Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Web Property of the U.S. Department of State


Object Details

Unknown, after Matthew B. Brady (American, 1823-1896), Brady's National Photographic Art Gallery (Washington, D.C., established 1858)
North American
oil on canvas
Overall: 29 in x 24 1/4 in; 73.66 cm x 61.595 cm
According to an inventory of Mr. Brady's effects dated April 1873, this portrait was then on display in the reception room of the Brady Gallery in Washington. It was purchased by the Department of State from Mr. Brady on August 3, 1878. In a letter to the Department dated May 24, 1878, Mr. Brady wrote: ... This portrait is considered the most perfect likeness of the celebrated original, taken from life in this city [Washington], in the full fruition of his genius and great national renown, at a time fraught with great danger to this Republic! It has always been considered a standard likeness and extensively copied in Europe and this country for the purpose of engraving and lithographing.... Frederick William Seward, son of William H. Seward and Assistant Secretary of State 1861-1869 and 1877-1879, wrote to the Department on January 11, 1898: Mr. Brady made several photographs of my father. But one, taken just before or during the War, was considered the best likeness, and proved to be the one most satisfactory to the public. It was often copied and reproduced, and used for engravings and illustrations. I have been under the impression -- possibly a mistaken one -- that Mr. Brady had this photograph enlarged and made the basis of the portrait which the Department afterwards purchased from him. -- I do not remember to have heard the name of the artist who painted it, -- but his work was certainly done with spirit and skill...."[1] 1."The Secretaries of State: Portraits and Biographical Sketches" Department of State Publication 8921, Department of Foreign Service Series 162, Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs, 1978
Credit Line
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number


William Henry Seward (1801–1872) was born in Florida, New York. He graduated from Union College and began practicing law in Auburn, New York. He served in the New York Senate and was governor of New York before being elected to the U.S. Senate, where he became an opponent of slavery. Seward was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, but his antislavery speeches struck some party members as too radical. The party instead selected the more moderate Abraham Lincoln, whose victory in the general election led to the secession of states in the South and the formation of the Confederate States of America. With other political leaders, Seward tried to resolve the crisis during the winter of 1861 but was unsuccessful. 

Lincoln named his rival as secretary of state, and Seward became a loyal friend to Lincoln. As secretary, Seward was able to prevent recognition of the Confederacy by other nations, especially Britain, although a diplomatic crisis arose when the U.S. Navy arrested Confederate envoys headed for Europe. Since envoys were afforded diplomatic protections, especially during wartime, many feared that Britain might intervene in the conflict unless the envoys were released, which Seward did. Seward and the U.S. minister in London, Charles Francis Adams, the son of President John Quincy Adams, put an end to Britain’s building of ships for the Confederates after one of them, the Alabama, was launched to attack Union merchant and naval ships.

Immediately after the Confederate surrender, Seward was a target of the same conspiracy that assassinated Lincoln. He was attacked in his home, and his son Frederick, assistant secretary of state at the time, was seriously wounded, but both recovered.

Seward retained his position during the administration of Andrew Johnson. He is perhaps best known for his negotiations with Russia that led to the purchase of Alaska in 1867. His efforts to purchase the Danish West Indies (today the U.S. Virgin Islands) and other islands in the Caribbean were unsuccessful, but in 1867 he did force the French to withdraw from Mexico, where—with the United States distracted by the Civil War—they had established a new Mexican government under the Austrian archduke Maximilian, in 1864. Seward also negotiated the 1868 Burlingame-Seward Treaty with China that gave the United States favorable terms for trade and eased restrictions on Chinese immigration.

Seward was disappointed not to be named secretary of state in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, and he returned to Auburn.