Early 1837

Seward’s letters to his first and best friend, Thurlow Weed, are an invaluable source for his biographer.  The letters survive, in the original, in the files at the University of Rochester.  I reviewed hundreds of the Seward-Weed letters myself; many others were reviewed and “transcribed” by my great research assistant Kristi Martin; others were printed by Frederick in his three-volume biography of his father.

I use quotes around “transcribed” because it is rare that one can transcribe a Seward letter.  His handwriting was awful, so that one reads a few words, guesses at a few others, sometimes cannot guess at all.  Frederick, in the letters he printed in his biography, would not only omit some family material, but would also edit his father’s words in other ways.  But Frederick can often read a word which I cannot, or make sense of a passage that seems senseless, so he cannot be discarded.

In early 1837, William Henry Seward was living and working as a land agent in Westfield, in the remote western part of New York.  He had his son Augustus, eleven years old, with him for company, but his wife Frances, son Frederick, and infant daughter Cornelia were two hundred miles away in Auburn.  On Wednesday January 11, Seward received a letter from his wife Frances telling him that Cornelia had small pox.  Seward described the events in a letter to Weed, dated January 16:

“I received a letter from my dear Frances on Wednesday night and in 42 hours Augustus and myself were with her, in time to witness unspeakable suffering, and to afford unavailing aid.  Our blessed infant lived until 10 o’clock on Saturday night, being the tenth day and having passed through the virulent stage of the disease and then sunk into the grave from mere exhaustion of her muscular strength. What a day was that which we spent in vain endeavoring to support by stimulating food and medicine the child whose eyes had been four days sealed with blindness that would probably have continued though the life we wished her to enjoy.  Marred, strained, and spoiled of every vestige of that beauty that graces infancy I resigned her to the grave with only the consolation that her spirit is fairer and purer now, than ever Saint or prophet presented himself at the judgment of God.”

Seward remained at home in Auburn for a while, in part because he feared he had contracted small pox himself.  On Saturday January 21, there was a fire which burned much of downtown Auburn, described by Seward in a letter to Weed on January 29:

“Saturday the 21st was the 9th day after I came into the room of my suffering child [he is counting here from his exposure not from her death.]  I felt in the evening the approach of a fever and went to bed at ½ past 10 with some little apprehension of the small pox in some form.  The alarm if fire called me up, half an hour afterwards. For the first time in my life when I was where my aid might be useful I shrunk from going to a fire.  But I feared that if I had any form of that horrible disease upon me my death would certainly be the consequence of such exposure as the occasion called for on such a fearful night.  The broad glare of flame that blazed almost in my face left me no hope that my property would be safe, and I ushered to the scene, and such a scene to look upon when it threatened to consume not merely my property but my home.  I was imperfectly prepared for the exposure.  From half past 11 until 3 I worked in the thickest of heat and melting snow, and sat down at last wearied and exhausted, but with the satisfactory reflection that, by my own exertion, the destruction of the Exchange Buildings and the further progress of the conflagration were prevented. . . . Although feverish the next day and Monday I thought I was only suffering the consequence of my recent exposure. On Monday night however I was confined by an obstinate and somewhat violent fever which did not release me until Thursday night.”

In early February, Seward returned to Westfield.  He wrote to Weed on February 12:

“If ever there was a time when I more than at other times needed the sympathy and communion of your friendship, it was during my late season of alarm and affliction at Auburn, and yet my spiritless replies to your first kind letters caused a cessation of our correspondence.  I was unhappy, and I had to conceal my unhappiness and affect cheerfulness, to keep up the sinking heart of my bereaved wife.  I was a fool that I yielded to her desponding wish to remain at home, and now I feel that I have acted unwisely. . . . She has some philosophy, much religious faith and firmness, some renewal of health, she has her two surviving children, and she has the grave of the stricken one near her.  God grant that she may find in all these sources of consolation a substitute sufficient for the cherishing care I ought to bestow upon her. . . . You have no idea how the wound I have suffered in my family has made me impatient to abridge this life of estrangement from them.”

