SEWARD’S “FOLLY”: Rochester 1858

SEWARD’S “FOLLY”: Rochester 1858

Rochester in 1853. Reproduced in 1973 by HISTORICAL URBAN PLANS, Ithaca, New York from a lithograph in the Cornell University Library. This is number 208 of an edition limited to 500 copies. [Owned by David Kramer]

Michael J. Nighan

Rochester has been visited by many presidents and men and women who unsuccessfully ran for that office.

On October 25, 1858, New York Governor William Henry Seward delivered a speech at Corinthian Hall, “The Irrepressible Conflict,” drawing national attention — and from slave holding states — ire. Had Seward become president — as he sought — that Corinthian Hall speech might have been immortal.

But, given the politics of the day and Seward’s pragmatic approach to abolition, the Rochester address —  one he regretted giving —  sabotaged Seward’s hopes for the presidency. Caught in the moment, Steward overstated his case when “speaking to the choir” at Corinthian Hall. Two years later, in 1860, the more politically savvy Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination. It’s fair to say that had Steward stayed out of town and kept his mouth shut, more than likely he would have been the 16th president.

SEE The Presidential Visits Series in its entirety: James Monroe to Donald Trump and The Top 10 People to Run for President and Lose

3. Willian Henry Seward

Willian Henry Seward. Photos provided by Michael Nighan.

William Henry Seward loved to talk. Whether in a private conversation, a chat with a group, or a stem-winder oration before a large crowd, Seward was said to be in love with the sound of his own voice.  But loving to talk doesn’t mean that a politician can foresee the impact of what he, or she, is saying. And that can be costly.

Seward has gone down in history for his “folly” of purchasing the huge frozen territory of Alaska from the Czar of Russia.  A “folly” that came to be recognized as one of the greatest real estate coups in history. But years before, he’d committed what in hindsight was his real folly. Namely giving two misguided speeches. The first would help make him a national figure, and a national target. The second, given in Rochester in 1858, arguably cost him the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1860 with the result that Abraham Lincoln, not William Seward, became our Chief Executive.

SEE On Abraham Lincoln in Rochester

Born in 1801 into a slave-owning family in the lower Hudson Valley, Seward later recalled that his parents had never uttered an expression that could tend to make me think that the negro was inferior to the white person. Seward was such a keen student that, at 15, he was able to persuade his notoriously tight-fisted father to send him to Union College in Schenectady.

Within two years Seward was standing at the top of his class and had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. But, after a falling out with his father over spending money, he abruptly quit school in the middle of his senior year to travel to Georgia with a classmate who had been hired as the principal of a new academy in the hinterlands of the state. But after the classmate changed his mind about taking the position, Seward convinced the trustees to give him the job. Although he enjoyed teaching, he found the treatment of slaves in the Deep South to be barbaric, a far cry from the more genteel form practiced in upstate New York. (1)   Eventually heeding his family’s pleas to come home, he returned to Union College, graduating in 1820. But his experiences in the Deep South had made young Seward an advocate for the emancipation, albeit gradual, of slaves and for personal rights for free African Americans (he was never an abolitionist in the vein of William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass).

As was the practice in those days, Seward began reading the law in the office of an experienced lawyer. Passing the bar exam in 1822, he moved to Auburn in the wilds of western New York where fewer lawyers meant a better chance of success. Within a few years he’d established a successful practice and had found himself a wife. And with his love of talking, he was soon embarking on a career as a politician, albeit a politician who spent the next 30 years jumping from one political party to another.

