On this day in 1861, William Seward accepts President-elect Abraham Lincoln's invitation to become secretary of state. Seward became one of the most important members of Lincoln's cabinet and engineered the purchase of Alaska after the Civil War.
A native of New York, Seward taught school in the South before returning to New York and entering politics. He became governor in 1838 and began to articulate strong anti-slavery views. Seward entered the U.S. Senate in 1849 and burst onto the national scene during the debates surrounding the Compromise of 1850. He boldly proclaimed that slavery was doomed by a "higher law than the Constitution, the law of God." This became a catch phrase for abolitionists and Seward became known as a radical, belying his pragmatic tendencies.
Seward joined the Republican Party in the 1850s and appeared to be the leading candidate for president in 1860. However, the party went with Lincoln, feeling that he would draw more votes in the Midwest and border regions. Seward was initially reluctant to accept the position of secretary of state, as he still saw himself as the natural leader of the party and was reluctant to take a back seat to Lincoln. In fact, Seward underestimated Lincoln's political acumen. His relationship with the president was not particularly close, but they worked well together during the war.
Seward became one of the moderate voices in the Lincoln cabinet. His careful politicking helped to counter the public perception that the administration was dominated by radicals. Although he supported the end of slavery, Seward downplayed the effects of emancipation to gain support from Democrats and conservative Republicans during the presidential campaign of 1864.
The April 1865 assassination that killed Lincoln nearly resulted in Seward's death as well. Lewis Powell, an accomplice to John Wilkes Booth, stabbed Seward as he lay in bed recovering from a carriage accident. Seward survived, and after a summer convalescing, returned to the State Department. His final achievement came with the purchase of Alaska from the Russians in 1867. Although he considered it one of his greatest accomplishments, critics dubbed the territory "Mr. Seward's Ice Box." History would show that Seward's belief in the value of Alaska was astute.