Seward and Auburn
This is roughly what I said on September 18 about Seward and Auburn.
I do not feel the need, with this audience, to answer the question I often have to answer: who was William Henry Seward? Instead I propose to talk about Seward and Auburn: about why he came to live here, why he spent so much time away, what he did and said here, what his relationship was with the town.
William Henry Seward was born in Orange County, New York, in 1801. He attended Union College, in Schenectady, graduating near the top of his class in 1821. He then read law for a while, both in Goshen and New York City. He could have practiced law in either of those places but instead he came to Auburn, settling here in late 1822.
Why Auburn? In his memoir Seward noted that he received, as final payment from the lawyer with whom he was working at Goshen, sixty dollars, a sum which “would enable me to explore the western part of the state with a view to my establishment there.” But he only mentions one place he “explored”: Auburn. Elsewhere he notes that he already knew one inhabitant of Auburn: Frances Miller, daughter of Judge Elijah Miller, a prominent local lawyer. Frances and Seward’s sister Cornelia had both attended Emma Willard’s school, and Seward had met Frances when she visited his sister during a school break. Seward did not note in his memoir, but his letters make clear, that he was not attached to Frances when he arrived in Auburn; he was far more intrigued by Mary Ann Kellogg, daughter of a leading lawyer in Skaneateles.
So the question remains: why Auburn? Years later Seward advised a young man that it was best to “settle in a county town, in the county, not in the great cities, and better to settle in a new county than in an old one.” That describes Auburn well when Seward first arrived: it was the county seat of Cayuga County and the county was fairly new. Auburn was not on the route of the Erie Canal but Seward was not yet a canal enthusiast. Auburn was a hive of small factories and service businesses, financed in many cases by what we would call (today) angel investors and venture capitalists. It was a perfect place for an ambitious young lawyer.
Seward joined Miller as his junior partner and was soon arguing his own cases in the courthouse here. In a letter to his father in June 1823 he noted that the “public report” was that he would marry Frances Miller, but he would not “think of making overtures to her under present circumstances” in which he found himself “reduced to my last shilling and in debt.” Within a few weeks, however, Seward disregarded his own advice and proposed to Frances.
In October 1824, in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, a few blocks from here, William Henry Seward married Frances Adeline Miller. The most curious aspect of the marriage was that, at Judge Miller’s insistence, the young couple moved into the Miller house, the house we now know as the Seward house. It was a large house, but far from empty; it included the judge, his elderly mother, his sister Clara, and soon the two Seward boys, Augustus, born in 1826, and Frederick, born in 1830.
A three-generation family was not unusual at this time: but it was unusual for a successful young lawyer to live in a household headed by his father-in-law. In some respects this was convenient; it allowed Seward to focus on his work and to travel without concern that he was leaving his wife alone with the children. In other respects however the arrangement was detrimental, for it meant that Henry and Frances never really built a home of their own.
Almost from the day he arrived in Auburn, Seward was involved in politics. As he wrote in his memoir, “I took my pew and paid my assessments in the church, attended the municipal, political and social meetings and caucuses, acting generally as secretary. I enrolled myself in the militia and wore my musket on parade. I paid my contributions and, when required, managed dancing assembles, although for want of skill I never danced myself.”
The local newspapers from the 1820s bear Seward out on this point: he appears in them often, one week as the secretary of a private company to construct a canal over the mountains to the Susquehanna, the next week in his capacity as colonel of the local militia regiment, the next week as the anonymous opponent of the “attempt by the Presbyterian Clergy to gain an ascendancy in matters of state by means of Sabbath keeping societies, temperance societies, etc.”
In 1825, when Lafayette arrived in Cayuga County as part of his nationwide tour, Seward was one of the leaders of the local reception. A mounted committee met the general as he entered the county from the west, escorted him to Auburn, where he was greeted by a crowd estimated at eight thousand. (My editor, when he saw that figure, said “that cannot be right,” but that was the figure in the local newspaper, and if almost all the town was present, along with many people from the nearby farms, there would have been eight thousand.) There was an elegant dinner, sponsored by a local hotel, and then Seward and the others escorted Lafayette through the night to Syracuse. It was one in the morning when they reached Skaneateles, but they found the streets thronged with people, cheering, and waving flags.
Seward was interested not just in these local issues: he was involved, obsessed, by national politics. The first national election in which he played a role was 1824, when he headed the local efforts to elect John Quincy Adams president. Seward was again a leader in the presidential campaign of 1828, again as a supporter of Adams. He was also nominated, that year, by the Antimasons for a seat in Congress.
