Who was William Henry Seward? Why was he a target for Booth and other assassins? Born in rural New York in 1801, educated as a lawyer, Seward served four years in the state senate and four years as governor of New York. As governor, Seward was known for his progressive policies: improving the state's transportation system, extending public education to the children of immigrants, and defending the rights of slaves and free blacks. After he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1849, he established himself as the leading opponent of the extension of slavery, declaring that a "higher law than the Constitution" dedicated the national territories to freedom. Seward was not an abolitionist — he favored a gradual and voluntary end of slavery rather than immediate abolition — but he was prepared to take risks for freedom, such as sheltering fugitive slaves in his Auburn home.
Seward was an early member of the Republican Party and almost received the party's first presidential nomination. In late 1859 and early 1860, it seemed all but certain that he would be the Republican nominee and likely that he would be elected president. But after the surprising nomination of Lincoln, he mastered his disappointment and campaigned for his rival throughout the North, doing more to secure Lincoln's election than any other man. Soon after the election, Lincoln offered and Seward accepted the most prominent and powerful position in the cabinet: secretary of state. Seward was the central figure in the drama of the so-called secession winter, working with men from all sections toward an elusive compromise. Once the Civil War started, he skillfully managed the nation's foreign affairs, avoiding the foreign intervention that would have ensured that the Confederacy would become a separate nation. Seward's role was not limited to foreign policy: he was involved in almost every aspect of the war, an indispensable friend and adviser to Lincoln, who more than once refused to part with his controversial secretary.
Many viewed Seward as the real power in the administration. During the first months of the war, he was responsible for domestic security, and he was quoted as boasting that he could arrange any man's arrest just by ringing a little bell. In late 1862, when almost all the Republican senators urged Lincoln to remove Seward, one of their main charges was that he rather than the president set policy. William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist editor, argued in his paper that if voters gave Lincoln a second term, they would just be electing "Seward to be again acting president." John Wilkes Booth, who disagreed with Garrison on almost every issue, agreed with him about Seward, telling his sister Asia Booth Clark that "other brains [than Lincoln] rule the country."
Booth was a Shakespearean actor, the black sheep in a famous family of actors, and one of the plays he knew best was Julius Caesar. Booth viewed Lincoln as a tyrant like Caesar, and saw Seward as a cotyrant like Marc Antony. Brutus killed Caesar, but failed in his attempt to restore the republic, because he failed to kill Antony. Booth was determined that his version of the play would have a different ending: that he would kill both tyrants, Lincoln and Seward.
Seward survived Powell's knife, and the death of his friend and leader Lincoln, and the death soon thereafter of his own wife, who was shocked by the murderous attacks and drained by the family's nursing efforts. Seward not only lived; he continued to serve as America's secretary of state for another four years, negotiating the purchase of Alaska and securing its approval by a reluctant Congress, the accomplishment for which he is best known, and of which he was justifiably most proud. It was also during this period that Seward laid the foundation for the United States to become not merely a continental power but an international empire, working to acquire critical territory such as Panama and Hawaii. After his retirement, and in spite of his weak physical condition, he traveled to Alaska and around the world, before his death in late 1872.
From Seward by Walter Stahr. Copyright 2012 by Walter Stahr. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc. All Rights Reserved.