10 Resolute Facts About William Seward

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Abraham Lincoln's most trusted advisor may have also been the most divisive politician of his time. William Henry Seward (1801-1872) had an incredible career that took him from the Governor's Mansion in Albany to the White House Cabinet Room. Along the way, he made countless enemies—one of whom almost sliced his face off. Yet Seward's admirers were just as plentiful. A gifted statesman, he was a driving force behind emancipation, school reform, and, most famously, the Alaska purchase.

1. He attended the first national political convention in U.S. history.

Third parties are a storied tradition in America. The first of any real consequence was the short-lived Anti-Masonic Party, which—as the name implies—sought to abolish the secretive fraternal order known as Freemasonry. Founded in 1828, the party had no difficulty attracting followers—many of whom hated America's most famous Freemason, Andrew Jackson.

Enter William Seward. When the lawyer, who hailed from the town of Florida, New York, relocated 200 miles upstate to Auburn in 1822, he soon got involved with the local Anti-Masonic scene. In 1828, the party nominated him for a Congressional seat. He declined the offer, but remained active with the group.

In 1830, Seward became a State Senator for the Anti-Masonic Party. That same year, he helped make history: On September 11, he and 95 other Anti-Mason delegates gathered in Philadelphia. This week-long event was the first national convention to ever be orchestrated by an American political party.

2. While governor, he took a stand for education.

Once the Anti-Masonic party started to fade, Seward joined an upstart group called the Whigs, and was elected Governor of New York on that party's ticket in 1838. But despite being the state's most prominent Whig, he didn't always agree with his party colleagues. Down in New York City, a powerful demographic was on the rise. Irish immigrants had been arriving in droves since 1816. Their influx prompted opposite reactions from the two major parties. While Democrats courted the Irish vote, most Whigs denounced them.

Governor Seward refused to play ball. He frequently sat down with immigrant leaders and even took it upon himself to champion one of their causes. At the time, most Irish-American children didn't receive any formal education. This was partly because public schools were run by the aptly-named Public School Society (PSS). As a mostly Protestant-run organization, it insisted that the King James Bible be used as a teaching tool. Since Catholic parents found this blasphemous, they often kept their kids out of school altogether.

To solve the problem, Seward proposed creating new Catholic schools—with some funding from the state. "The children of foreigners," he told the legislature in 1840, "… are too often deprived of the advantages of our system … I do not hesitate, therefore, to recommend the establishment of schools in which they may be instructed by teachers speaking the same language with themselves and professing the same faith."

Immediately, there was a backlash. Nativists were disgusted by the idea, and their newspapers slammed it with vigor. Realizing he'd have to compromise, the Governor threw his support behind a compromise drawn up by New York Secretary of State (and Superintendent of Common Schools) John C. Spencer. The bill, sponsored in the legislature by Democrat William Maclay in 1842, would would turn every Big Apple neighborhood into a separate school district whose constituents could elect their own trustees—thus giving Catholic parents more of a voice. State Democrats barely passed the bill, and Governor Seward was more than happy to sign it into law on April 11, 1842. Little did he know that this minor victory would cost him big-time one day …

3. He devised an expansionist bird poop law (that's still on the books).

In 1849, Seward was elected to the U.S. Senate where he represented the Empire State (a position he held until 1861). On Capitol Hill, the man's passionate anti-slavery speeches attracted national attention. But that wasn't the only issue on his mind: Like many Americans in those days, William Henry Seward spent a lot of time worrying about bird feces.

Dried avian poop, or guano, was a hot commodity in the time before artificial fertilizers. But grade-A bird poo was also quite expensive. The most nutrient-rich guano available came from Peru, where Britain held the exclusive right to export it. As such, merchants from the UK could demand top dollar for their droppings.

To end Britain's fecal monopoly, Seward introduced the Guano Islands Act of 1856. On August 18, it became law—and remains so today. Under this act, U.S. citizens are allowed to claim any guano-covered "rock, island, or key" for America (provided, of course, that nobody lives there and it doesn't "fall within the jurisdiction of any government"). So far, the Act has been responsible for turning more than 100 islands into U.S. territories. Such is the power of poop.

4. His Auburn home was part of the Underground Railroad.

Exactly how many fugitives traveled through the Seward house is unknown. Still, the place was apparently a well-regarded stop. According to an 1891 article in the Auburn Herald, "It is said that the old kitchen was one of the most popular stations of the Underground Railroad, and that many a poor slave who fled by this route to Canada carried to his grave the remembrance of its warmth and cheer."

