The William Seward House, Auburn, NY: Abolition, John Wilkes Booth, and Manifest Destiny Part 2

In Part 1, I talked about my experience walking through Auburn for the first time and learning about William Seward’s early political career and participation in the abolition movement and Underground Railroad (a dangerous venture for the time). William Seward was a very vocal opponent to slavery, so naturally most southerners hated him. Seward refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Law and railed against those who used the United States Constitution to promote slavery. Seward said that while the Constitution mentioned the existence of slavery and made slavery legal de facto, he said the Constitution did not protect the slave institution. He earned a lot of hate mail when he said slavery was “morally wrong” and that there is a “higher law” than the Constitution.

Tubman Plaque

Seward Home 1

The Seward House sitting room at 33 South Street, Auburn, NY.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Marquart.

Seward led the Whig party along with his friend John Quincy Adams (about whom Seward wrote a book, and Adams’ portrait hangs in the Seward home sitting room). I immediately loved Seward upon finding this out. I was tickled that I, raised in the Finger Lakes region, have much in common with this “Finger Lakes” Whig of the past.

The 1850s and 60s were explosive times, and Seward (and many more people, I’m sure), knew what was inevitable. He said that North and South were absolutely incompatible and always in political conflict, and that this would lead to only one eventual conclusion: the United States as “either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.” It could not possibly be both.

Seward’s radical anti-slavery beliefs lost him the GOP nomination for president in 1860. He was labeled as “extreme,” and the GOP opted for a more temperate candidate: Abraham Lincoln! Lincoln believed that slavery in the United States could end through political maneuvering and slow societal changes, as had happened in Britain under the brilliant William Wilberforce in 1833. But this was not to be.

The country exploded into civil unrest and war in 1861 with the attack on Fort Sumter. Several Southern states had declared war on the Union, angry that Lincoln won the election and that he had appointed Seward as his Secretary of State. The South claimed that they had the right to secede, and attempted to bomb the U.S. Army out of “their” South Carolina fort.

Seward House Entrance

The home was built in 1816, by Judge Elijah Miller. William Seward married Miller’s daughter, Eliza, on the condition that he would live here with his family. The family owned the house until it was made a public museum in 1955.

Seward was a very fervent abolitionist. Among other things, he was instrumental in ending the slave trade across the Atlantic between the U.S. and Britain with the Lyons-Seward Treaty of 1862. Seward was also an expansionist, a preliminary player in what would eventually give rise to the Manifest Destiny policy after the Civil War.

As we all know, the war was the bloodiest and most tragic event in American history. As a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, Seward was instrumental in the president’s plans to rebuild the country. Members of the GOP wanted to punish the South for all the trouble she’d caused, but Lincoln and Seward urged a gentler, more forgiving policy. Unfortunately, Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction never developed.

On April 15, 1861, a stupid bunch of short-sighted and selfish men and women decided to take revenge on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth during a play in Ford’s Theatre. The idiots didn’t realize that they were cutting off their noses to spite their faces– Booth and his cronies had just sealed the doom of the South. By killing off the South’s most passionate post-war defender and protector, the plans for Reconstruction were now in the hands of the jealous and vengeful members of the GOP Congress who were bent on making hell for the South.

Seward Fountain

An exquisite water fountain in the lovely garden.

While Lincoln lay ailing, the assassination plot was advancing. Associates of Booth, namely Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold and others, descended upon Vice President Andrew Johnson’s home and William Seward’s home in Washington, DC. They wanted to kill these men, too, as a “shock and awe” strategy that would disrupt the government. Johnson escaped the attack, but poor William Seward nearly died.

Lewis Powell came to Seward’s home that evening with the story that he was on a special delivery of medicine for the Secretary of State, and only he could dispense it. Seward was ailing in bed at the time. A week previous, Seward had been thrown from his horse carriage and suffered a broken collarbone, a broken jaw, and other serious injuries. He was being nursed by his daughter, Fanny, and his son, Frederick, who was also his personal secretary.

After the butler opened the door to Lewis Powell, son Frederick sensed danger. He forbade Powell entrance to his father’s room. In a rage, Powell pulled out a pistol to shoot Frederick, but the gun misfired. A struggle ensued. Powell beat Frederick over the head with the butt of the pistol, beating him into unconsciousness and severe trauma.

Powell ran to the bedroom where Seward lay, encountering young Fanny, Seward’s other son Augustus, and nurse George Robinson. Like a mad man, Powell slashed at them with his dagger, ran to Seward’s bed and slashed the Secretary’s face. Powell, believing he had killed Seward, fled the house but not before he encountered and slashed a young messenger who was entering the house. The messenger, Emerick Hansell, was permanently paralyzed by the injuries. Powell ran to Mary Surratt’s house for refuge where he was later apprehended.

Seward was in horrible shape, but he survived. Son Frederick suffered the most and his recovery was slow but eventually complete. The attack shattered the family. Seward’s wife suffered a heart attack and died two months later. Fanny Seward died of tuberculosis 18 months later.

The Seward House Museum has artifacts of the assassination attempt, including a shredded and bloody bedsheet from Seward’s bed, and a sketch of the dagger wounds on Seward’s face. Seward was permanently disfigured after the attack, but he did have a full recovery. Seward was again stricken with infirmity in late 1866 (cholera, it is presumed) and was expected to die. But once again, he survived to make history.

Seward House Gazebo in Garden

The house and garden are unchanged from when the Seward family occupied the home. The house is filled with family objects, as if they all knew it would one day become a museum.

I’ll have the story of Seward’s accomplishments in his later years in the next post. Attempts on his life were over, but the ridicule he received throughout his life did not. Stay tuned!

About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

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  1. Susi says:

    The story keeps getting more interesting. I love the grounds and gazebo in the above picture. 🙂