(The Antimasonic movement, to refresh your recollection, started when a renegade Mason, William Morgan, was abducted from a Canandaigua jail and apparently murdered near Niagara. The investigation into Morgan’s murder was impeded by Masons, and a movement and then a party, the first major third party, emerged in response. Antimasons “saw themselves as restoring moral order and transparent democracy, defending the little people against a secret cabal with ties to machine politics.” Interestingly, Antimasons “welcomed the participation of women in their movement, contrasting with Masonry, which was then all male.”)
In his memoir, Seward explained that he had to decline the 1828 Antimasonic nomination because a few paragraphs he had drafted for another candidate was inadvertently cut and pasted into praise of himself. The local newspapers, however, prove that on this point Seward’s memoir was wrong.
When Seward was nominated by the Antimasons, it seemed likely that he would also be nominated by the Adams party, so that he could combine the strength of the two anti-Jackson parties. When it become clear, however, that the local Adams party would not nominate him, Seward declined the other nomination, explaining in a public letter that he was too closely tied to the Adams party to run for Congress without its support.
Two years later, in 1830, the Antimasons nominated Seward for state senate. By this time the Adams party had disappeared, so Seward did not decline the nomination; he was honored. The local papers praised or panned the nomination according to their politics. One claimed that he was “well known as a sound lawyer, an eloquent advocate and a ripe scholar.” On the other side, a Jackson paper accused Seward of political inconsistency, favoring first one party and then another and then another.
Seward prevailed, and at the end of December 1830, he left Auburn for Albany. This is, perhaps, as good a time as any to address one question I posed at the outset: why did Seward spend so much time away from Auburn? In part this was just a function of his work and the transport of the time. It took Seward four days to travel by stage from Auburn to Albany; obviously he could not come home for weekends during the four-month legislative session. Similarly, when he traveled around the state and later around the nation for his legal work, he could not fly home for the weekend; he was away for weeks at a time.
In part, though, Seward’s travels were for pleasure and not for work. In the summer of 1833, for example, Seward accompanied his father on a trip to Europe; he was away for more than five months. In the summer of 1835, Seward and his wife traveled south by carriage; they were away for more than three months. The ostensible purpose of this trip was to help Frances regain her health, but it is clear from the family letters that she would rather have remained here in Auburn, and that Henry was the one who enjoyed seeing new places and meeting new people.
Indeed, it seems likely that one reason Seward was away so often is that the house was not all that pleasant a place for Seward himself. It was the Miller house, not the Seward house, until Seward’s father-in-law passed away in 1851. Even after that, there was still a senior Miller in residence, Aunt Clara, who passed away in 1862. And as she aged herself, Frances Miller Seward was reclusive and invalid, spending days and sometimes weeks in her room.
Seward was one of the leading lawyers of his generation; he argued often in the United States Supreme Court. His most famous case, however, was right here in Auburn: the trial in 1844 of William Freeman. Not long after being released from Auburn prison, Freeman, a young black man, brutally killed an entire white family, including a two-year-old child. Freeman was soon captured and (in the words of Frances) “there was a terrible commotion in the village as [Freeman] was carried through; it is a matter of wonder to me now that in that excited state of popular feeling the creature was not murdered on the spot. Fortunately, the law triumphed, and he is in prison awaiting his trial, condemnation, and execution.”
Seward was already unpopular in the town for representing another accused murderer; his friends (other than his wife and John Austin, the local Universalist minister) urged that he not represent Freeman. In a letter to her sister, Frances wrote that even their father Judge Miller was urging Seward to “abandon the nigger” but Henry, she wrote, “will do what is right. He will not close his eyes and know that a great wrong is perpetrated.”
There were really two trials of Freeman: one was on the question of whether he was sufficiently sane to stand trial; the second was on the question of whether he was sane at the time of the murders. Seward started his closing argument in the first trial on the afternoon of the Fourth of July. Outside, that evening, there were fireworks and a festive atmosphere; inside, in the words of Austin, there was just “a lone voice pleading with all the energies of the one of the mightiest minds of the age in behalf of a poor friendless demented African.”
Seward closed by telling the jurors that some day “my remains will rest here in your midst, with those of my kindred and neighbors. It is very possible that they may be unhonored, neglected, spurned! But perhaps, years hence, when the passion and excitement which now agitate this community shall have passed away, some wandering stranger, some lone exile, some Indian, some Negro, may erect over them a humble stone, and thereon this epitaph, ‘He was faithful.’”