Not every guest had a pleasant experience there, though. In 1855, an unlucky traveler was bitten by the family bulldog, Watch. "I am against extending suffrage to dogs," Seward noted after the fact.

5. Seward once sold a plot of land to Harriet Tubman.

Seward and Tubman met in the early 1850s. Born a slave, she'd run away from her masters in 1849. From then on, Tubman made it her life's mission to liberate those still in chains. Over a 10-year period, she helped free over 300 African Americans through the Underground Railroad. "Excepting John Brown," Frederick Douglass once said, "… I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman]."

The second half of her life was mostly spent in Auburn. Here, Seward—illegally—offered her a two-story house and seven acres of land. Tubman bought the property for $1200 in 1859. She and Seward remained friends until the end of his days. When Tubman married Nelson Davis (another ex-slave) in Auburn on March 18, 1869, Seward attended the wedding.

6. In 1860, Abe Lincoln upset Seward to clinch the GOP presidential nomination.

Almost nobody saw this coming. At the time, Lincoln was a relative unknown. Conversely, Senator Seward had (after joining the GOP in 1855) emerged as one of America's most famous Republicans. Most newspapers therefore assumed that he was a shoe-in for the party's presidential nomination in 1860. Confident in his chances, Seward embarked upon a lengthy trip to Europe in 1859. Across the pond, kings, queens, and dukes greeted him with open arms as the presumptive next president of the United States.

So how did he lose the nomination? One of Seward's biggest liabilities was his own anti-slavery rhetoric. After all, this was the man who had said that freedom and slavery were in "irrepressible conflict" as recently as December 1859. With such an attitude, many Republicans feared that Seward couldn't win more moderate states like Illinois and Pennsylvania. Moreover, his pandering to immigrants alienated the Republicans who had recently joined from the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings. Over in Europe, Seward could do little to dissipate these concerns back home.

Nevertheless, his self-assurance was palatable. As the Republican National Convention unfolded in Chicago, Seward wiled away at his Auburn house with some friends, all of whom anxiously read telegrams from supporters in the Windy City. Outside, a cannon lay in wait—ready to fire off a celebratory ball or two.

The first few dispatches seemed promising. "Everything indicates your nomination today sure," one telegram said. Then, without warning, his candidacy unraveled. Seward failed to gain the necessary 233 delegates during the first ballot. Two ballots later, Abraham Lincoln became the official nominee. Seward was devastated, but—to his credit—he campaigned vigorously for his fellow Republican during the general election.

7. He helped revise Lincoln's first inaugural address.

Upon completing his first draft of the speech, the president asked Seward to take a look at it. Honest Abe couldn't have picked a more thorough editor. In a point-by-point breakdown of the address, Seward came up with more than 50 suggestions. Overall, the Senator felt that Lincoln's tone was both partisan and hostile.

At Seward's request, the president deleted two paragraphs. He also softened his language—referring, for example, to southerners who'd besieged Union property as "revolutionary" rather than "treasonable." Lincoln gave the address on March 4, 1861. One day later, the Senate confirmed Seward as his Secretary of State.

8. Mrs. Lincoln strongly disliked him.

By day, the President and his Secretary of State saw a lot of each other at cabinet meetings. After working hours, Lincoln could often be found relaxing at Seward's mansion, located in D.C.'s Lafayette Square neighborhood. In her book Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin wrote that "Between official meetings and private get-togethers, Lincoln spent more time with Seward in the first year of his presidency than with anyone else, including his family."

This fact was not lost on Mary Todd Lincoln. The First Lady deeply resented Seward, whom she called a "dirty abolition sneak." Mrs. Lincoln couldn't even bear the sight of Seward's mansion and instructed her coachman to avoid driving past it.

9. An associate of John Wilkes Booth almost killed him.

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865—but he wasn't the only person marked for death that night.

John Wilkes Booth wanted the president's murder to be the centerpiece of a bloodbath that the North would never forget. Before the Civil War had ended, he and his co-conspirators had tried to kidnap Lincoln on March 17, 1865. That plan fell through and, less than a month later, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.

With the Confederacy defeated, Booth's team decided that the time had come for a more drastic measure. Their new plan called for three simultaneous assassinations. While Booth shot Lincoln, a German immigrant named George Atzerodt would murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and southern veteran Lewis Powell would kill Secretary Seward.

Of the three targets, Seward looked most vulnerable. That's because, on April 5, he'd been involved in an ugly carriage accident. Thrown from the vehicle, Seward ended up breaking an arm and his jaw. On April 14, he was still bed-ridden at his Lafayette Square mansion.

