money or even sending military assistance, Gettysburg might not have mattered.

At this juncture Seward's trip to Europe paid off, MacVittie said. "He had met all of the leaders. He knew them. They had a personal relationship with him, liked him, trusted him."

Due to those relationships and Seward's firmness in expressing the administration's expectations, the Europeans let the Americans settle the spat by themselves.

Editing the Emancipation

Foreign policy was only part of his job. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her best-selling study of Lincoln's cabinet, "Team of Rivals," described Seward as Lincoln's second self. The two became close friends and analyzed issues with parallel thinking.

"The rest of the cabinet didn't like him that much," MacVittie said. "They thought he was too close to Lincoln. I almost think they had a good-cop, bad-cop thing going on, Seward being the stern one and Lincoln using his great sense of humor. But he really was the commanding force in the government after the president himself."

In drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln turned to Seward as one who shared his feelings on the subject and whose intellect could fine-tune the document. A much-reproduced engraving shows Lincoln giving the first reading of the proclamation to his cabinet. All eyes -- including Lincoln's -- are on Seward, waiting to see what he has to say. Seward, not Lincoln, is front and center in the picture, staring ahead in thought, fingers poised as if trying to solve a geometry problem.

Goodwin notes that he did, in fact, argue for changes in wording and timing that Lincoln accepted. The draft of the order has Seward's editorial alterations, incorporated into the official proclamation, in the margins of Lincoln's script.

As the war was coming to a close, Seward broke his jaw and collarbone in a carriage accident. He was in a neck brace, bedridden and fighting off a potentially lethal infection when, on April 14, 1865, a Confederate sympathizer named Lewis Powell forced his way into the sickroom and stabbed him five times in the face and neck.

Powell was part of the plot conceived by John Wilkes Booth that included Booth's assassination of Lincoln and an aborted attempt on the life of Vice President Andrew Johnson.

"The injuries were devastating," Chabot said. Powell had assaulted several other members of the household in the attack including Seward's daughter Fanny and son Frederick, who received a nearly fatal open skull wound. Seward's wife went into shock and died within a few weeks. But Seward recovered and returned to work, shepherding the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives and ratification by the states. By the end of the year that should have seen him dead, as an official duty of his office, it fell to the secretary of state to issue the formal announcement that slavery was abolished in America.

Alaska and beyond

The major crisis of 1867 was the impeachment of President Johnson. Seward took the president's side, even though a big majority in Congress opposed Johnson, who escaped removal from office by a single vote.

It says much about Seward's people skills that, while supporting the politically unpopular Johnson, he was able to raise overwhelming support for the purchase of Alaska -- admittedly against token opposition. National opinion enthusiastically supported expanding the county's borders. Preston Jones and Jeremy Atiyah are among historians who note the tale of widespread objections to "Seward's Folly" is overblown. Ratification of the purchase treaty passed the Senate 37-2.

Seward left office when Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated in March 1869. "He kind of figured his work was done," said MacVittie. But he wasn't done with one of his greatest passions -- travel.

"He crosses the country in June 1869 on the Transcontinental Railroad," said Chabot. "The railroad had only been finished a few weeks before. He could be considered one of the first tourists. He said, 'Rest is rust.' He wasn't going to stop."

From San Francisco he took a yacht to see Alaska. He gave a speech in Sitka and went as far north as Klukwan, where he was entertained by the important Tlingit leader Koh'klux.

The Tlingit objected to the "sale" of their territory from the start, arguing that the purchase pertained only to Russian-owned commercial assets. The Russians may have seen it that way, too. But from Seward's perspective, the deal was for the whole northwest corner of North America and the most formidable army in history was ready to back him up.

"He had an interest in Russian America prior to the Civil War, but the war got in the way of moving forward on that until it was over," said MacVittie. "He had big ideas for America and what he thought the nation could be. He thought we should acquire not only Alaska, but Hawaii, Cuba, different places in the Caribbean."

Koh'klux found much to like in his good-natured and open-minded guest. Seward reciprocated Klukwan's hospitality by inviting the chief and the town's leading citizens to have dinner on his yacht. In later years, the Army base in nearby Haines would be named for Seward.

After leaving Alaska, Seward cruised the coast of Mexico before returning home via Cuba to plan his next sojourn. The Alaska tour was just a scouting trip for the grandest journey of his life -- a trip around the world. Again he took the train to San Francisco. From there he traveled across the Pacific to Japan, China, to India, Egypt, Jerusalem, Greece and Europe. He met the Mikado, the pope and other world leaders before returning to Auburn, where he died on Oct. 10, 1872.

His last words were, "Love one another."

The sentiment suits the image of Seward as a public servant dedicated to fair treatment and opportunity for all. But some today may question how it squares with his role in turning America into an empire, not always with the consent of the people in the acquired territory.

For Seward, as with many of his generation, there was no difference between being a colonialist and a humanist. In the dazzling account of his final journey, "William H. Seward's Travels Around the World," edited by his adopted daughter after his death, we read the following regarding his stop in San Francisco.

"Mr. Seward has declined an invitation given him by the anti-Chinese party to explore the Chinese quarter and see how unfit its inhabitants are to become citizens of the United States; and also a like invitation from the Chinese settlers to make the same exploration, to see how harmless and profitable that colonization is. The Republican party have lately acquiesced in the policy of exclusion, which has been insisted upon so long and so strenuously by the Democratic party. Mr. Seward protests firmly against this, and teaches that immigration and expansion are the main and inseparable elements of civilization on the American Continent. He says confidently, to both parties, that all attempts will fail to suppress or stifle either of those invigorating forces."

Mitchell Manicca, Billye Cabot and Matthew MacVittie of the Seward House Historical Museum in Auburn, New York, will talk about William Seward and the purchase of Alaska at the meeting of the Cook Inlet Historical Society, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15, at the Anchorage Museum. The event is free. Use the doors on Seventh Avenue.

The delegation will also attend Alaska Day ceremonies in Seward.

A tale of two days

Alaska Day is a state holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States on Oct. 18, 1867. Because Oct. 18 falls on a Sunday this year, the holiday will be taken by state employees on Oct. 19. Seward's Day, also a state holiday, commemorates the signing of the treaty to purchase Russian claims in North America, signed March 30, 1867. It is observed on the last Monday in March.

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