A few words about Thanksgiving, and a few more about William Seward

William Seward

An undated photo of William Seward in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Thanksgiving as we know it today -- a national holiday, on a Thursday late in November -- has its origins in the Civil War when, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared* a national Thanksgiving Day. And he did so in a proclamation written by New York's William Seward.

Seward -- a Union College graduate** -- is a fascinating, important figure. He was a state Senator, the 12th governor of New York, a US Senator, and the Secretary of State for both Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. He was a Lincoln rival and then a great friend. He was connected to a New York political machine that twisted both arms and the law. He was an outspoken abolitionist, his home sheltered people escaping from slavery, and he was a friend of Harriet Tubman. He was stabbed, and his children injured, in an assassination attempt by a John Wilkes Booth co-conspirator. And, yes, he helped the United States acquire Alaska.

So Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to learn a little bit about William Seward. A clip from this 2012 New Yorker piece by Dorothy Wickenden that's worth reading -- it reviews a biography of Seward by Walter Stahr and recaps Seward's life and career:

Seward's devoted young friend Henry Adams enjoyed observing "the old fellow" at dinner "rolling out his grand broad ideas that would inspire a cow with statesmanship if she understood our language." He later wrote of Seward that it was difficult to tell "how much was nature and how much was mask." Seward was maligned alternately as an extremist and as a temporizer. He broke the law to help fugitive slaves, yet made concessions that he found personally unconscionable in order to preserve the Union. A man who literally bore the scars of a violently divided society nonetheless held on to a grandiose vision of American destiny and insured that the contours of a young nation were expanded. He was mocked for his boundless self-regard, but there was one man he came to admire even more.
When Lincoln returned from Virginia on the evening of Robert E. Lee's official surrender, April 9, 1865, he went directly to visit Seward, who was recuperating from the carriage accident. Frederick recalled that "the gas-lights were turned down low, and the house was still, every one moving softly, and speaking in whispers." Lincoln sat down on the bed. Seward, his face wrapped in bandages, whispered, " 'You are back from Richmond?' 'Yes,' said Lincoln, 'and I think we are near the end at last.'"

Lincoln was assassinated a week later, and Seward's family attacked. Seward would live another seven years.

See also this Mental Floss list that includes a bunch of odd or unusual details about Seward's career.

* It should be noted that the idea for a national Thanksgiving day had been promoted by Sarah Josepha Hale -- it was her argument that persuaded Lincoln.

** Seward Place in Schenectady is named for William Seward, as is the town of Seward in Schoharie County and the Seward Mountain in the Adirondacks.

The Scoop

For a decade All Over Albany was a place for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. It was kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who could help you find out what's up. AOA stopped publishing at the end of 2018.

Recently on All Over Albany

Thank you!

When we started AOA a decade ago we had no idea what was going to happen. And it turned out better than we could have... (more)

Let's stay in touch

This all feels like the last day of camp or something. And we're going to miss you all so much. But we'd like to stay... (more)

A few things I think about this place

Working on AOA over the past decade has been a life-changing experience for me and it's shaped the way I think about so many things.... (more)

Albany tightened its rules for shoveling snowy sidewalks last winter -- so how'd that work out?

If winter ever gets its act together and drops more snow on us, there will be sidewalks to shovel. And shortly after that, Albany will... (more)

Tea with Jack McEneny

Last week we were fortunate enough to spend a few minutes with Jack McEneny -- former state Assemblyman, unofficial Albany historian, and genuinely nice guy.... (more)

Recent Comments

My three year old son absolutely loving riding the train around Huck Finn's (Hoffman's) Playland this summer.

Thank you!

...has 27 comments, most recently from Ashley

Let's stay in touch

...has 4 comments, most recently from mg

A look inside 2 Judson Street

...has 3 comments, most recently from Diane (Agans) Boyle

Everything changes: Alicia Lea

...has 2 comments, most recently from Chaz Boyark

A few things I think about this place

...has 13 comments, most recently from Katherine