At around 10:30 in the evening, Powell knocked on the front door. When he was greeted by Seward's waiter, George Bell, Powell introduced himself as a messenger from Seward's doctor—but the servant didn't buy it. Giving up the charade, Powell pushed Bell aside and marched upstairs. Before he could get to the bedroom, Powell encountered Seward's son, Frederick. After an argument, he aimed his pistol at Frederick. The gun didn't work, so Powell proceeded to bludgeon the young man's head with it.

Over the next few minutes, Powell wounded two of Seward's other children—Augustus and Fanny—along with the Secretary's bodyguard, George Robinson. Then, he arrived at Seward's bedside. Drawing his bowie knife, Powell slashed away at the Secretary of State. Repeatedly, the blade was plunged into Seward's face and neck until—at last—Powell was pulled away by Robinson and Augustus and the attacker raced off into the night.

Astonishingly, Seward managed to survive. In one of history's most ironic twists, it was the metal brace around his jaw—which had been put there after the carriage accident—that protected his jugular vein. As for Powell, he was swiftly arrested. Along with three co-conspirators, the schemer was hanged on July 7, 1865.

10. There's a long-standing myth about Seward and the Alaska Purchase.

Atzerodt (who was also executed for his involvement with Booth's scheme) never even tried to assassinate Andrew Johnson. With Lincoln gone, Johnson became America's 17th president. Under the new administration, Seward remained Secretary of State—and it was during these years that he negotiated America's acquisition of Alaska.

In March 1867, Seward discussed the terms with Edouard de Stoeckl, Russia's Minister to the United States. By the end of the month, they'd agreed on a $7.2 million price tag—which works out to roughly two cents per acre. Not a bad deal.

Today, it's often claimed that the decision to purchase Alaska was deeply unpopular. Moreover, the American press is said to have immediately balked at Russia's multimillion-dollar fee and nicknamed the territory "Seward's Folly," or "Seward's Ice Box."

But that's a myth. According to Seward biographer Walter Stahr, most newspapers praised the decision. "[It] is of the highest importance to the whole country," declared the Daily Alta California, "… that the territory should be consolidated as soon as possible." The New York Times and Chicago Tribune concurred, as did the National Republican, which called Alaska's purchase "the greatest diplomatic achievement of the age.'

Seward himself got to see the future state in all its glory during the summer of 1869. By then, he'd retired from politics altogether and dedicated his remaining years to travel and family. On October 10, 1872, he passed away in his Auburn home.

This list was republished in 2019.

14 Things You Might Not Have Known About James K. Polk

Matthew Brady/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Getty Images

James K. Polk may have served just one term, but he was one of history’s most consequential U.S. presidents. Polish up on Young Hickory, America's 11th Commander in Chief.

1. James K. Polk had surgery to remove urinary bladder stones when he was 16.

Born on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the oldest of 10 children born to Samuel Polk, a farmer and surveyor, and his wife, Jane. When James was 10, the family moved to Tennessee and settled on a farm in Maury County. As a child, James was too ill to attend formal school; just before he turned 17, he had urinary bladder stones surgically removed by Ephraim McDowell, a prominent Kentucky surgeon. Anesthesia wasn’t available at that time, so the future president reportedly dulled the pain with brandy. The surgery allowed the formerly ill Polk to attend formal schooling for the first time. He entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore after just 2.5 years of formal schooling. According to Britannica, "as a graduating senior in 1818 he was the Latin salutatorian of his class—a preeminent scholar in both the classics and mathematics." After graduation, he returned to Tennessee to study law and eventually opened up his own practice.

2. James K. Polk won a seat on the Tennessee Legislature at 27, and the U.S. House of Representatives at 29.

During his time in the state legislature, he met—and befriended—future president Andrew Jackson. He also began courting his future wife, Sarah Childress. The daughter of a prominent planter, she had been educated at the prestigious Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, and was an eager and active participant in his political campaigns. Polk and Sarah married in 1824. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was speaker of the House from 1835 until he left in 1839 to become governor of Tennessee.

3. James K. Polk's nomination for president surprised everyone—including himself.

Months before the democratic national convention of 1844, Polk was at a low point. He had just lost his bid to be re-elected governor of Tennessee (he had been voted out of office in 1841 and tried—and failed—to be elected again in 1843). But when the delegates at the convention couldn’t agree on a nominee—the party was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass—they eventually decided to compromise by picking a “dark horse” candidate: Polk.

4. Everyone thought James K. Polk would lose his bid for the presidency.

Despite being a seven-time congressman, a former Speaker of the House, and an ex-governor, Polk was a relative nobody. His opponent Henry Clay lamented that Democrats had failed to choose someone “more worthy of a contest.” Despite the doubts, Polk won the popular vote by nearly 40,000 and the Electoral College 170-105.

