On this day, May 16, 1801, a leader in the anti-slavery movement, who survived an assassination attempt, and who is responsible for adding a massive refrigerator to the United States, is born. Who is he?
—His Youth In A Slave-Holding Family
William Seward was born into a slave-holding family. Seward’s father sent his slaves to school together with his own kids. William spent a lot of time with the family servants sitting in the kitchen listening to them tell stories. His fondness for them made him say he’d rather hang-out in the kitchen with the slaves than in his father’s classy front parlor.
Seward’s close relationship to his Father’s slaves shaped his views. One day Seward witnessed a neighbor abusing a slave, and it so horrified him that he decided to become an abolitionist. He wrote:
“I early came to the conclusion that something was wrong with slavery and that determined me to be an abolitionist.”
—-On The Public Stage Debating Slavery: A Higher Law Than The Constitution
Seward went to Union College, after graduation he became involved in New York politics, and was twice-elected as the Whig Governor of that state.
Seward took part in the heated debates of 1850 opposing compromises on the issue of slavery. Pro-slavery men argued their position on what they felt were constitutional grounds. Seward responded as follows,
“The Constitution devotes the domain of the union, to justice, to defense, to welfare, and to liberty. But there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purpose…But you answer, that the Constitution recognizes property in slaves. It would be sufficient, then, to reply, that this constitutional recognition must be void, because it is repugnant to the law of nature and of nations.”
Seward hoped for a peaceful ending of slavery, but southern pro-slavery people wrongly associated him with violent radicals while the violent radicals complained he was too compromising.
—-The Underground Railroad
In most cotton states it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, measures which were put in place in the hope that slaves would spend their lives in content remaining ignorant of the fact that there was freedom elsewhere. Many slaves, however, were unhappy with the life of mistreatment. A slave lived in constant fear that at any moment his master would sell him thus tearing him away him from his family – his parents, wife, and children – a horror which many slaves endured.
Anti-slavery people banded together to help slaves escape to Canada beyond the jurisdiction of American slave-laws, an effort which became known as the Underground Railway. Slaves traveled by night, fleeing the slave-catcher and his howling bloodhounds, aided by sympathizers. One of those sympathizers was William Seward.
I visited the Seward home in May of 2015. Seward’s house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The tour-guide took me to the basement of the home where there’s a room dedicated to housing slaves. As I went down the stairs I saw a sign that said,
“Stealing Freedom. The Seward Family and the Underground Railroad.”
It gave me chills. Seward housed people fleeing for their freedom, which had been stolen from them, and stationed guards outside to make sure the fugitives were protected.
Seward became Secretary of State under Lincoln and was violently attacked on the night Lincoln was assassinated as part of a larger conspiracy planned by Confederate sympathizers. I saw the blood stained clothes at his home. Seward survived the attack and served as Secretary of State under Johnson.
—-The Great American Refrigerator
Seward was responsible for the purchase of Alaska from Russia for two-cents per acre. People made fun of this move because most thought Alaska was a snow-covered wasteland. Therefore they called it, “Seward’s Folly.” Some Congressmen mockingly said Seward “added a refrigerator to the United States.” Seward gets the last laugh, however, since gold, coal, and other valuable deposits were discovered; plus, the fishing is amazing.
Seward eventually retired and went on a fifteen-month world tour. The Seward House Museum documents that,
“He returned home an old but satisfied elder statesman. Surrounded by his family he passed away in October of 1872 in his office.”
We will end our story with this line from William Seward:
“As a general truth, communities prosper and flourish, or droop and decline, in just the degree that they practice or neglect to practice the primary duties of justice and humanity.”
That’s from our birthday boy, William Seward, who was born on this day, May 16, 1801.