William H. Seward

William H. Seward

Who was William Henry Seward?

William Henry Seward (1801–1872) was an American politician and renowned abolitionist. He graduated from Union College in Schenectady in 1820, and practiced law for some years. He ultimately merged his practice with colleague Richard Blatchford, into the firm which is today Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.

Seward served in the New York State Senate from 1831 to 1835 and as Governor of New York from 1838 to 1843. In 1849, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he became a leading anti-slavery politician.

Appointed as U.S. Secretary of State by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Seward led efforts to prevent foreign recognition of the Confederacy and to crack down on the Atlantic slave trade. After Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, Seward continued his tenure under Andrew Johnson until 1869.

As his last major act in the public sphere, he orchestrated the United States’ 1867 acquisition of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. Opposed by some as “Seward’s Folly” due to the unknown value of this new territory, the transaction was in fact generally supported by the American public. Alaska became a state in 1959, and its indigenous cultures were ultimately recognized with the cession of 44 million acres of federal land in 1971.

The William H. Seward Monument

The statue of William H. Seward, perhaps Madison Square Park’s best-known monument, was dedicated in 1876, and is said to be the first in the city to honor a New Yorker. More than 250 supporters, among them General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) and Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1843–1899), contributed to the monument’s initial cost of $25,000.

Sculpted by Randolph Rogers (1825–1892), the figure portrays Seward as a statesman seated in a Renaissance-style chair, one hand holding a parchment and the other a pen. The base of the statue was made from Italian Red Levante marble. This choice of material was less than ideal as it quickly absorbed the soot and ash from the city around it, in addition to marble being highly susceptible to erosion by acid rain.

Restoration of the Monument

By 1936, only 60 years later, the pedestal that Seward sits on had deteriorated so significantly that NYC Parks’ then-Supervising Engineer wrote to Allyn R. Jennings, chief aide to Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, stating that the marble “is hopelessly disintegrated and should be replaced with a granite pedestal.” 83 years later, Madison Square Park Conservancy honored this request.

In 2019, the Conservancy restored the Seward Monument as a part of a larger effort to maintain the Park for future generations. With the involvement of the Department of Art and Antiquities, NYC Parks, the Public Design Commission, and the Municipal Art Society, Madison Square Park Conservancy refurbished the base of the statue. Restoration of the original base was not possible, so the Conservancy selected Brazilian Arno granite—a red granite most similar in color to the Levante marble. Arno granite will stand the test of time, while honoring the statue’s original aesthetic.

Read the press release of the monument’s critical restoration of its base.