The year that Seward was passing his bar exam, a young printer’s apprentice, also born in the Hudson Valley, walked into a Rochester newspaper office and asked for a job. Thurlow Weed was a go-getter with the soul of a wheeler-dealer politician but nevertheless with a wide streak of social progressivism. In short order he became editor of a local paper and was elected to the state assembly as the representative for Rochester and Monroe County. In 1828, instinctively sensing that political power can grow from grass roots, Weed capitalized on the outrage over the apparent murder of William Morgan by agents of Freemasonry, and became one of the founders of the Anti-Masonic Party, traditionally seen as America’s first alternative or third party. (2)

Moving to Albany to found a newspaper and to become a force in state politics,   by 1830 Weed had become a political backer of fledgling politician William Seward, helping him gain the Anti-Masonic nomination for a seat in the state senate. Weed would remain Seward’s confidant, chief political advisor and campaign manger for the next three decades (3)

Despite early and impressive Anti-Masonic gains at the ballot box: in the Northeast, they elected two governors, many state legislators — including Seward — and a handful of Congressmen. And in 1832 their presidential candidate, a former Mason, polled 8% of the popular vote running against incumbent Andrew Jackson), Weed and Seward correctly concluded that the party wasn’t a good long-term bet, and opted to jump to the newly-emerging Whig Party, comprised of opponents to the policies of Democrats Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Defeated as the Whig candidate for New York governor in 1834, Seward bided his time, winning the office in 1838.


1838 New York gubernatorial election. Yellow = William L. Marcy, Democratic; Blue = William H. Seward, Whig

Almost immediately Gov. Seward became embroiled with slavery as a political issue. An escaped slave was discovered hiding on a ship from Virginia when it docked in New York harbor. As mandated by federal fugitive slave laws, the runaway was returned to his master. But the authorities in Virginia also demanded the extradition of several free black sailors who they claimed had aided the slave’s escape. Seward refused to comply with the demand. In retaliation, the Virginia general assembly imposed an embargo on trade with New York. Not to be outdone, Seward and the state legislature passed personal liberty laws giving fugitive slaves the right to a hearing, a process which would make it far more difficult for masters to reclaim run away slaves that made it to the Empire State.

Running for re-election in 1840 on a Whig ticket headed by presidential candidate William Henry Harrison (“Tippecanoe”), and VP candidate John Tyler (“Tyler Too”), Seward was re-elected and, though he’d remain in public office until 1869, this was the last time his name would appear on a ballot. (4)


1840 New York gubernatorial election. Blue = William H. Seward, Whig; Yellow = William C. Bouck, Democratic

During his second term, Seward proposed controversial legislation which granted immediate freedom to any slave brought into the state, overturning the previous law which required slaves to reside in the state for up to nine months before they were considered free.

Leaving office at the end of 1842, and finding himself over $200,000 in debt (almost $6,000,000 in today’s currency) due to his lavish lifestyle and losses on various land speculations, Seward turned his attention to rebuilding his law practice.

But in 1846, Seward again became the center of controversy, gaining national celebrity/notoriety when he volunteered to defend William Freeman, a 23 year old, free African American who had attacked and stabbed three white adults and one child to death. Although condemned by many in the community for taking the case — as he wrote to Weed, There is a busy war around me, to drive me from defending and securing a fair trial for the negro Freemen — Seward persevered.  Never arguing that Freeman was innocent, Seward believed that his conduct is unexplainable on any principal of sanity and sought to prevent him from being executed by employing the first recorded use of the insanity defense in the United States.

Freeman, defended by Seward.

Freeman, defended by Seward.

Although Freeman was convicted and sentenced to death, Seward appealed the verdict, arguing that In spite of human pride, he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race—the image of our Maker. Seward obtained a reversal of the conviction and an order for a new trial. However, Freemen died in prison before the retrial could take place. A bronze plaque commemorating this milestone in American jurisprudence can be seen in the Cayuga County Courthouse in Auburn.

Riding the coattails of the 1848 victorious Whig presidential and VP candidates, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore of New York (who had become a political opponent of Seward, both men wanting to be the Big Whig in the state), the Whigs gained control of the state legislature and, as was the practice until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, elected the state’s US senators. Having spent several weeks in 1848 garnering political chits by campaigning for the Whig ticket in New England, along with downplaying concerns that he was too extreme in his anti-slavery views (and after a little wire-pulling by Weed) the legislators elected Seward to the Senate in 1849. (5)


Entering the Senate in the middle of the political firestorm that led to the Compromise of 1850, Seward jumped into the battle with a speech on March 11, 1850, opposing the proposed, far stricter fugitive slave law and other pro-slavery proposals for a compromise.  Delivering a three hour speech, Seward argued that where slavery was concerned, there is a higher law than the Constitution, namely morality, which took precedence over protecting the interests of slave holders.