Seward went on to say that he hoped to bring the family to Westfield permanently, but his father-in-law, Judge Miller, was too ill while Seward was in Auburn for Seward to even raise the possibility.

Frederick prints, at this point, excerpts from letters from Seward to Weed dated February 23 and February 27; Kristi did not find any letters of those dates in the file, a common problem.  There was a letter dated February 24, in which he wrote his friend that “My hearth here is solitary, my communion is with the mighty dead, and my feelings truant to their schooling cleave to the family and friends I have far away.”  He also wrote about the start of what we now know as the Panic of 1837:  “The Banks are already verging to a state of fearful danger, and I perceive not how they can escape the storm that threatens them.  You are, at headquarters, as well skilled in the science of political economy as any of us, and better acquainted with the signs of the times.”

Seward also returned, in this letter of February 24th, to the topic of the possible dissolution of the Union:  “All the ranting in and out of Congress by Southerners about dissolving the Union is the raving or rather blustering of Priests who swear by their ancient Gods when the People have changed their religion.  Except South Carolina the mass of the Southern people are at this day as fast within the power of the General Government as we of the North are, and that is fast enough God knows.  Every Southern man who should have seceded from Congress in pursuance of the recent threats would have been proscribed and more supple representatives would have returned.  South Carolina might stand out but Southern hands would even now shed the blood of citizens in the cause of Union and the command of the [Executive?] or rather of the [??] Party. . . . If ever this Union falls in pieces, the fragments will be divided by a parallel of longitude not one of latitude. I think that Van Buren’s prospect of quiet is no better for all this.”

Seward had, for many years, attended the Episcopal Church, but he had never been baptized or taken communion.  Now, in early 1837, in the isolation of Westfield, he decided to join the church.  Frederick prints part of a letter from Seward to Frances, dated March 26, one of many such letters which do NOT survive in the original, and thus for which Frederick is our only, somewhat suspect, source:

“I received this morning, not without fear, but I trust in sincerity of heart, the sacraments of baptism and the communion.  I was alone at the font.  Yet I felt that it was a duty that my conscience enjoined, my judgment and my heart approved, and it had been too long postponed.  I thought continually of you and my boys, and our child-angel ‘that left her errand with my heart and straight returned to heaven.’”

In a letter to Weed, on the same day, Seward explained at more length:

“For years past I have struggled against prejudices of early education which rendered religion a mystery, and yet carried about me a conviction that it was in reality a simple and beautiful system, the profession and practice of which were obvious duties.  After what I trust has been a proper self examination I presented myself this morning for baptism and was received into the visible church, and for the first time the communion supper.  I mention this fact, which will be unharmonious with your daily thoughts and occupation, because it is an important event in my life and one which therefore it is best you should know directly from me. . . . If in one of those seasons (which seldom occur) when you are alone and free from the purpose of immediate care, you remember this circumstance, your intimate knowledge of my recent experience of human events will I doubt not enable you to trace the causes and manner of my becoming more serious than heretofore in regard to religion.  If that or other courses of thought should lead you to the conviction that what I have done is an obvious and proper duty devolved [?] upon yourself as well as me and all others it would be a source of great happiness to me.  You will not be likely to fall into error into which others will in respect to myself.  But I may as well be explicit with you.  I profess not to have experienced any miraculous change of heart or to have in any way gone through that ordeal of despair so commonly supposed to be the entrance and the only entrance upon Christian life.  I have always been sensible that I was an offender, and a grievous one against the duty I owed to God and my fellow men.  I have endeavored now to repent and resolve with God’s grace to live more in the fear of and under the influence of love and gratitude to God, and to that end to study his revelation.  I do not anticipate that I will make any considerable change in my habits of life, but I humbly trust it will gradually elevate and refine my motives of action.”

And then, Seward being Seward and Weed being Weed, Seward went on to talk about the prospects for the fall election.