N.Y. school celebrates Seward's birthday

Lincoln's secretary of state famous for purchase of Alaska

November 11, 2001|By Alan Wechsler | Alan Wechsler,ALBANY TIMES UNION

SCHENECTADY. N.Y. - As a student at Union College, William Henry Seward was hardly a star pupil. Not at first, anyway.

During his sophomore year here his grades were only average. His fellow students made fun of him for wearing out-of-date and shabby suits.

And in 1820, he was fined $15 for missing church (almost as much as the $20 yearly tuition).

But it was not for his three years at the college that Seward is known. The secretary of state under President Abraham Lincoln is most famous for buying Alaska from Russia (derided at the time as "Seward's folly"). And historians say Seward had an even more important role as Lincoln's right-hand man, persuading Britain to keep out of the Civil War and pushing to improve rights for slaves, prisoners and the insane.

For the next two months at the Nott Memorial, Union will offer a free exhibit celebrating Seward's 200th birthday.

Statue planned

Union, a liberal arts school with 2,000 students, has always been proud of Seward, one of the most famous alumni (along with President Chester A. Arthur). Seward Place defines one of the campus borders, and a number of alumni are trying to raise $100,000 to build a life-size statue of Seward to be installed on the street. Last spring, Union staff decided he would be the perfect subject of an exhibit.

"Seward was an incredible statesman and visionary," said Rachel Seligman, director of the Mandeville Gallery, who helped put the show together. "We hope people will find this exhibit enlightening."

Jeremy Dibbell, 19, a political science major at Union, has been involved in the project since last spring. Under the aptly named "Seward Fellowship" offered to several Union students, he is writing a thesis on the man.

"He was such a progressive guy," he said. "It's really interesting to look at the stance at his time. People forget he was governor of New York, and he advocated a lot of politics in the state that were very unpopular."

The exhibit is made up of Union's own Seward memorabilia, generously supplemented with items borrowed from the Seward House, a museum of the Seward family in Auburn, and other collectors.

An offer to Lincoln

On display is the 13-inch Bowie knife used in the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Seward in 1865 (the same conspiracy that killed Lincoln), copies of his most famous speeches, original editions of newspaper stories about the assassination and letters written by Seward, including one famous missive he sent to Lincoln soon after he took office.

Seward, under the belief Lincoln was doing little while in office, arrogantly suggested that he would be happy to take on the tasks of the presidency if Lincoln felt ill-equipped. Lincoln declined.

Seward was born in the town of Florida, in Montgomery County. He started Union at age 15, showing enough aptitude to enroll as a sophomore. He left for Georgia a year later, after the elder Seward refused to pay for the new clothes Seward bought to keep from being the butt of jokes.

Seward later returned to Union, where he became an earnest student and earned a Phi Beta Kappa key. He graduated in 1820.

After earning a law degree, Seward entered politics. He served terms as governor of New York and in the U.S. Senate. In 1860, he lost the Republican nomination to Lincoln. Not a sore loser, he campaigned for Lincoln and was named secretary of state when Lincoln won.

The assassination attempt occurred while Seward was bedridden from a fall. A man named Lewis Powell stabbed Seward deeply. His son, Fred, also was stabbed, and others were injured, but no one died, and Powell was captured and hanged.

After his political career, Seward returned to Auburn. He later traveled to Mexico and Alaska, and then on a year-long, round-the-world journey before dying Oct. 10, 1872 at the age of 71.

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