Where do the abolition movement, the plot of John Wilkes Booth & Company, and Manifest Destiny meet? Here, in Auburn, New York, of all places. We visited the William H. Seward Historic Site in this beautiful little Finger Lakes city. I fell in love with Auburn so dramatically that I think we are going to concentrate our travels here for a while. The city is filled with stunning architecture, historic sites, lovely parks, and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered in a city. When I looked confused walking down a street, a helpful young couple asked me if I needed directions. Another person gave me his not-quite-expired parking ticket!
On a whim, we decided to visit the William Seward house while traveling through the city. I knew very little of Seward (wasn’t he attacked the same night Lincoln was shot? And something about Alaska?) but the son knew more (he ran for president but lost the GOP nomination to Lincoln; Seward later became Lincoln’s Secretary of State). What we didn’t know was that William Seward was once New York State governor, a member of the United States Congress, and his family were radical abolitionists at a time when it was illegal to harbor runaway slaves and help them to freedom.
Don’t you believe it if your history teacher or the media tell you our American forefathers meekly obeyed every stupid law passed by Congress and the President. Ever hear of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850? It tore the country apart and was one of the many sparks that started the Civil War.
Slavery had been slowly disintegrating in the Northern states especially after the blazing revivals of Charles Grandison Finney in the 1820s, and by 1827 slavery was illegal in New York State. No longer bound to the “peculiar institution,” the Northern states thrived. Industry, literacy, and prosperity exploded across the North, elevating this portion of the United States into one of the most technological and industrious regions in the world. Down south, black people were still picking cotton and tobacco as their white masters sipped sweet tea from their porticoes. Yep, I’m anti-slavery and proud of it. Today, slavery has different forms. In the United States, we don’t have racial slavery anymore; our country is blotted with human trafficking. Did you know that the Super Bowl is one of the sex-slave industry’s most profitable day? (See forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2012/02/02/sex-and-the-super-bowl-indianapolis-spotlight-teen-sex-trafficking.) So many people think prostitutes just love what they do and that’s why they do it (as glamorized in “Pretty Woman” or exuberantly exhorted by Bill Maher), but women and children are kidnapped and forced into it. IN THIS COUNTRY RIGHT UNDER OUR NOSES. It’s sick. All slavery is sick. So as I wandered around Seward’s house and read snippets from his wife’s and daughter’s diaries, my heart raged.
Seward was serving his first term in the United States Senate when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law. The law said that any and all runaway slaves had to be returned to their rightful southern owners, even if the slaves escaped to the free Northern states. If you were a Northerner and didn’t return the slave to his master, you faced very harsh penalties: fines of $1,000 and six months in jail. Some Northern states — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Pennsylvania — thumbed their noses at Congress stupid laws and passed their own laws forbidding state officials to abide by them! Because New York State borders Canada, naturally this state became a primary stop on the “Underground Railroad.” The townships of Auburn, Cato, Peterboro in Central New York became the hot spots for harboring runaway slaves and absconding them to Canada. In fact, the museum here had a photo of an amazing document — a petition signed by the farmers living in the town of Cato, NY, protesting the Fugitive Slave Law and asking for a repeal.
Harriet Tubman, one of the Underground Railroad’s famous and bravest “conductors,” lived near the Sewards in Auburn, on land given to her from William Seward herself. The two were very close friends.
So you can imagine the dangers of the Seward household– not only were they harboring runaway slaves but they were a very public family. Seward was a member of Congress!! I was awed by the courage of this household.
I think we need to rise once again to this kind of courage. There’s a new kind of slavery in our country that I have already mentioned. It’s more insidious, I think, because this kind of slavery feeds on the lusts of all men, black or white or yellow or red, and is more difficult to point out: human trafficking. Human trafficking is the “illegal trade of human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation, or reproductive slavery, or forced labor.” How well we tolerate prostitution in this country. How well we tolerate sleazy magazines and pornography and strip clubs. It’s all shielded under the blanket of “entertainment.” For some wicked, inexplicable reason, men are loath to give up this entertainment. They rant on and on about the injustices of black people to this day, about the economic injustices by global bankers, about the injustices of millionaires and oil tycoons making their money…. but when it comes to women and children, these powerful men are so silent. The media lulls us into a collective sleep, telling us that women and children choose this kind of lifestyle and it’s merely another “peculiar institution.” What it really is is just another social shackle to feed the lusts of men. It’s just not cotton and tobacco this time around. It’s worse.
I can only pray that a new kind of abolition movement arises. It’s going to take a lot of courage.
I’ll continue our story about our visit through the Seward House. We learned so many things that it’s impossible to condense it all into one article!
William Seward House
33 South Street
Auburn, NY 13021