Although he loved to talk, Seward was no orator. Nor did he look like one. Described by biographer Glyndon Van Deusen as having “keen blue eyes, deep-set and overhung with unruly gray eyebrows, and a nose that jutted out from his face like the prow of a ship,” it was also pointed out that Seward possessed, “no well-calculated gestures, his voice was husky, and he often gave the impression of communing with himself rather than addressing an audience.” His March 11th speech was given in a monotone, and so quietly that many senators couldn’t hear much of what he said. As he spoke, fellow Whigs Henry Clay and Daniel Webster fidgeted and caught up on their paperwork.  The audience gallery — packed each day during the compromise speeches — quickly emptied out.

But although his fellow members of Congress may have ignored what he was saying, the press didn’t and his words were soon being reprinted across the nation.

While acknowledging that the Constitution protected slavery and the rights of slave holders in those states where it then existed, Seward hit his rhetorical peak by stating that the Constitution was not the final word in the question of whether Congress should permit slavery to be established into new states and territories, what he called the “domain” of the country:

But there is a higher law than the Constitution which regulates our authority over the domain and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part—no inconsiderable part—of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe. We are His stewards and must so discharge our trust as to secure, in the highest attainable degree, their happiness.

And now the simple, bold, and awful question which presents itself to us is this… shall we establish human bondage or permit it by our sufferance to be established?

There is not only no free state which would now establish it, but there is no slave state which, if it had had the free alternative as we now have, would have founded slavery. I confess that the most alarming evidence of our degeneracy which has yet been given is found in the fact that we even debate such a question. Sir, there is no Christian nation, thus free to choose as we are, which would establish slavery.

Although his fellow senators may have initially given his efforts short shrift, Seward’s speech was taken seriously outside the halls of Congress. While being attacked by those advocating a compromise with slavery as a dangerous demagogue seeking to undermine the Constitution and the rights of the states, Seward’s supporters regarded him as a leader of “the conscience Whigs” those party members who opposed slavery. New York editor Horace Greeley praised Seward’s attempt to elevate the struggle against slavery to a higher moral and religious plane. In Greeley’s view, Seward’s speech will live longer, be read with a more hearty admiration, and exert a more potential and pervading influence on the national mind and character than any other speech of the session.

Before the month was out, the “Higher Law” speech had been turned into a pamphlet with scores of thousands of copies distributed throughout the North, helping to widen the rift between the Northern and Southern wings of the Whigs. A rift that within a few years would fatally undermined the party.

By the mid 1850s, following his re-election to the Senate by the New York legislature, the obvious decay and dissolution of the national Whig Party caused Seward and Weed to once more switch parties, this time to the nascent Republicans, a party comprised of antislavery Whigs, members of the anti-immigrant American Party, and “free soil” Democrats who did not oppose slavery where it already existed, but wanted to restrict its spread to new territories and new states. Now, as one of the new party’s most prominent members, Seward began to contemplate running for president.

Making clear that his anti-slavery views were more than just political expediency and despite the dangers of flaunting federal law, particularly the new Fugitive Slave Act he had fought against in 1850, Seward and his wife Frances allowed slaves escaping to Canada via the “underground railroad” to shelter in their home. (6) They also provided much-needed financial support for Frederick Douglass’ Rochester newspaper, and befriended and assisted Harriet Tubman, even selling her a parcel of land in Auburn (now the Harriett Tubman National Historical Park) for her home and a headquarters for her Underground Railroad activities.

