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Alaska Cruise History Lesson: Who was William H. Seward?

Alaska cruisers are probably already familiar with the Seward port, but who was the man behind the name? Turns out William H. Seward was the man who bought Alaska.

If you've cruised to Alaska, you're likely familiar with the Seward port, but who was the man behind the name? Here's everything you ever wanted to know about William H. Seward, and then some.

At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., there's an old check that looks much like any other old check: In one corner an engraving of a Roman centurion in classic contrapposto pose, in the other a seated Greek goddess. Along the top, "Treasury of the United States" in ornate Old English type. The check is dated August 1, 1868, and made out to one Edouard de Stoeckl, "Envoy Extraordinary." Toward the right-hand side, a big, bold stamp: PAID. The amount: $7.2 million.

A tidy sum in those days, but the check doesn't tell the whole story. It doesn't say, for instance, that Baron de Stoeckl was an envoy of Russian Czar Alexander II, or that the item for sale was the entire territory of Russian Alaska -- all 586,412 square miles of it. And while the check does bear the signature of one U.S. official, Treasury Secretary Francis Spinner, it shows no trace of the man who actually put the whole deal together, nearly single-handedly: Secretary of State William Henry Seward, or the man who bought Alaska.

Seward, Alaska

If you've cruised or otherwise traveled in Alaska, you know the name. Your ship may have docked in the port town of Seward, which incorporated under its namesake's name in 1912. The Seward Highway connects that town to Anchorage, Alaska's major city, 125 miles to the north. If you've visited the town of Haines in Southeast Alaska, you probably came ashore near Fort William H. Seward, established in 1898. If you've walked around downtown Juneau, you've probably ambled Seward Street, which runs right down to the waterfront. There's also a Seward Street in Sitka and another in Dillingham (near the Aleutian Islands), and if you walk one of them on the last Monday of March you'll be double-Sewarded, since that's Alaska's official Seward Day. Head way over to Nome on Alaska's northwest coast and you'll be on the Seward Peninsula, whose westernmost tip lies only 55 miles from the Russian mainland.

Following Seward's big 1868 purchase, eastern newspapers, and certain members of Congress dubbed it "Seward's Folly," a phrase that comprises the sum total of what the average American today probably knows of the man -- even though the riches that have flowed from Alaska over the past century and a half have proved it as wrong as wrong can be. William Seward was, demonstrably, a man who knew a good deal when he saw it, but he was also so much more: a political giant and visionary, the country's most persuasive diplomat, and a clear-headed statesman who played a major role in nearly every great issue during his 40-year career.

Let's jump back into history for a while, to find the man behind the name.

The Man Who Could've Been President

May 1860: With tensions high between North and South, delegates to the third Republican National Convention assembled in Chicago to choose their party's candidate for president, and the name on everyone's lips was William Seward.

Then the senior senator from New York, Seward had been born on May 16, 1801, during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. A noted lawyer, he began his political career at age 29, serving first in the New York legislature, then distinguishing himself during two terms as the state's governor. From the earliest days, he was, as fellow statesman Carl Schurz noted, "one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints." In the 1830s, he fought for progressive issues such as prison reform, court reform, universal education, immigrants' rights, and the abolition of imprisonment for debt. The single issue that guaranteed his place on the national stage was his radical opposition to slavery.

From 1835, when his travels in the south convinced him of the slave system's immorality, Seward devoted much of his considerable energy to its abolition. From 1848, when he began the first of two terms as a New York senator, he not only fought slavery in Congress and in the public realm, but went so far as to lend his rural New York home to the cause, sheltering fugitive slaves being transported north on the Underground Railroad. In the late 1850s, he provided a home near his own for Harriet Tubman, the former slave who had personally brought more than 300 former slaves to freedom.

In addition to opposing slavery on moral grounds (it "[has] perverted and corrupted the moral sense of mankind deeply, universally," he wrote), Seward's antagonism was based on his belief that the political and economic systems of South and North -- "the one resting on the basis of servile or slave labor, the other on the basis of voluntary labor of freemen" -- were incompatible within the framework of a truly united nation, and destined to collide. "It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces," he said during a speech in Rochester, New York, in October 1858, "and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation."

Such outspokenness, combined with his legislative successes (among others, helping bring California into the Union as a free rather than slave-holding state), made the senator anathema to the South, and to Northerners worried at rising tensions between the two regions. One Southern Congressman called him a traitor, a man Southerners "could neither consistently support, or even obey, should the nation elect him president." Another Southern gentleman published a circular that offered $50,000 for Seward's head.

This was the atmosphere Seward faced when he arrived in Chicago for the nominating convention. At the outset, despite opposition, Seward was the acknowledged front-runner, and confident of victory -- perhaps too confident. As balloting began, Seward came under stiff challenge from native son Abraham Lincoln, a onetime congressman who had risen to national prominence following his debates with Stephen Douglas in Illinois' 1858 senate race. It was a clash not so much of ideas as of images: the wood-chopping frontier lawyer Lincoln versus the slight, perpetually rumpled, professorial-looking Seward, with his well-oiled big-city machine. As balloting continued, Lincoln's supporters began to pack the convention hall, swaying undecided delegates with their enthusiasm. By the third ballot, his nomination was secured. Seward returned to New York bitter from his loss, but it would not be long before he was called back to serve the man who had bested him -- and to lend his aid during the nation's sorest trial.

