William H. Seward Monument—it’s all about proportion

William H. Seward statue in Madison Square Park

William H. Seward was a towering figure in 19th-century politics. Serving at different times as a senator, New York governor, and secretary of state (under Abraham Lincoln), he is credited with blocking the European recognition of the Confederacy as well as negotiating the anti-slave trade treaty with Great Britain, among other notable achievements. He was the leading candidate for the Republican nomination in the 1860 presidential election. His vocal opposition to slavery and fierce pro-immigrant politics, however, cost him the nomination, which went to Abraham Lincoln. He is best known for his purchase of the Alaska territory from Russia for a bargain price of $7 million in 1867; the deal was mocked and ridiculed at the time as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox.”

On the same fateful night that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln, Seward was attacked in his home by a Booth conspirator named Lewis Powell. The assassins were planning to disable the entire executive branch of the US government by eliminating its senior members. Though Seward was stabbed three times and suffered severe wounds, he miraculously survived the encounter.

When William H. Seward died in 1872, it was clear to the American public that he deserved a monument. One year later, Randolph Rogers was commissioned to create a portrait of the revered statesmen. Among the subscribers who contributed to the creation of the monument were such notable figures as future US president General Ulysses S. Grant as well as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The statue (which was dedicated with the appropriate level of pageantry in 1876) depicts William Henry Seward seated and cross-legged in a large armchair. His mood is pensive while he holds a pen in one hand and a piece of parchment in the other, with books stacked beneath the armchair.

But herein lies the problem with the statue—a problem that gave rise to a persistent urban legend that cannot seem to go away . . .

Despite the fact that William H. Seward was a giant in political terms, his physical appearance didn’t match his status: he was a mere 5′ 6″. The monument, however, portrays him as a tall person. If he were to have stood up from his bronze chair, he would have been over six feet tall. But it so happens that Abraham Lincoln was a very tall man, and Randolph Rogers created Lincoln’s monument prior to working on the Seward statue. The following observation didn’t escape the prying eyes of the public and the press. A letter published in The New York Times in the early 1900s offered an explanation: in order to save the costs associated with the statue (at the request of the newspaper’s subscribers), Randolph Rogers simply took a preexisting Lincoln’s statue, decapitated it, and put Seward’s head on top! In a compliment to this theory, the body is assumed to be holding the Emancipation Declaration—further suggesting that it belongs to the 16th president of the Union.

Books under Seward’s chair

Seward’s son Frederick declared the story unfounded and absurd, as there had been no shortage of funds raised for the statue. Another point discrediting this theory is that it’s not an easy technical task to decapitate a statue and seamlessly replace it with another head.

Like many urban legends, the story—whether true or false—once started a life of its own and now refuses to die. In this particular case, a possible (if less exciting) explanation is that Randolph Rogers was perhaps just not the most original sculptor without a particularly good eye for proportion.

Location: southwest corner of Madison Square Park
Installed: 1876
Sculptor: Randolph Rogers

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