In 1856, although the Republican Party’s first presidential nomination was Seward’s for the asking, he withdrew his name after Weed advised him that the Democrats were unbeatable that year and that he should wait for 1860 when he’d again be the obvious choice for the Party but with a better chance of being elected president. Unfortunately for Seward, as many politicians have learned since, being viewed as the frontrunner far in advance of the election is not always the best way to be regarded.

Although a familiar figure around Washington, in an age when prominent men reveled in sartorial splendor, Seward was invariably dressed like an unmade bed in old, ill-fitting coat and trousers, and covered with ashes from the cigars he chain-smoked. He also sported a lexicon of profanity which was admired by many for its vividness and magnitude. Now, with his eyes firmly on 1860, Seward and Weed began to plot the course that they were certain would take him to the White House.

But to many observers, Seward was too radical in his anti-slavery pronouncements, too abrasive in his references to the supporters of the “peculiar institution,” too dogmatic in pinning on slave-holders responsibility for the ever-increasing violence the issue of slavery was producing in American life, and still dogged by the repercussions of asserting that there was a “higher law” than the Constitution. It didn’t help that in March 1858 Seward further antagonized Southern slaveholders and their Northern “doughface” supporters by asserting that, regardless of what they believed, slavery was doomed and that their only choice was to decide whether its demise would be accompanied by violence:

The interest of the white races demands the ultimate emancipation of all men. Whether that consummation shall be allowed to take effect, with needful and wise precautions against sudden change and disaster, or be hurried on by violence, is all that remains for you to decide.

In the weeks before Election Day, looking to garner additional local, state and national press to bolster his drive for the 1860 nomination, Seward took to the stump in Auburn, Oswego, Rome and Rochester on behalf of the Republican Party and its candidates. On October 25, 1858, the Rochester Daily Democrat – in spite of its name, the city’s leading Republican paper – touted Seward’s arrival:

There will, of course, be a large concourse at Corinthian Hall this evening, to hear Gov. Seward speak.   We have reason to think that he will deliver a speech which all Friends of Freedom in this city will delight to listen to, and which will be read throughout the country, and exert a great influence in the present crisis in our affairs.” (7)

Rochester Daily Democrat - Oct. 25, 1858

Rochester Daily Democrat – Oct. 25, 1858

Mounting the platform at 7:30 pm to thunderous applause from an overflow crowd, Seward thanked the audience for The unmistakable outbreaks of zeal which occur all around me. He then spoke for an hour and a half, denouncing the Democrats as the protectors of slavery, and asserting that the growing friction between free and slave states would inevitably lead to an irrepressible conflict and a revolution for freedom that could only end with the overthrow of slavery:

Our country is a theatre, which exhibits, in full operation, two radically different political systems; the one resting on the basis of servile or slave labor, the other on voluntary labor of freemen.

The two systems are at once perceived to be incongruous. But they are more than incongruous-they are incompatible. They never have permanently existed together in one country, and they never can

As a general truth, communities prosper and flourish, or droop and decline, in just the degree that they practice or neglect to practice the primary duties of justice and humanity.

Hitherto, the two systems have existed in different States. Increase of population, which is filling the States out to their very borders, together with a new and extended network of railroads and other avenues, and an internal commerce which daily becomes more intimate, is rapidly bringing the States into a higher and more perfect social unity or consolidation. Thus, these antagonistic systems are continually coming into closer contact, and collision results.

7. The Irrepressible Conflict Speech

The Irrepressible Conflict Speech

Shall I tell you what this collision means? They who think that it is accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators and therefore ephemeral, mistake the case altogether. It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free-labor nation.