5. During James K. Polk's White House "office hours," any American could stop by.

During Polk’s day, anybody was permitted to visit the White House for “office hours.” For two days every week, concerned citizens and lobbyists could drop by to vouch for a cause or ask for political favors. “Job seekers were the worst, in Polk’s view, and he found their incessant interruptions far more annoying than his Whig opponents in Congress,” writes Walter R. Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America.

6. James K. Polk was remarkably boring.

Polk had as much charisma as a puddle of mud. He was straight-laced, somber, and humorless. As Speaker, an editor in Washington called him the "most unpretending man, for his talents, this, or perhaps any country, has ever seen." Some attributed Polk’s boringness to his refusal to drink socially. The politician Sam Houston supposedly called him “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.” (Sarah banned hard liquor—and dancing—from the White House.)

7. James K. Polk worked 12 hour days and didn't take much time off from the presidency.

Polk regularly spent 12 hours a day at the office. He rarely left Washington, took advice, or delegated. When he wanted to lobby for policy, he’d visit Congress and do it himself. Over the course of his single term, Polk took a total of just 27 days off. “No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” Polk wrote.

8. James K. Polk acquired America's first patch of Pacific coastline.

In the early 19th century, the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by British and American settlers. But as the century progressed, Americans began to outnumber the British, and they increasingly felt like the rightful owners of the “Oregon Country.” Thankfully, neither country was interested in battling over the land. In 1846, Polk and the British drew a border at the 49th parallel (with some adjustment for Vancouver Island)—what is now Washington State’s boundary with Canada. With that, the United States obtained its first uncontested patch of Pacific coastline.

9. James K. Polk waged a controversial—and consequential—war with Mexico.

In the 1840s, Mexico’s border encompassed California, the American southwest, and even parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk wanted this land. In 1845, he offered to buy some disputed territory near the Texas-Mexico border, as well as land in California; when Mexico refused, Polk sent troops into the disputed territory. Mexico retaliated. Polk then requested Congress to declare war. His critics (including a young Abraham Lincoln) complained that Polk had deliberately provoked Mexico. Whatever Polk’s motivations, the United States lost 13,000 men and approximately $100 million in the ensuing war—but succeeded in taking one-third of Mexico’s land.

10. James K. Polk is the reason the United States stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In the course of just one term, Polk oversaw one of the greatest territorial expansions of any president—an increase of 1.2 million square miles. His administration extended the United States boundary to the Pacific Ocean and laid the groundwork for states such as California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.

11. James K. Polk's ambivalence toward the issue of slavery may have sparked the Civil War.

When Polk’s administration began pushing westward, debate raged over how these new territories could alter the power balance between free and slave states. Polk, who considered slavery a side issue, refused to give the rancor much time or attention. (No doubt because of his own relationship with slavery. He owned more than 20 enslaved people and brought them to the White House.) Polk’s ambivalence helped sow so much discord that historians now consider his rapid expansion westward as the first steps toward the Civil War.

12. James K. Polk signed bills that reshaped Washington, D.C.

Polk accomplished a lot in just four years. During his tenure, he signed the Smithsonian Institution into law. He was instrumental to the construction of the Washington Monument and helped establish the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He also re-established an independent U.S. Treasury, which was partly intended to reduce the role of speculation in the economy.

13. James K. Polk's administration introduced Americans to the postage stamp.

One of Polk’s unofficial campaign managers was a Nosferatu-lookalike named Cave Johnson, who Polk rewarded with a job as Postmaster General. It was a tough gig. The post office’s budget was swimming in red ink. (At the time, mail recipients paid postage: If a mail carrier failed to find a recipient, no money was made. This happened a lot.) Johnson fixed the financial problem by introducing the prepaid postage stamp, which flipped the responsibility of paying to senders. According to historian C. L. Grant, in 1845, Johnson estimated that the department would have a deficit of over a million dollars. By the time he left that was down to $30,000.

14. The location of James K. Polk's grave is causing a stir in Tennessee.

Polk died, likely of cholera, in 1849, just months after leaving office. Because he died of an infectious disease, the president was hastily buried in a city cemetery near the outskirts of Nashville. Months later, he was re-interred near his Nashville mansion, Polk Place. In 1893, his tomb was moved again to the state Capitol grounds. Today, Tennessee legislators are actively debating whether to move Polk’s bones a fourth time, this time to his old family home in Columbia, Tennessee.

