Journals 9.1 – Seward’s Travels Around the World (Part 1)


Niagara Falls, painted by William Morris Hunt in 1878

William H. Seward’s Travels Around the World was published posthumously in 1873 by D. Appleton & Company, New York. Of all the journal writers I have explored so far he was the most famous, although his fame was not as a result of his writing.

Had history taken a different turn, Seward could well have been the 16th President of the United States of America. A Governor of New York from 1839-1842, Seward stood for leadership of the Republican Party against Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and for a time appeared to be the favourite. However, Seward was a principled man and campaigned vocally against slavery. This, along with other unpopular views, denied him the level of support he needed to win the leadership, and Lincoln became the leader of the party instead. Subsequently, with Seward’s support in campaigning, Lincoln was elected President, and appointed Seward as Secretary of State in 1861. Seward’s political career is beyond the scope of this article, and came to an end with his somewhat reluctant retirement in 1869.

Seward soon became bored with life outside of politics and determined to travel around the USA. Then, in 1870, he formulated plans for a more ambitious journey: a voyage around the world. Accompanying him on his trip would be his adopted daughter, Olive Risley Seward, and her sister. The former was tasked with writing up Seward’s notes along the way. Other friends and family accompanied them for portions of the journey.

The journal runs to over 700 pages and is full of a wealth of valuable historical information. For the purposes of this article I will be looking at the first section of Seward’s travels: his departure from America and journey through Japan and China. This will avoid giving a cursory treatment to material that deserves a more detailed exploration, without the article becoming so large as to be still running at Christmas! At some point in future I may return to the journal to look at the rest of Seward’s trip, but I do suggest purchasing a copy of the book if possible to read it for yourself. If you are unable to track down an original copy, it can be read online at

Seward’s journey began on 9th August, 1870. His journal begins with the words ‘Every study must have a beginning and an end. These notes begin at Mr. Seward’s embowered home, whence our journey will begin, and they will end here, where, with God’s blessing, the journey will end.’

A thousand neighbors and friends are gathered around, whose parting words are made more touching by the fears and anxieties which they express concerning Mr. Seward’s impaired strength. His resolute nature suggests the encouragement they need: “Travel improves health instead of exhausting it.” “The journey, though long, is now made easy by steam on land and sea.” “When I come back, remember to meet me at the eastern door of the railway-station, though we part at the western one.”

Before departing for Asia, Seward travelled through a few important locations in America, including Niagara falls. The world’s first railway suspension bridge had been built there in 1855, but Seward was interested to see another bridge that had recently been constructed.

We see, at Niagara, for the first time, the new bridge which has been built just below the great cataract. Like the old one, it is graceful enough; but, “insatiate” bridge-makers, “could not one suffice?” George P. Marsh is right. Civilization is a constant warfare of man against Nature. Nature, however, was made for man, not man for Nature.

This refers to the First Falls View Suspension Bridge, which was opened on 2nd January 1869, a year before Seward’s visit. It would not last for many years, destroyed in a storm in 1889. George P. Marsh, referred to in the above quote, was a prominent diplomat with conservationist views, perhaps the first high-profile environmentalist in the USA.

Next on the itinerary was Canada, which gave Seward and opportunity to air his views on the ‘small, feeble, and isolated state’.

Canada, though no less fertile, is more thinly inhabited than the American shore. Immigration obeys political instincts. It prefers the established equality and social security of the United States. It will be long before either Canada or Mexico can realize its invigorating power. This may seem hard, but it is clear that only one great nation can be built on one continent at one time. The remedy for both of those countries is the same — accession to the United States.

While Seward’s views suggesting Canada should become part of the USA might seem extraordinary today, it is important to look at the context: Canada had only gained independence from Britain three years before Seward’s visit, in 1867, so it was very much a country with an uncertain future. Also, the opportunities available to immigrants in the USA meant that there was something of an exodus southwards at the time, and by the time of Seward’s visit one sixth of the Canadian-born population had emigrated to the USA since the 1850s.

Crossing back into the USA, Seward met Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President, who was only in his second year as President. For Seward, the jury was out on this new President’s potential, despite his distinguished military and political history.

We meet here the President of the United States. His characteristic modesty has until now been a theme of universal praise. But mankind have always expected demonstration of power, pomp, or speech from their rulers. Will they excuse the want of it even in the great General of the Civil War?

Grant was sufficiently popular to be re-elected for a second term, and served as President until 1877. At Salt Lake City Seward met another President, the President of the Latter Day Saints Church and founder of the city, Brigham Young. Seward was most interested in Young’s polygamy.

Brigham Young’s manner toward his wives is respectful, and toward his children dignified and affectionate. In presenting them severally as they came in groups, with a kind smile for the particular mother, he spoke in this way: “This is our delicate little Lucy,” “This is our musical daughter,” “This is our son George, who has a mathematical genius,” and so on. At the end of the visit here, Brigham Young said to Mr. Seward: “You have seen eleven of the sixteen wives with whom I live, and nearly all of my forty-nine surviving children.”

“But,” said Mr. Seward, “you are represented as saying that you do not know how many wives you have.” The President explained that, besides the wives who are married for time, the Mormons believe in sealing other wives only for eternity, and, in regard to such women, he may have made the remark attributed to him.

Young had in fact ‘sealed for eternity’ many more wives than the sixteen he lived with (with whom he had fathered 56 children). During his lifetime he ‘sealed’ 55 wives. Although he might not have voiced his disapproval to Young, Seward was not convinced that the polygamous lifestyle was the right direction for mankind to progress.

Polygamy, not at first adopted by the Mormons, is an adventitious feature of their system. It was authorized by a revelation to Joseph Smith, which was posthumously published. The Church at first desired to suppress it, but it bore the requisite official attestation of the prophet, and therefore could not be rejected without shaking the foundation of the whole system. The apologies which they make for it are not altogether destitute of plausibility. It promised to stimulate population when the sect in a Territory, new and isolated, expected no accession by immigration, either foreign or domestic, except of European converts. More women than men came as such converts. Polygamy provided shelter and material comforts for supernumerary women who might otherwise fall into neglect, want, and possible infamy. So far it has not proved incompatible with the education and training of children in public schools, nor with the maintenance of order and tranquillity among the people. Time enough, however, has not elapsed, perhaps, nor are the conditions of the community sufficiently matured, fully to develop the evils of the institution. Marriage is not exclusively a matter of religious belief. It is a social institution. To ascertain the just and needful relation between the sexes in social life has been one of the experimental studies of mankind, from the earliest ages, in all countries. The marriage of one man with one woman, constituting what we call the family relation, is the result of that great study of civilization.

The second part of this article, in which Seward travels across the Pacific to Japan and has an audience with the Emperor, will follow in a few days.  You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the “follow” button on the right of the screen.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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11 Responses to Journals 9.1 – Seward’s Travels Around the World (Part 1)

  1. Enjoyed the journal. My wife’s ancestors were distant relatives of Sewards, but on a related note, manufactured Seward Trunks that were used for world travel. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A very fascinating window into the past. Seward seems quite a character.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Shirley Anne says:

    I found myself unable to stop reading this but I guess that is because I like history too!
    Shirley Anne x

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So glad his observations and predictions about Canada did not manifest! And I suppose one can understand why the man paid so much attention to the polygamy. Good cherry picking, pardon the pun, in your review. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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