Whilst I confidently believe and hope my country will yet become a land of universal Freedom, I do not expect that it will be made so otherwise than through the action of the several States co-operating with the Federal Government, and all acting in strict conformity with their respective Constitutions. (8)

I know, and you know, that a revolution has begun. I know, and all the world knows, that revolutions never go backward. Twenty, senators and a hundred representatives proclaim boldly in Congress to-day sentiments and opinions and principles of freedom which hardly so many men, even in this Free State, dared to utter in their own homes twenty years ago. While the government of the United States, under the conduct of the Democratic party, has been all that time surrendering one plain and castle after another to slavery, the people of the United States have been no less steadily and perseveringly gathering together the forces with which to recover back again all the fields and all the castles which have been lost, and to confound and overthrow, by one decisive blow, the betrayers of the Constitution and freedom forever.

The next day’s review of the speech in the local papers was as expected. The Daily Democrat enthused that Corinthian Hall was twice filled, called Seward’s welcome by the city the Greatest Demonstration of 1858, and claimed that that as far as Seward’s speech was concerned, the meeting, which was the largest and most respectable which ever assembled in this city for political purposes, received it with emphatic approbation. The paper ended a bit lamely by saying, the speech itself is before the reader and no synopsis can do it justice.

On the other hand, the city’s Democratic paper, the Union and Advertiser, spent little effort or space in attacking either Seward or his speech, but contented themselves in attacking the audience:

But we wish in a few words, to invite attention to the ludicrousness of an anti-slavery harangue addressed to a hall crowded with anti-slavery partisans, all habited in cotton shirts, all regular consumers of slave-grown rice, sugar and molasses, and a large portion of whom also use large quantities of slave-grown tobacco. These, and such as these throughout the whole of Anti-slaverydom, embracing Europe and the Northern States, are the real supporters of slavery, rather than the men who work slaves to fill the orders for rice, cotton, sugar, and tobacco….we submit that a man who wears a cotton shirt, or who smokes or chews tobacco, or who uses sugar and molasses, should hold his tongue about slavery until he gets ready to repudiate all slave-grown products of every kind.

The reaction to Seward’s “Irrepressible Conflict” speech (he hated the name) in the rest of the country was as immediate as the world’s first information web, the fifty thousand miles of telegraph wire connecting most parts of the United States, could make it. While Republican papers applauding the speech as clear, calm, sagacious, profound, impregnable, the Democrats north and south vilified Seward as a repulsive abolitionist and declared that the speech was a call for the forcible abolition of slavery.

Many slaveholders in the South and the Border States saw the speech as a declaration of war against their way of life. Roger Taney, chief justice of the Supreme Court even declared that was Seward ever elected president; he’d refuse to administer the oath. In addition, that fall’s election results showed that, despite Seward’s best efforts, or perhaps because of them, the Democratic vote in New York had risen significantly and the Republican vote had decreased, from the 1856 results. Horace Greeley, now the country’s most influential, if erratic, Republican editor, stated his opinion that Seward’s Rochester speech had scared voters and that, had it been given a month earlier, the Democrats would have taken over the state government.

Although not unacquainted with controversy, Seward must have been stunned when he realized that his speech had led to him being perceived as far more radical than he was, and more radical than his party might be able to accept, and that years of trying to position himself as a moderate on the slavery question had been undone in 90 minutes in a Rochester lecture hall. His biographer, Van Deusen wrote that Seward later confessed to a friend that if heaven would forgive him for stringing together two high sounding words, he would never do it again.

 Corinthian Hall, site of Steward's 1858 speech.

Corinthian Hall, site of Steward’s 1858 speech.

Huddling with Weed to work on damage control, it was decided that Seward’s best bet was to take a “vacation” in Europe and the Middle East for a few months until the political storm blew over and people forgot what Weed called that unfortunate phrase, Seward wrote to a backer that All our discreet friends unite in sending me out of the country.

But luck and history was against Seward. Returning to America in December 1859, he ran into the backlash provoked by John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and his execution earlier that month.  Although in no way involved with Brown, Seward found himself condemned by Southerners as one of those whose rhetoric helped provoke the attack.

