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NSG Visit April 25,1998

The Absolutely Amazing William Seward

and his Historic Home


Donovan A. Shilling

The New Society of the Genesee met on a fine Spring Saturday in Auburn at 33 South Street, the site of the Seward Mansion. We were met by Paul McDonald, our tour guide, who for two hours provided the twenty-two members of the Society with interesting facts, absorbing anecdotes and a delightful string of trivia regarding William Henry Seward and his home and its furnishings.

The brick bouse, the first such in Auburn, was built by Judge Elijah Miller (later Seward's father-in-law) in 1816. Today it is a National Historic Landmark. The tour included 17 of the 30 rooms in the mansion. Every item in the house is directly connected to the Seward family. All of the furniture, paintings, memorabilia were in the house at the time of William H. Seward III's death in 1951 when it was turned over to the Fred L. Emerson Foundation. The house is maintained and operated as a public museum by an Emerson Foundation affiliate, The Foundation Historical Association.

We entered the front entrance of the house, a half-flight of stairs above the ground, through a short vestibule into the central hall. On the right is a parlor with a mantel that was carved at the time the house was built by Brigham Young when he was sixteen years old and a journeyman carpenter. Against one wall is a pianoforte, and in the center of the room is a table set for tea.

Behind this room is a library room featuring a large bust of Lincoln and one by Daniel Chester French of Seward. There are two large globes standing on either side of the fireplace. One shows the surface of the world and the other, the heavens. Also in the library, is a small desk that was used by a member of the first Congress that met in Federal Hall in New York City in 1789 be-fore Washington was inaugurated president. Books fill the shelves built into the walls. There are ten thousand bound books in the house, scores of them signed by their authors, and two first editions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Seward once stated, "I cannot live without books."

William H. Seward was born in Florida, Orange County, New York, on May 16, 1801. He was an avid reader when just a boy and developed an outstanding intellectual capacity. He graduated from Union College, studied law, passed the bar examination, and came to Auburn in 1823 to become the junior law partner of Judge Miller. In 1824 he married Frances Miller, the judge's daughter. Frances was the reason that he came to Auburn: he had met her before, she had been a schoolmate of his sister. One of the condi-tions of their marriage was that she live in the house with her father as long as he lived. Although Seward referred to the house as his prison, he did enlarge it several times, in 1847 and again in 1860; he even altered the original part, adding a large spiral stair-case made from a gift of laurelwood and manzanita from the California Pioneer Society in appreciation for his work in the Senate to gain admittance of California to the Union as a free state.

Seward was an able politician. He became a state senator in 1830, Whig governor of New York (1839 - 1843), U.S. Senator, one of the founders of the Republican Party, and Secretary of State to both Lincoln and Johnson.

While Seward was governor of New York he supported people who were assisting slaves to escape to Canada; Mrs. Seward actually hid runaways in her house. On the issue of slavery, Frances and her husband were in complete accord; on the subject of living style they differed. The Millers were Quakers, Frances's acceptance of her husband's ambitions for grand living was reluctant. The original dining room and kitchen are still in the basement, both of them very pleasant rooms where the family must have spent much of their long winters in that hard-to-heat brick house.

In 1847 Seward added a main-floor dining room, and in 1860 he had the room enlarged to hold a table that will seat 24 guests. The day we visited that table and another dining table were in the room. The large table was set with Sevres china from the 60 place settings Napoleon's nephew presented the Sewards. Another set of china came from Maximilian of Mexico. Among the notables who dined with the Sewards in this room were John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Johnson, William McKinley, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, U. S. Grant.

Following a dinner in this room, guests moved into the 20-foot wide, and 40-foot long withdrawing room filled with furniture and unusual items: a large carved wooden bear umbrella stand, a 2000-year-old amphora from Cyprus, and a Swiss-made musical chair that plays a tune when sat upon. A rosewood grand piano, one of the first made by the Steinway company, stands below a massive painting. Thomas Cole, one of the founders of the Hudson River School group of artists painted this canvas in 1839 showing the cascading waters of the Genesee River at Letchworth with Elisha Johnson's rustic Homby Lodge depicted high above the falls.

Passing from this room into the central hall and going up the main staircase in the center of the house we came to a gallery of more than one-hundred and twenty large-sized framed photographs, nearly all portrait pictures of world heads of state, and often one of the spouse, too. There is Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria (#23); Victoria is #324. There are photographs of the potentates of Siam; Madagascar; the Sandwich Islands; of Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil; Isabella and Alphonso of Spain; William, King of Prussia; Marie Louise Auguste Katharine, his wife; the kings and queens of Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and not surprising considering Seward's prominence in the purchase of Alaska from the Russians, Alexander II of Russia and his wife Maria Alexandrowna.

There is also a photograph in the gallery of Baron Edward von Stoeckl the Russian minister with whom Seward negotiated the $7,000,000 deal, that was for awhile called "Seward's Folly." Also in this upstairs-hall gallery is an oil painting by Emanuel Leutze of the signing of the Alaskan Purchase Treaty. The story is that when the bargaining finished, late at night, Seward insisted on signing the treaty then and not waiting till morning.

William Seward was only five feet six inches tall. He had reddish hair, blue eyes and a big nose. Mrs. Lincoln referred to him as, "That little man with the big nose." This may have been because she resented the influence he had with her husband. Seward had been the leading contender to be the Republican presidential nominee. When Lincoln did win in the convention and later won the election, Seward felt that he would with his abilities be able to control Lincoln, and he probably did to a considerable extent. Seward is said to have edited and even prepared many of Lincoln's speeches. Lincoln was dependent on Seward at social affairs, but Lincoln did have the trust of his supporters.

The same night that Lincoln was assassinated an attempt was made on Seward's life. Seward did survive and he continued as secretary of state for Andrew Johnson.

In two of the upstairs rooms and in two other downstairs rooms in the back part of the mansion, are display cases holding items dealing with the assassination plot, with the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman's work assisting the escape of more than 300 slaves from the southern states to Canada, and with the trophies Seward collected in Alaska, Africa and Asia as a world-traveling celebrated statesman.

© 1998, Donovan A. Shilling
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