William Seward’s Legacy

The parlor contains many antiques and works of art. Photo by Drew Harty

What would you do if your future father-in-law agreed to your marriage only on the condition that you move into his home? Judge Elijah Miller imposed this stipulation on young William Henry Seward, who asked for the hand of Frances, the judge’s youngest daughter. Seward complied with the request, “I thus became an inmate of his family,” he later wrote, and the couple’s marriage in 1824 began 125 years of family occupation of the Auburn home, now Seward House.

As New York governor, U.S. senator and U.S. secretary of state, William Seward left a broad legacy to American history. Although he spent much of his life in Albany and Washington, DC, he always returned to his Auburn home and its tree-shaded garden. It was, he said, “the place which, above all others, I admire the most and love the best.”

A Famous Locale
Seward’s home in the Finger Lakes has always been an attraction for visitors. Foreign dignitaries, women’s rights advocates, abolitionists, fugitive slaves and U.S. presidents – seven of them from John Quincy Adams to Bill Clin­ton – have all walked its halls. Thank­fully, the Sewards left a paper trail of manuscripts, diaries and photographs to document the visits and their day-to-day lives. The family’s efforts to preserve its history have led to a museum filled with four generations of original furnishings, silver, porcelain and fine and decorative arts.

William Henry Seward – “Henry” as he was known to his family – was born in Florida, New York. He was fresh from Union College and trained in law when he met Frances Miller, a boarding school classmate of his sister Cornelia. He moved to Auburn in 1823 to join Judge Miller’s law practice, married Frances the following year and moved into the South Street home.

As a couple, Henry and Frances couldn’t have been more different. Seward was garrulous, outgoing, fond of debate, card play and never seen without a cigar in hand. Frances was bookish, devout and dedicated to her family. Plagued by bouts of ill health, she preferred to remain at home as her husband began to establish himself as a politician. Yet the two formed a loving household with their five children.

Built in 1816, Judge Miller’s 10-room Federal style home was the first brick house in the young village of Auburn. Today’s 30-room mansion, complete with paired Italianate towers, resulted from additions and renovations carried out by Seward and his son, William Jr. Inside the home, artwork by New York State painters George Clough, Frederick Spencer and James Freeman share space with marble sculptures and souvenirs brought back from William Seward’s travels around the world. Items as varied as an Alaskan kayak and a Chinese tapestry decorate the walls.

Artifacts throughout the house illustrate William Seward’s long and varied political career. Elected governor of New York in 1838, at the age of 37, Seward established himself as an advocate for education reform and the abolition of slavery. The 195-volume “School District Library” commissioned by Governor Seward so all state schools would have the same reference works, resides on a bookshelf in the drawing room. Nearby hangs the massive Thomas Cole landscape, Portage Falls on the Genesee River (1839), given to Governor Seward in 1842 by the commissioners of the Genesee Valley Canal.

Politics Runs in the Family
Both Henry and Frances supported the anti-slavery movement. In 1855, William Seward wrote, “The Under­ground Railroad works wonderfully. Two passengers came here last night.” The family hid fugitive slaves in a room above the woodshed, as well as in the home’s basement kitchen. A few years later, the Sewards offered seven acres of land to Harriet Tubman on which to permanently settle. The Harriet Tubman Home just two miles down South Street from Seward House speaks eloquently to the supportive relationship forged between the two families. In 2004, Seward House was recognized as one of 24 sites on the newly-formed state Under­ground Railroad Heritage Trail. This spring, the home was added to the National Park Service’s “Network to Freedom” list of significant national Underground Railroad sites.

After two gubernatorial terms and a period of private law practice, Seward returned to politics as a U.S. senator in 1849 and served 12 years in Washington. In 1860, he was the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president, but his vocal opposition to slavery shifted support to the lesser-known candidate, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Swallowing his pride, Seward joined President Lincoln’s cabinet as secretary of state. In the intense environment of the Civil War, the two learned to rely on one another. Historian Dean Mahin has characterized their relationship as “one of the best examples of effective cooperation between a president and his secretary of state.”

Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth cut this partnership short. On the same night – April 14, 1865 – Booth accomplice Lewis Powell stabbed Seward in the bed of his Washington home. Only the heroic efforts of a male nurse who fought off the attack saved Seward’s life. Although he eventually recovered from his wounds, Henry’s beloved Frances suffered a series of “shocks” and died nine weeks after the assassination attempt. At the museum, a framed wreath of pressed flowers from President Lincoln’s funeral train and a piece of Seward’s bloodied bed sheet are mute reminders of that fateful night.

After Lincoln’s death, Seward remained in the cabinet of President Andrew Johnson, who delegated much of the nation’s foreign policy responsibilities to him. In 1867, he sealed a deal with the Russian ambassador for the purchase of the Alaska Territory. Dubbed by critics as “Seward’s Folly,” the purchase has proven to be one of America’s great land bargains. The final price was $7.2 million – less than two cents an acre.

The second floor of the museum emphasizes these last phases of Seward’s career. Throughout the upper hallway, the “Diplomatic Gallery” contains 132 photographs and engravings of royalty, ambassadors and other noteworthies Seward met as secretary of state. The long-term exhibit, “Imagining the Land,” features Native Alaskan artifacts, a Russian samovar, and the painting The Signing of the Alaska Treaty by Emanuel Leutze – an artist better known for his historic Washington Crossing the Delaware.

After William Seward’s death in 1872, the home passed to his son, William Jr., a decorated Civil War general, Auburn banker and American Express Company board member. The general’s son, William III, bequeathed the house and its contents to be used as a museum upon his death in 1951. After several years of repair, cleaning and inventory, Seward House opened to the public in October 1955.

Looking Ahead
The future looks bright for a new appreciation of William Seward and his achievements. Even as the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary, recognition of Seward is on the rise. Recent scholarship on Abraham Lincoln highlights the role Seward played as the president’s chief advisor. Preparations are underway nationally for the Abraham Lincoln Birth Bicentennial and the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood, both in 2009. Seward House will continue to illuminate the life and times of this New York statesman to Finger Lakes residents and visitors.

by Heather Marks
Heather Marks is manager of outreach services and Peter Wisbey is executive director of Seward House in Auburn. More information is available at www.sewardhouse.org.

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