Poking fun at Seward’s apparent attempt to moderate the views expressed in his Rochester “Irresistible Conflict” speech by his subsequent address before the Senate on Feb. 29, 1860, he’s shown tapping a keg to pour a glass of beer while a customer asks, “I notice you draw your ale very mild now, William”, to which Seward replies, “Yes, this is a new tap, some I brewed myself last Wednesday. My customers thought the Rochester ale was rather too strong”.

Poking fun at Seward’s apparent attempt to moderate the views expressed in his Rochester “Irresistible Conflict” speech by his subsequent address before the Senate on Feb. 29, 1860, he’s shown tapping a keg to pour a glass of beer while a customer asks, “I notice you draw your ale very mild now, William”, to which Seward replies, “Yes, this is a new tap, some I brewed myself last Wednesday. My customers thought the Rochester ale was rather too strong.”

Back in the Washington, despite trimming his political sails by denouncing Brown’s actions while calling his execution necessary and just, Seward gave a Senate speech on Feb. 29, 1860 designed to conciliate Southerners by listing all the actions against slavery which Republicans could not take under the Constitution, and once again making clear that Republicans did not advocate immediate emancipation but only sought to limit slavery’s spread, Seward nevertheless continued to be castigated as being morally responsible for Brown’s raid. A resolution passed by the Tennessee state legislature condemned John Brown and his raiders, stating that they were the natural fruits of this treasonable “irrepressible conflict” doctrine put forth by the great head of the Black Republican Party and echoed by his subordinates.  

The New York Herald accused Seward of being personally behind Brown:

The first overt act in the great drama of national disruption which has been plotted by that demagogue, Wm. H. Seward, has just closed at Harpers Ferry…. No reasoning mind can fail to trace cause and effect between the bloody and brutal manifesto of Seward…and the terrible scenes of violence, rapine and death that have been enacted at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah.

Allegedly a Southerner, claiming to represent one hundred gentlemen published a letter offering a $50,000 reward for the head of William H. Seward on a charge of treason. At the same time, his supporters looked as his post-Brown statements as a reason to doubt his commitment to anti-slavery, and began to view him as an unprincipled opportunist trying desperately to straddle the fence.

As a result, as the Republican convention in Chicago drew nearer (opening on May 16, Seward’s 59th birthday, I wonder if he thought it was a good omen.) A number of party leaders were questioning whether Republican chances wouldn’t be better in November behind a less out-spoken candidate with less well-known views. In addition, the anti-Seward forces were openly questioning whether someone who could appeal to voters in states such as Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania, where the slavery issue wasn’t predominant and where Seward’s support was weak, was needed.

Even Horace Greeley, by now a staunch abolitionist, pragmatically wrote to a friend:

I want to succeed this time, yet I know the country is not anti-Slavery. It will only swallow a little anti-slavery in a great deal of sweetening.  An anti-slavery man per se cannot be elected; but a tariff, river and harbor, Pacific railroad, free homestead man may succeed although he is anti-slavery.

Regardless of the fact that Seward had a long track record of supporting such policies, delegates came to the conclusion that he wasn’t the candidate they needed in 1860.

By this point, waiting in the wings was a former one term Congressman from Illinois. A country lawyer and a gifted phrase maker with advisers even more skillful at deal making than Thurlow Weed. Abraham Lincoln would go on to outmaneuver Seward and several other better known hopefuls, to win the Republican nomination. (9)  

Following his election to the presidency, Lincoln began to mend political fences by picking William Seward as his Secretary of State. And the two, after a short interlude when Seward tried less-than-subtly to usurp the policy-making role for the new administration, would become friends and an effective team in preserving the Union. Though himself a victim of an attempted assassination on the night Lincoln was shot, Seward remained Secretary of State in Andrew Johnson’s administration, pushing through his other “folly,” the purchase of Russian Alaska.

Although Rochester is the site of one of the most negatively-influential speeches in American history, without too much exaggeration it can be called “The Speech Which Made Lincoln President,” there’s no monument here commemorating Seward’s “Irrepressible Conflict” address. In fact the only such memorial is a quotation on a brass plaque attached to a bolder in downtown Schenectady noting Seward was a graduate of Union College.