Seward did not persuade the jurors; they found that Freeman was sane enough to stand trial and then that he was sane enough to answer for his crimes. But Seward was right to think that, in time, the people of Auburn would take a different view of his defense of Freeman. It seems likely that some of the very people who angrily attacked Seward in 1844, for defending Freeman, were among those who warmly welcomed him when he returned from several months abroad in 1859.
There were, according to the local papers, about ten thousand people on hand at the Auburn station to greet Seward on that cold December evening. Seward told them that although he had traveled through four continents “it is not until now that I have found the place which, above all others, I admire the most, love the best.” He loved Auburn, he said, more than the town in which he was born, or the one in which he was educated, or the state capital, or even the national capital. He loved Auburn because here he was “simply a citizen—a man—your equal and your like.”
The crowd escorted him from the station to his house, through streets decorated with banners and arches, including some with quotes from his antislavery speeches. When he reached the path to his front door, Seward found that all the clergymen of the town had gathered there to greet him. Seward shook each by the hand, overcome with emotion (his friend Reverend John Austin wrote that he “could not say a syllable”) but when he reached the door he turned and exclaimed “God bless you all my friends!”
Why did the people of Auburn so admire William Henry Seward? In part this was because many of them now agreed with his politics, wanted to see him nominated for president and elected president. But in the summer of 1860 the New York Herald ran a long article about Seward and Auburn, stating that he was “beloved” by the people of Auburn “irrespective of partisan predilections” The reasons for this affection included the way Seward treated his many local tenants—“as a landlord he is kind and lenient”—and his role in local affairs—“no philanthropic or benevolent movement is suggested without receiving his liberal and thoughtful assistance.”
Seward was in Auburn, in his garden, when he learned on May 18, 1860, that he would not be the Republican nominee. Some authors, including one who will be speaking here in Auburn soon, describe that day as if there were hundreds or thousands of people gathered.
But those accounts are based on memoirs: and there is a diary that disagrees. The Reverend John Austin wrote that “about 3 o’clock the account of the first ballot was received. I took it and went immediately to Gov. Seward’s. [I] found him in his arbor in the garden. He received the statement without the movement of a muscle of his countenance.” The telegram reported that, on the first ballot, Seward had received 172 votes, about sixty votes short of the number needed. Lincoln had received 102 votes, and the remaining votes were scattered. Seward told Austin that this was “as favorable as could be expected for the first ballot.”
“We had been conversing some ten or fifteen minutes on the subject,” Austin continued, “when Dr. Theodore Dimon came rushing into the garden with a statement of the second and third ballots. As he drew near us, he threw up his arms and exclaimed aloud: ‘Oh God, it is all gone, gone, gone! Abraham Lincoln has received the nomination!’” Austin immediately looked at Seward. “A deadly paleness overspread his countenance for an instant, succeeded instantly by a flush, and then all was calm as a summer morning.” Seward “immediately commenced conversing about the particulars of the ballot, and was the most composed of the three or four who were present.”
Austin’s account is supported by a letter Dimon sent some time later to the Auburn Advertiser. According to Dimon, after reading the telegram, without any change in expression, Seward looked up at his friends and said: “Well, Mr. Lincoln will be elected and has some of the qualities to make a good president.” There followed a little more “quiet conversation,” and then Seward went inside to break the news to his family. His daughter Fanny wrote that “father told Mother and I in three words, ‘Abraham Lincoln nominated.’ His friends feel much distress—he alone has a smile—he takes it with philosophical and unselfish coolness.”
Somehow, Seward mastered his disappointment and campaigned for Lincoln; he gave dozens of speeches: in New England, in New York, in the Midwest, even as far west as Kansas, not yet a state. His last speech was here in Auburn, on the night before the voting. Lincoln did not receive any votes from the southern states, and very few from the border states, but he carried almost all the northern states, and was thus elected president in November 1860.
Seward was in Washington from late 1860, when Congress gathered, through the inauguration of Lincoln in March 1861, and indeed for almost the entire year. He did come home for a few days in late August, and while he was here he made a short speech. He urged the young men to enlist: “you could never fight for a cause more glorious; you could never fall for a country more worthy of sacrifice.” As for himself, Seward said he would return to Washington and “when I shall again see you, I know not.” If he died, he hoped that his body would return to Auburn, but only if Auburn itself remained true to the Union. “May my bones never be laid in the midst of those who have proved false to their principles and unfaithful to their country.”