A Republican Richelieu

In December 1860, Abraham Lincoln offered Seward -- "in view of his ability, his integrity, and his commanding influence" -- the post of Secretary of State in his new cabinet. The offer was not unexpected. Though Seward had lost the nomination in part because his anti-slavery ideas had appeared more radical, he and Lincoln in fact shared the same view: that slavery would eventually collapse not through coercion or force, but due to the inherent superiority of an economy founded on free labor and individual initiative. To the South, however, anything but overt capitulation to the protection and expansion of the slave system had become unacceptable. Across the region, Lincoln's presidential victory was taken as a call to arms.

On December 20, South Carolina became the first Southern state to formally secede from the Union, and before Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, six more had left to join the newly formed Confederate States of America. On April 12, Southern batteries opened fire on the island fortress of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, forcing the withdrawal of Union troops. The American Civil War had begun.

As Secretary of State, Seward became an integral part of Lincoln's wartime cabinet, acting as a close advisor and laboring to keep border states in the Union, to block official recognition of the Confederacy by other states and nations, and to prevent intervention in the conflict by England, France, and Spain. England was to be his greatest challenge, one he met with both subtle diplomacy and veiled threat.

Then the world's preeminent military and economic power, the British were eager to continue their relations with the profitable Southern cotton trade, reap the benefits of supplying Confederate shipping, and restore their political influence in the western hemisphere. Confederate envoys to Britain sought political legitimacy by arguing that their secession had been legal, precipitated by Northern violations of states' rights. Seward's countervailing argument branded the Confederacy as internal insurrectionists and thus without international rights, and argued that Britain -- whose empire extended from England, Scotland, and Ireland all the way across the world to Asia -- should be very wary of legitimizing insurrection. In the end, his machinations succeeded. After two tense years, the diplomatic tide turned decisively in the Union's favor after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation made slavery the central issue of the war -- and made British intervention on the side of the slave-holding South politically unappetizing.

The Third Assassination Target

Seward's central role in the Lincoln administration was such that the secretary nearly shared his president's sad fate. In April 1864, with the Confederacy in disarray and the war almost concluded, John Wilkes Booth conceived of a plot that would decapitate the government and, he hoped, throw the Union into a panic and allow the South to regroup.

On the night of April 14, while Booth made ready to assassinate Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, two other killers were making their way through Washington. George Azerodt, a German emigre and carriage repairman, was dispatched to the Kirkwood House to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, but lost his nerve and fled. The second man, a Confederate soldier named Lewis Powell, had more success. Approaching William Seward's three-story redbrick home near the White House, Powell gained entry by telling a servant he was delivering medicine for the secretary, who had been seriously injured in a carriage accident. After an altercation with Seward's son, Frederick, Powell burst into Seward's bedroom, stabbed the secretary repeatedly in the face and neck, then fled. He was captured the next day, and hanged on July 7, 1865, with three other conspirators, including Azerodt.

Though expected to die from his wounds, Seward lived and returned to his job that summer, now in the administration of Andrew Johnson.

"Seward's Folly"

With the Civil War ended, Seward's duties included reintegration and reconstruction of the Southern states, but the restoration of the Union also spurred him toward another course, which he had long favored: the expansion of U.S. interests beyond the contiguous states.

On the evening of March 29, 1867, Seward was relaxing at home when the Russian minister, Edouard de Stoeckl, was announced, bringing word that the Czar had authorized him to enter negotiations for the sale of Alaska. Wishing to rush the matter so that it could be discussed before the end of the current congressional session, Seward persuaded de Stoeckl to complete their negotiations that very night, and by 4am, a treaty was drawn up, signed, and ready for transmission to the Senate.

It was a good deal for both the U.S. and Russia, which had been among the few major powers to offer unconditional support to the Union during the Civil War. Russia, for its part, was relieved of a hard-to-defend possession while also creating a situation in which its rival, Great Britain, would feel its interests in western Canada squeezed between two strong American arms. For the U.S., the purchase was a chance to increase its national territory by a full 20 percent, and at a cost of less than 2 cents an acre.

Remarkably, the deal faced considerable public opposition, with critics in the press and congress deriding it as "Seward's folly." Horace Greeley, who just two years earlier had exhorted Americans to "Go West, young man," apparently considered Alaska a bit too far west. "It lay away at an inconvenient and a dangerous distance," he wrote in the New York Tribune. "The treaty had been secretly prepared, and signed and foisted upon the country at one o'clock in the morning. It was a dark deed done in the night."

In time, cooler heads prevailed. On April 9, the Senate ratified the treaty by a vote of 37 to 2, and the official transfer of the territory from Russia took place on October 18. Less than 20 years later, the discovery of gold started a flow of riches from Alaska that has not abated since -- and vindicated the man who had secured those riches for America.

North to Alaska, South to the Pacific, and Elsewhere

Seward was, as Carl Schurz had noted, a man ahead of his time. During his final years of public service, he not only secured Alaska, but also proposed that the U.S. build a canal across Panama to control shipping between the seas; purchase Iceland, Greenland, and the Caribbean islands of St. Thomas and St. John from Denmark to serve as strategic outposts; and urged a treaty with Hawaii as a first step toward annexation -- all ideas that were shot down in Congress, though some of them finally did come to fruition decades later, after Seward's death.

Thus, Alaska proved the real cap to Seward's career. Two years later, with the election of Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency, he retired and spent more than a third of the time left to him traveling -- among other places, to Alaska. He died on October 10, 1872, with his family around him. His last words? Not glorious, not historic, but straightforward and pragmatic, like the man himself: "Love one another."

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