William Seward was Secretary of State during and immediately following the American Civil War.  He worked closely with Charles Francis Adams in London and other key U.S. diplomats to ensure European neutrality during that conflict.  One notable incident in its early stages, known subsequently as the Trent Affair, occurred in 1861 when an American ship fired upon and then boarded a British mail ship to arrest two Confederate diplomats on board.  While this action was a huge morale builder for the North at that stage of the war, the British were furious about the violation of their ship’s neutrality rights.  With war a distinct possibility, Seward released the prisoners.  Then, in a stroke of brilliance, he used the opportunity to thank Great Britain for finally agreeing with the U.S. conception of neutrality rights, a point the two nations had disputed since the War of 1812. 

After the war, Seward pushed for the continued expansion of the United States, negotiating the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million.  While at the time the purchase was mocked as “Seward’s Folly” and seen as a giant “polar bear garden,” later discoveries of oil and gold made the action seem yet further evidence of Seward’s genius.


  • Donald, David Herbert. "We are Lincoln Men": Abraham Lincoln and His Friends. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
  • Kent, Zachary. William Seward: The Mastermind of the Alaska Purchase. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2001.
  • Taylor, John M. William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.