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William H. Seward
William H.  Seward

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Frances M. Seward 1844

Frances Seward

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Frances Seward 1862

Frances Seward

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Fanny, Lazette, and Mrs. Perry at Pisgah
Fanny, Lazette, and Mrs. Perry at Pisgah


In the "emancipation business":
William and Frances Seward's Abolition Activism

 By: Peter Wisbey, Seward House Executive Director - February 2004

     William Henry (1801-1872) and Frances (1805-1865) Seward devoted themselves to reform and social justice causes, especially the abolition of slavery. Their home has a clear history as a hub of activism in Auburn.
     William Seward was born in Florida, New York. His parents, like many homeowners in the Hudson River Valley, owned several slaves. Young William, the fourth of six children, found relief from the severity of his parents, in the company of the family slaves. He noted that they were "vivacious and loquacious, as well as affectionate, toward me. What wonder that I found their apartment more attractive than the parlour, and their conversation a relief from the severe decorum which prevailed there?"1  Soon however, the young boy discerned the inequity between the races living within his own home. "I early came to the conclusion," he wrote, "that something was wrong. . . and [that] determined me, at that early age, to be an abolitionist."2
Shortly after his graduation from Union College, Seward moved to Auburn and joined Judge Elijah Miller's law practice. In 1824, he married the judge's youngest daughter, Frances, and they moved into Judge Miller's 1816 home (now Seward House) on South Street. Frances, although a practicing Episcopalian, had received a Quaker education in Cayuga County and at the Troy Female Seminary. Abolition of slavery was the core principle that drew the couple together.
     Six years after his marriage, William Seward began a career in politics. He served as a state senator (1830-1834) and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1834. In 1838, as a member of the new Whig Party, Seward won election as governor. During his two gubernatorial terms (1839-1843) he established himself nationally as an outspoken abolitionist. Governor Seward carried on a public (and prickly) correspondence with the Governor of Virginia following his refusal to allow the extradition of three sailors who had assisted in a fugitive slave's escape attempt. In 1840, he oversaw the passage of legislation empowering state agents to return persons kidnapped into slavery.3
     In 1846, once again a private citizen, Seward became the defense counsel for William Freeman, a mentally-ill Auburn resident of African American and Native American descent, who murdered a white farmer and his family. Seward's argument that Freeman's mental state should exculpate his actions is one of the first uses of the "insanity defense" in the United States. Although his argument failed to sway the jury, Seward's defense was widely reprinted and circulated by capital punishment reform groups.4
     William Seward returned to the political arena in 1849 as a United States senator. In January 1850, Seward, now a recognized leader of the abolitionist faction of the Whig Party, was thrust into the debate over California's admission into the Union as a free or slave state. In a speech to the Senate, Seward reminded his listeners that there was a "higher law" than the Constitution and warned of the effects of expanding slavery into the new territories of the west. The mood of the country was too strong to tackle the issue of slavery. In the Compromise of 1850, legislation granted statehood for a free California but included the bitter pill of the Fugitive Slave Law.
     Although supportive of her husband's political career, Frances Seward did not choose to move with him to Washington. Ongoing health problems, the care of her aging father and a general dislike for the responsibilities of being a politician's wife, kept Frances in Auburn. Senator Seward's travel, speechmaking and legal activity suggest that it was Frances who played a more active role in local Underground Railroad activities. In the excitement following the "Jerry Rescue" in Syracuse on October 1, 1851, Frances wrote, "Last evening Mr. May the Unitarian clergyman from Syracuse called with Mr. Austin to enquire the fortune of the letter from Mr. Wheaton and was very desirous that I should forward it immediately. He expects with Mr. Wheaton to be arrested today. . . . There is considerable excitement here. 2 fugitives have gone to Canada - one of them was our acquaintance John."5
     According to secondary sources, there are two areas of Seward House that are associated with Underground Railroad use. An oral history from the Sewards' granddaughter, Frances Messenger, recalls that Mrs. Seward referred to the area over the woodshed as her "dormitory."6  Also, an 1891 newspaper article reports "it is said that the old kitchen was one of the most popular stations of the Underground Railroad, and that many a poor slave who fled by this route to Canada carried to his grave the remembrance of its warmth and cheer."7  On November 18, 1855, writing from Auburn, William Seward noted "the 'underground railroad' works wonderfully. Two passengers came here last night. Watch [the family dog] attacked one of them."8
     Mrs. Seward was also an advocate for education and advancement of African Americans. In 1849, Miss Elizabeth Parsons, headmistress of the Samuel S. Seward Institute, a school founded in Florida, NY, responded to a letter from Frances regarding "whether I can in any way take a pretty little colored girl into my school & give her the benefits of instruction &c."9  In another instance, Mrs. Seward enrolled an African American boy named John in the primary school associated with the McGrawville College in Cortland County. While it is unclear whether these children were fugitives or not, they were living within the Seward household for periods of time.10  In July of 1852, Mrs. Seward, after a visit to the Auburn Orphan Asylum, reported to her husband "I was greatly interested in the Orphans. . . . One of them has died & is to be buried this morning. As he was a poor colored child placed there by my advice, I am going round and shall defray the funeral expenses."11
     Having inherited money from both sides of their family, the Sewards used their personal wealth to support the abolition movement. They were financial backers of Frederick Douglass' North Star newspaper in Rochester. On July 1, 1852, Frances wrote to her husband, "A man by the name of William Johnson will apply to you for assistance to purchase the freedom of his daughter. You will see that I have given him something by his book. I told him I thought you would give him more. He is very desirous that I should employ his daughter when he gets her which I have agreed to do conditionally if you approve."12
     In addition to Frances' work, there is an indication that William Seward, while a senator in Washington, DC, worked with African American hotelkeeper, James Wormley, to transport fugitives to freedom. A c. 1870 manuscript by Francis B. Carpenter in the Seward Papers notes: "Among the visitors in the evening was Mr. Wormley, the well known colored landlord of Washington. Greeting him cordially and introducing him to his other guests, Mr. Seward said: 'Wormley and I went into the emancipation business a year and a half before Mr. Lincoln did, down on the James River. How was it Wormley - how many slaves did we take off on our steamer?' 'Eighteen,' replied Mr. Wormley."13
     Finally, the Seward's support and patronage of Harriet Tubman is well known and documented.14  In 1859, William Henry and Frances conveyed seven acres of land to Tubman as a home. The property, the nucleus of the present day Harriet Tubman Home museum, was not paid off until after William Seward's death in 1872, emphasizing what Sarah Bradford recorded as the Sewards' "very favorable terms" to Tubman. The Seward account books do record occasional payments on the debt and additional loans to Tubman over the next several decades.
The striking roles played by both William and Frances Seward in abolition activism have been largely overshadowed by William Seward's career as Civil War Secretary of State and his purchase of the Alaska Territory in 1867. The inclusion of their home as part of the Underground Railroad Heritage Trail would be a welcome recognition of the cause for which they passionately worked.