Seward was in Auburn twice, I believe, in 1862, but each time just for a few hours; each time leaving in haste for Washington. He was here again in the summer of 1863, accompanied by a dozen foreign diplomats, part of a grand tour of New York he organized and hosted. Half of the foreign visitors stayed on that night in the Seward house, the other half at the nearby house of a friend. “Auburn is a quiet, modest town,” the local paper declared, “but no one can blame her if she puts on airs on the present occasion.”
Seward returned in early November 1863 to vote. He gave an emotional political speech on the eve of election day, arguing that the Democratic candidates were in effect the allies of the Confederates. Seward predicted that the “insurrection will perish under military power and slavery will perish with it. Nevertheless,” he added, “I am willing that the prodigal son shall return. The door, so far as I am concerned, shall always be open to him.” Seward’s willingness to welcome the southern states back into the Union worried more radical northerners. In a letter to a British friend, Senator Charles Sumner worried that “if the Rebellion should suddenly collapse, Democrats, copperheads, and Seward would insist upon amnesty and the Union and ‘no questions asked about slavery.’ God save us,” Sumner said, “from any such calamity.”
Seward was here in Auburn again in September 1864, when news arrived that Sherman had captured Atlanta. A large crowd gathered in Seward’s garden, and he spoke to them, praising Sherman and Admiral Farragut and their men. Seward again attacked the Democrats, whose peace platform would in Seward’s view “give up the very object of the war at the ballot box.” Moreover, a Democratic victory would lead not just to one division of the nation but to a series of rebellions and secessions, as in the fragile states of South America. How, Seward asked his audience, can we “save our country from this fearful danger?” A voice called out: “vote Lincoln in again!” Seward responded: “you have hit it exactly my friend. We must vote Lincoln in again, and fight him in at the same time.”
On the evening before the 1864 presidential election day, Seward spoke again to his friends and neighbors here in Auburn. He predicted that, soon after Lincoln’s re-election, there would be messengers from the southern states, seeking peace. These messengers would say something like: “Father Abraham, we have sinned before God and against our brethren. We repent our error; we disavow and offer up the traitors who have led us into crime. Extend your protection over us, and give us once more peace and communion with you at our altars and our firesides.” The Auburn audience responded with “prolonged and vehement cheers.”
Seward returned here the next year for the funeral of his wife Frances. Before she died, Frances told her husband that she would like so much to spend an hour or two in the garden. She did not have to tell him what garden she meant; she meant her garden here in Auburn. A paper reported that the hundreds of visitors, rich and poor, black and white, were generally too emotional to say anything to Seward. He, however, had a word of kindness and welcome for everyone whom he met on that day.
About a year later, in November 1866, Seward returned here to bury his daughter Fanny. She was only twenty-one. Seward had hoped, after his retirement, to spend time with her, both here in Auburn and abroad. At the reception at the family home here, when the coffin was opened, Seward invited his guests to come and look at her. A reporter noted that “there was not, there could not have been, a dry eye in the room.”
When Seward finally retired, in March 1869, he returned here to Auburn, but he did not remain here for long. He departed in June of that year to explore the West, especially Alaska, the purchase of which he was so proud. After touring the West Coast all the way up to Alaska, he headed south, to Mexico, where he spent the winter, acclaimed somewhat as Lafayette was acclaimed forty years earlier.
Seward returned here in March 1870 but departed again in five months: this time bound around the world. He traveled slowly, spending a month in Japan, two months in China, another two months in India. When he returned to Auburn, in October 1871, he told the crowd that he hoped they would now understand the logic of his journey. Upon his retirement, he said, he realized that “at my age, and in my condition of health, rest was rust, and nothing remained, to prevent rust, but to keep in motion.” Now he was home, he said, and looked forward to enjoying “the same affection and friendship which have been the great happiness of my life.”
He did not enjoy them for a long: a year later he was dead. His son Frederick, in his biography of his father, suggests that there was a gradual decline, but again the local newspapers tell a different story. He suffered from a paralysis of his arms, but otherwise his health was good, and one reporter, writing a few weeks before his death, though he would live another decade. He caught a chill, however, his lungs became infected, and he died in his study on October 10, 1869.
Would Seward have succeeded if he had settled in New York City? Or in some distant rural village? Perhaps: but Auburn was almost the perfect launching pad for a nineteenth century politician, a county seat, close to the land but also close to the commercial capital. Seward would be proud that he is still remembered here in the town he loved best.