Plaque on Seward Memorial Boulder – Schenectedy, NY

Rochester did eventually honor Seward by naming a street after him.

Seward Street in Rochester

Seward Street in Rochester

And in 1869 the William H. Seward School No. 19, at the corner of Seward and Magnolia Streets was opened. The school was rebuilt in 1898, adding an impressive tower modeled after Independence Hall. But in the 1960s the stately facility became a victim of the short-sighted urban renewal trend of those days and was demolished to make way for a new school built in the monolithic, poured concrete, cubist style then popular with city planners. The school was also given a new name. Out went the “William H. Seward School No. 19” and in came the “Dr. Charles T. Lunsford School No. 19”, named for Rochester’s first African American physician and local civil rights pioneer.


(left) William H. Seward School No. 19 (right) Dr. Charles T. Lunsford School No. 19 From On Dr. Charles T. Lunsford and the house where he entertained Martin Luther King Jr.

I think Seward, after lighting up a cigar, and enjoying a good chuckle about the fickleness of fame, would have approved.



(1) Slavery in the Empire State was not outlawed until the passage of an emancipation act in 1799, an act which, with subsequent modifications, nevertheless kept some individuals enslaved until 1827.

(2) In 1826, William Morgan, an apostate Mason from Batavia and Rochester, decided that the way to climb out of his pile of debts was to publish an expose of the secrets of Freemasonry, an institution already deeply suspect in many minds. In September of that year, having been jailed in Canandaigua on a questionable charge of stealing a neck tie, Morgan disappeared from his cell, never to be seen again. He was subsequently rumored to have been spirited to Buffalo where he was unceremoniously drowned in the Niagara River.

(3) Traveling through Rochester in 1824, the newly-married William Seward and wife lost a wheel off their carriage. Several passer-bys, including the young newspaper editor Thurlow Weed, came to their aid.

(4) Until 1938, the term of office for Governor of New York was two years.

(5) Seward and Lincoln first met in 1848 when the ex-governor of New York and the congressman from Illinois were on a tour of New England states giving campaign speeches on behalf of Zachary Taylor, the Whig Party’s presidential candidate.  Sharing a speakers’ platform in Boston, Seward, a rising national figure received wide publicity for his remarks relating to the need to resolve the issue of slavery. The little-known Lincoln barely rated a mention in the newspapers. Lincoln later praised Seward’s address, while Seward condescendingly referred to Lincoln’s speech as, “a rambling, story-telling speech, putting the audience in good humor, but avoiding any discussion of the slavery question”.

(6) In November 1855, when his wife was away visiting relatives, Seward wrote from Auburn that the “underground railroad” works wonderfully. Two passengers came here last night.

(7) Corinthian Hall had been Rochester’s premier and largest lecture hall and entertainment venue since it’s opening in 1849. In addition to Seward, the building had hosted, or would later host, such luminaries as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Horace Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jenny Lind, and Charles Dickens. The hall was torn down in 1928, with the location marked today by Corinthian Street, an alley running from State Street to the river.

(8) The previous June in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln had kicked off his unsuccessful US senate campaign against Stephen A. Douglas with his “House Divided” speech, part of which stated:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.

A comparison of that phrasing to Seward’s “Irrepressible Conflict” speech has long raised the question as to the extent, if any, to which Seward’s wording was influenced by Lincoln’s. Many biographers claim that a national figure like Seward would not have demeaned himself by copying from a speech by a relative unknown, particularly when that speech had garnered its share of negative comments. That view notwithstanding, it seems certain that Seward, at least unconsciously, had borrowed from Lincoln.

(9) After Lincoln had been nominated, a Seward delegate, backing the traditional call to make the nomination unanimous, nevertheless took a swipe at the successful candidate by declaimed that Seward’s defeat would remain in history an instance of the highest merit uncrowned by the highest honor.

SEE ALSO The Presidential Visits Series in its entirety: James Monroe to Donald Trump

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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