With the Oscar-nominated movie “Lincoln” in theaters, Union College officials felt it was appropriate to pay tribute to alumnus William Henry Seward, one of the 16th president’s confidants.
Seward is probably best known for buying Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, but he played a crucial role in the Civil War. As secretary of state, he persuaded other countries not to give aid to the Southern states, according to Walter Stahr, author of the biography “Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man.”
“The key moment of the American Revolution was when France recognized the United States and promised aid. He knew if that happened again, the game would be up,” Stahr said Thursday during the keynote address in Union College’s Memorial Chapel. The event was part of Founders Day, which commemorates the 218th anniversary of the college’s charter.
Seward believed that the Confederate states would rejoin the Union quickly, at one point saying that the states were a “glorious constellation” that were bound together, according to Stahr. That was not the case as the war dragged on.
Seward wanted to take a more conciliatory tone against the South as opposed to others in Lincoln’s administration who wanted to punish harshly the states that seceded, according to Stahr.
Although the movie “Lincoln” takes some liberties with history for storytelling purposes, Stahr said it is accurate in depicting Seward as “meddler” in Lincoln’s administration and one of the few who had the time to listen to the president’s long-winded stories and jokes.
Stahr said Seward was a committed civil servant, who once said he wanted to remain in Washington if it were overrun by the rebels.
“If I fall here, let no kinsman or friend remove my dust to a more hospitable grave,” he said.
Following Lincoln’s assassination, Seward stayed on in the administration of President Andrew Johnson and defended him after he was impeached. Johnson had a falling-out with Congress because he did not support the Radical Reconstruction plan that created military districts to readmit the Southern states.
“If Congress can impeach a president because he’s unpopular or on trumped-up charges, we’re on the way to South America,” Stahr quoted Seward as saying.
Johnson was acquitted in the Senate by one vote and not removed from office.
Although the purchase of Alaska is remembered in history as “Seward’s Folly,” Stahr said newspaper editorials at the time rated it positively and the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty with Russia by a vote of 37-2.
Seward was one of the longest-serving secretaries of state at eight years. After he retired, he embarked on a world trip. He was increasingly addled and gradually lost the use of his hands and arms, according to Stahr.
“He relies on his servant for the most basic things in life — to light his cigar, to lift his wine glass,” he said.
He was working a book about his travels when he died in October 1872.
“He helped to lay the great foundations of a great empire — the American empire. He would be so proud to come back to Union College to see what you all are doing,” he said.
Stahr said Seward loved Union so much that he returned to graduate in January 1820 after briefly dropping out because of financial issues.
Mark L. Walsh, chairman of the Union College Board of Trustees, said the founding is about more than this physical place.
“It is about finding your place,” he said.
President Stephen C. Ainlay said the college has much to celebrate, including the completion of the largest capital campaign in school history at $250 million.
The college also presented the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award to James L. Iacketta, a music and band teacher in the Stillwater Central School District. He had been nominated by one of his former students, sophomore Samantha Griffiths, an electrical engineering and English double major.
Iacketta said he felt very honored and humbled by the award. “Good news is always welcome in the world of education,” he said.
Griffiths said Iacketta was adept at selecting a mix of classical and contemporary pieces.