 1 Frederick W. Seward, ed., William H. Seward: An Autobiography from 1801 to 1834, New York: Derby and Miller, 1891, p. 27.
 2 Ibid., p. 28.
 3 This legislation, "An act more effectually to protect the free citizens of this state from being kidnapped, or reduced to Slavery," passed on May 14, 1840, was used to rescue Solomon Northrup from slavery in 1853. See Soloman Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Soloman Northrup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and rescued in 1853, electronic edition,
 4 For an in-depth examination of the Freeman trial, see Andrew Arpey, The William Freeman Trial: Insanity, Politics, and Race, Syracuse University Press, 2003.
 5 Letter, Frances Seward to William Henry Seward, October 16, 1851. Seward Papers, University of Rochester, Rush Rhees Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections (hereafter "Seward Papers.")
 6 Memo from Betty Lewis, "Underground Railroad" file, Seward House collection, dated July 13, 1998.
 7 "The Home of Seward," Auburn Daily Herald, February 20, 1891, Scrapbook, Seward House collection.
 8 Cited in Frederick W. Seward, Seward at Washington as Senator and Secretary of State . . . 1846-1861, New York: Derby and Miller, 1891, p. 258.
 9 Letter, Elizabeth Parson to Frances Seward, November 3, 1849. Seward Papers.
10 Letter, Frances Seward to William Henry Seward, May 23, 1852: "Johnny is with us and seems in high favour with the boys of the town. I do not think our Fanny [the Seward's 7-year old daughter] has any thoughts at all on the subject of color - certainly none detrimental to John." Seward Papers. Milton Sernett documents the rise and fall of the abolitionist New York Central College in McGrawville in North Star Country: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002, p.68-70.
11 Letter, Frances Seward to William Henry Seward, July 23, 1852. Seward Papers.
12 Letter, Frances Seward to William Henry Seward, July 1, 1852. Seward Papers.
13 Francis B. Carpenter, "A Day with Governor Seward at Auburn," handwritten mss., no date [prob. July 1870], Seward Papers.
14 See Sarah Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, Auburn: W.J. Moses, 1869, p. 81 and Harriet Tubman: Moses of Her People, New York: George R. Lockwood, 1886. More recent scholarship records the Seward's land transfer to Tubman. See Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, Ballantine, 2003, p. 163-166, and Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, Little, Brown & Co., 2004.

- Links To Other Folks Websites Of Related Interest -
Seward House || African Americans In Cayuga County, New York Census Records 1820-1870
 || || City of Auburn Historic Resources Review Board ||
Cayuga County NY Historian's Office || Cayuga Museum Of History & Art || Cayuga County NY Office Of Tourism Website || Harriet Tubman Home || Howland Stone Store Museum || Preservation League of NYS and the NYS Council on the Arts || Seymour Public Library ||
 1837 Auburn Map with area labeled 'New Guinea-Negro Settlement' || Links to images from the 'Town of Aurelius Minutes Book' containing information on manumated slaves -See pages 439-445 || Cayuga County NYGenWeb Project

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