10 Complicated Facts About Shaft

Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).
Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).
MGM

On July 2, 1971, moviegoers caught their first glimpse of John Shaft, the "black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks." Today, Shaft is considered one of the grandfathers of the blaxploitation genre—and it’s got one of the most recognizable soundtracks of all time. While Samuel L. Jackson has taken on the role for a new generation here are some interesting facts about the original film's creation and release. If you picked up on why Shaft and his associates call everyone "mother," you’re smarter than at least one unfortunate reporter.

1. A white newspaper reporter created Shaft.

John Shaft made his debut in Shaft, a novel by Ernest Tidyman. Tidyman was a reporter for The Cleveland News, The New York Post, and The New York Times before he began writing the Shaft series, which included seven detective stories. Along with John D.F. Black, he adapted his first Shaft book into the screenplay for the first film. He would later go on to write the screenplays for The French Connection (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973) as well as Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and the Shaft TV series (1973-1974). His work earned him an NAACP Image Award.

2. The studio wanted to shoot Shaft in Los Angeles.

Shaft was filmed entirely in New York City, which is clearly illustrated by the shots of Times Square and Greenwich Village. But it nearly wasn’t. In his autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, director Gordon Parks recalled how he received word from MGM mere hours before he was set to commence filming that he was to return to Los Angeles and shoot the movie there. Apparently it was a budgetary issue, but Parks wasn’t having it. He flew back to the West Coast and essentially told the studio heads he would quit if he couldn’t shoot in Manhattan. "It has to have the smell of New York," Parks insisted. The director won out, and his nightmare of a Harlem in Hollywood was never realized.

3. Shaft's mustache was non-negotiable.

The Los Angeles fiasco was behind him, but Parks immediately faced another scare when he spied his star, Richard Roundtree, heading to the bathroom with a towel and razor. Producer Joel Freeman had asked him to get rid of his soon-to-be legendary mustache. Parks told Roundtree emphatically, “Shave it off and you’re out of a job.” And with that, the ‘stache stayed in the picture.

4. Gordon Parks put his magazine in the movie.

In the movie’s opening sequence, Shaft stops to talk to a blind newsstand vendor. The magazine Essence is prominently displayed—and that’s no accident; Parks helped found the publication and served as its editorial director for its first three years in print.

5. Bumpy Jonas was based on a real mobster.

Shaft spends most of the movie tracking down a kidnapped girl. She’s the daughter of Harlem crime kingpin Bumpy Jonas, and Bumpy was not a Hollywood invention. He was based on Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, who ruled the Harlem crime scene from the 1930s through the 1960s. He had ties to the infamous murder of Dutch Schultz and mentored Frank Lucas, the notorious heroin dealer Denzel Washington played in American Gangster. Fictionalized versions of Johnson have also appeared in movies like The Cotton Club and Hoodlum.

6. Gordon Parks made a cameo.

Parks appears briefly in the montage of Shaft searching for Ben Buford. He’s the landlord with the pipe, who complains that he’s also looking for Buford, who owes him six months of rent.

7. Muhammad Ali's trainer had a bit role.

Drew Bundini Brown was a well-known member of Muhammad Ali’s entourage. He worked as an assistant trainer, and was famous for the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” bit he performed with Ali for the cameras. But when he wasn’t in Ali’s corner, Brown was busy racking up movie credits. His first was Shaft, where he played one of Bumpy Jonas's men.

8. "Skloot Insurance" was a nod to a crew member.

Shaft’s office is sandwiched in between Acme Imports Exports Inc. and Skloot Insurance. The latter is a reference to Steven P. Skloot, the movie’s unit production manager.

9. Parks had to explain what "shaft" and "mother" meant to a reporter.

When Parks flew to London to do publicity for the film, he ended up giving an impromptu vocabulary lesson. At a press screening, a confused British reporter asked the director what “shaft” really meant. Parks replied by smiling and sticking his middle finger up in the air, explaining that was “the most honest answer” he could give. But the reporter was persistent and followed up by asking why the characters called each other “mother.” Parks really didn’t know how to answer that one, but luckily, a woman in the audience swooped in. “You’ve heard of Smucker’s jam, young man,” she said. “Just snip out the first two letters and add an ‘f’ and you’ll get the message.”

10. Isaac Hayes was the first black composer to win an Oscar.

Isaac Hayes’s ubiquitous “Theme from Shaft” earned him a 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song. This win was historic for many reasons: For one, Hayes was the first black composer to score an Oscar. But he was also only the third African American to win an Oscar, period. Prior to 1973, the only other black Academy Award winners were Hattie McDaniel (Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind) and Sidney Poitier (Best Actor for Lilies of the Field).

This story has been updated for 2019.

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