The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Biographer calls Seward's Folly a myth


Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

Walter Stahr visiting Seward High School with his 2012 historical biography, "Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man."

Except for a slight nod for the state holiday, Seward's Day, which was marked on Monday, March 31, most local residents probably know very little about William H. Seward, the influential U.S. Secretary of State who brokered the Alaska Purchase in 1867 and after whom their town, schools and main highway is named. Walter Stahr, who authored the 2012 biography, "Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man," attempted to end that folly when he shared his passion for William Seward with Kodiak High School students at a school-wide assembly Friday.

Stahr's speech opened with the botched assassination attempt on Seward's life in April 1865, which was part of a larger assassination plot by John Wilkes Booth that simultaneously targeted President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses S. Grant. Booth had hoped that the sudden removal of the leading figures in the federal government would spark a revival of the Confederacy.

As Secretary of State Seward lay upstairs in his bedroom, recovering from injuries sustained earlier in a serious carriage accident, assassin Lewis Powell stood outside the gate, waiting for the opportunity to rush inside and kill him, Stahr began. The story wouldn't have been funny except for the old fashioned ineptitude displayed.

As Seward's son Frederik tried to prevent the stranger from entering, arguing that he could give the medicine to his father himself, Powell grabbed his pistol, pointed it at him and shot, but the pistol misfired. When that failed, he clubbed him over the head with his gun, breaking it in the process. He then ran past Frederik who had fallen to the floor, and up the stairs throwing daughter Fannie to one side. Holding the poor bedridden Secretary of State down on his bed, he tried to stab him with his knife, but missed. He finally managed to slash Seward's face and neck, however, forever disfiguring him. Fannie's screams brought her brother Augustus running, who managed to pull Powell away, after which the frustrated assassin grumbled, "I'm mad. I'm mad," and headed down the hall, stopping along the way to attack Augustus, a soldier, a nurse and the state department messenger.

Sister Fannie discovered a pile of bloody clothes on the floor by the bed and screamed; "Oh God, he's dead, he's dead," whereby Seward opened his eyes and said, "I'm not dead. Summon a doctor."

Seward survived to continue in his position, even under the president who succeeded Lincoln following his untimely death, Andrew Johnson.

"If Powell had succeeded in killing Seward, we would probably now be sitting in Canada or Russia," Stahr told the students. Only a man like him would have had what it took to later pull off a thing such as the Alaska Purchase.

Stahl also described the extraordinary evening in which Secretary of State Seward negotiated the final details of the Alaska Purchase agreement with Russian officials. It was an extraordinary, cigar smoke-filled meeting that began at midnight and lasted until four the next morning.

Most American students learn to parrot the phrase "Seward's Folly" in discussing the Alaska purchase, with the "folly" referring to the common reaction to the decision whereby Russia agreed to sell Alaska, some million square miles of wild remote territory, considered mostly worthless, for a mere $7.2 million dollars or about two-cents per acre.

Only much later was the purchase of Alaska that Seward brokered, publically criticized and the phrase itself was invented a decade later, Stahr said. In fact, the agreement Seward brokered with Russian officials was quite popular then, and only a single critic, New York Tribune's Horace Greely, denounced the idea at the time. A settler named it "Seward's Folly" a decade later.

How else would the Secretary of State have been able to convince 37 U.S. senators, who never agreed on anything to ratify the agreement, with only two voting against it?

"I essentially think it was a myth," Stahr said.

At the time federal lawmakers were even more divided than they are today, he said. He offered an earlier example of U.S. Representative Preston Brooks, of North Carolina, savagely beating Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, an outspoken abolitionist, with a heavy cane he had purchased for that purpose in the Senate chambers, nearly killing him. That wasn't the only incidence of violence either, he said.

Seward loved Alaska and had the lofty vision that it would one day be settled and developed by Americans, and its many natural resources utilized as he had seen happen during his lifetime in western states like Ohio, Stahr said. Seward visited Sitka, the largest town in Alaska at the time, and boasted that in those three days he met all of its inhabitants and knew everything there was to know about the place. He was taken north of there by some Native Alaskans to see an eclipse, and returned to Washington D.C. with what would become his prize souvenirs of the trip – a kayak and a living bald eagle.

Seward predicted correctly that one day Americans would flock to Alaska during the summer times to see its many sights. But were he to return today, Seward would probably be surprised to discover how small Alaska's population would still be so many years later, and also by the fact that one can't easily drive to British Columbia from Alaska today, and that it is now a part of Canada.


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