Today in History, January 10: 1861 – New York Senator William Seward accepts President Lincoln’s offer to assume the duties of Secretary of State. Seward had been a very successful politician, serving as NY Governor in addition to the Senate. He was the front runner Republican nominee for President in 1860, but late in the game the party decided that Lincoln was a safer candidate due to Seward’s outspoken anti-slavery views. Although he accepted the offer for Secretary of State, the experienced, well-educated Seward was initially condescending towards the country lawyer from Illinois. In fact, one of his first acts as a Cabinet member was to suggest, in a manner that he thought Lincoln would not understand, a co-Presidency with him calling the shots. Lincoln, of course, declined. In the coming months of working together, Seward’s opinion of his boss changed and the two became close friends. Seward could walk into the White House any time, and Lincoln often strode to Seward’s home. In “Team of Rivals”, Doris Kearns Goodwin described how Lincoln chose his former rivals as Cabinet members and won their respect, utilizing their skills for the nation.
Seward’s closeness to the President won him many enemies jealous of his power in the government, and when Republican Senators tried to depose him, Lincoln showed his political mastery in retaining him. On the night Lincoln was assassinated, one of Booth’s co-conspirators attempted to assassinate Seward, who was bed-ridden recovering from a carriage accident. Several people in Seward’s house were injured in the brutal attack, and Seward was stabbed. Secretary of War Stanton and others were hesitant to tell Seward of Lincoln’s death, fearing it would impact him and prevent his recovery. He did recover, and resumed his post. In 1867 he pushed through the purchase of Alaska from Russia. His detractors labeled the purchase “Seward’s Folly”. History, of course, would prove William Seward’s wisdom in that and many other respects.