University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Thurlow Weed Collection

Volume I  ·  February 1946  ·  Number 2
The Thurlow Weed Collection

The University of Rochester Library has recently received an outstanding gift consisting of a large and important part of the Thurlow Weed Collection which has been on deposit in the Library for several years. This generous gift was made by Thurlow Weed's great-granddaughters, Mrs. Harriet Weed Hollister Spencer, Mrs. Elizabeth Hollister Frost Blair, and Mrs. Isabelle Hollister Tuttle, and comprises twenty volumes of original letters, about 1300 financial records and miscellaneous manuscripts, twelve volumes of early American newspapers, and several volumes of scrapbooks, pamphlets, and books relating to Thurlow Weed's career. While all this material is of historical interest and importance, the most valuable part of the gift consists of the bound volumes of letters. These volumes include approximately 1750 letters from William Henry Seward, Millard Fillmore, Hamilton Fish, and other prominent men of the nineteenth century.

In conjunction with this gift Mr. Thomas G. Spencer has presented three volumes of the Rochester Telegraph covering July, 1818 - June, 1819 and December, 1822 - September, 1825. The first volume of this newspaper is of special interest because it was originally the property of Henry O'Rielly, Rochester's pioneer historian, who gave it to Thurlow Weed, at one time editor of the Rochester Telegraph. Bound in the volume is a letter of presentation from O'Rielly to Weed.

From an historian's point of view it would be difficult to exaggerate the value of the Thurlow Weed Collection, of which these recent gifts form an important part. Its great range (there are items as early as 1816 and as late as 1882), its thousands of letters from men and women in all walks of life, the wealth of historical material furnished by these letters in particularly crucial periods of the nation's life, all bear witness to its importance, and to the importance of the man whose name it bears.

Thurlow Weed was born in 1797 of parents with very little worldly wealth who lived near the small town of Acra in Greene County, New York, almost within the shadow of the Catskill Mountains. His boyhood home was a log cabin, and he early became accustomed to the hardships and privations of the New York frontier. He was undaunted by those hardships. "It is pinching times, but I am determined to stand it," he once wrote to a friend when, as the father of a growing family, he found himself unable to provide them with any food save bread and butter. Stand it he did, with eminent success.

Weed grew up with the country, went into newspaper work first as a journeyman printer and then as an editor, fought his way to a position of great political power, and died a millionaire in 1882, a rich man in America's Gilded Age. Colorful, dynamic, astute, generous of disposition but strong of will, "a master of political adjustments," as Dixon Ryan Fox once called him, he was the "Dictator" of New York State Whig and Republican politics for over a generation, and an outstanding journalist as well. He held no office, save for two brief terms in the State Assembly. He was a political deus ex machina, a power behind the throne, a mighty influence in the national councils of his party, and, when he went to England and France as a special agent in the Winter of 1861-1862, a propagandist extraordinary to the nations beyond the Atlantic.

Weed was a friend to the great. He was also a friend to the lowly. He knew and valued comfort and luxury. He also knew that when bedbugs drove him out of a Niagara Falls hotel the best chance of a good night's rest was in a nearby barn whose mow was filled with fragrant, new-mown hay, and he promptly proceeded to demonstrate that knowledge for the benefit of his more effete city-raised companions. He could whip refractory politicians into line with words that burnt and stung. He could and did also play the part of a benevolent nineteenth-century Franklin. Take him for all in all, he was a remarkable man. The papers of such a man are bound to possess remarkable values. Perhaps a few specific illustrations will serve to make those values clear.

About a decade ago, Dr. Milton W. Hamilton was looking up material for a study of the early country printers in New York State. He became interested in a violent controversy between two newspapers that were published in the town of Norwich. One of these papers, the Norwich Journal, was edited by John F. Hubbard. The other,The Republican Agriculturalist, was put out by a young man named Thurlow Weed. Dr. Hamilton found this controversy extremely interesting, and wrote an excellent article about it that was published in New York History, but he was limited in his analysis by inability to discover any files of the Agriculturalist. Those files have since been found in the Thurlow Weed Collection. They are extremely valuable for the light they throw not only upon the controversy between Weed and Hubbard, but also upon frontier life in upper New York State at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Prices, politics, the trials and tribulations of everyday living, the customs and interests of a frontier community, all are mirrored in the pages of this rural weekly.

There are other interesting newspapers in the Thurlow Weed Collection, but its principal values lie in its thousands of letters. Weed was closely in touch with most of the important events in the nation's history from 1824 to 1872, and this intimacy is reflected in his correspondence. There the student of political history finds vast quantities of material dealing with state and national political campaigns, with the rise of Jacksonian Democracy, and Whiggery, and the Republican party, with territorial expansion, the Civil War and Reconstruction, with the more sober but nevertheless all-important drudgery of running a great political machine. There the workings of the spoils system with its good as well as its bad features are strikingly portrayed. Nor are these letters simply concerned with the problems of politics and government.

The Weed papers contain much information relating to social and economic history. The student who is looking for information regarding early temperance movements, or the rise of abolitionism, will find much that is rewarding in a study of this collection. There is a good deal of material here that Illustrates the speculative mania of the 1830's in graphic fashion. It may be that a student wishes to know something about the way in which nineteenth-century brokerage accounts were kept. If so, the papers for the 1850's and 1860's are grist to his mill. And for every student of history, whether his interests are economic, political, or social, there is an abundance of evidence as to the way in which economics and politics became more and more closely intertwined as the nineteenth century rolled on.

While the Weed papers are rich in information dealing with major historical trends and movements, they have also much to offer those who are interested primarily in personal relationships and the lives of prominent individuals. Here are some nine hundred letters from William Henry Seward, intimate and free in their revelations of the Auburn stateman's aims, frank in opinions regarding his contemporaries, revealing as to his passionate ambition and his generous idealism. There are sixty-eight letters from Hamilton Fish, the able and courteous conservative whom Weed made governor of the state, and who later became Secretary of State in the first Grant administration. One hundred and six of Governor Edwin D. Morgan's letters to the "Dictator" of the Republican machine are preserved in this collection. There are sixty-four letters from John Bigelow, editor of the New York Evening Post, Minister to France, and staunch defender of Weed when many other leading Republicans had turned against their erstwhile chieftain. Horace Greeley, Erastus Corning, Daniel Webster, Archbishop Hughes, and many others also wrote to Weed, and their letters are here open to inspection by all serious and careful students of the past. Nor should six Lincoln letters be forgotten, letters that remain in the possession of Weed's descendants and are kept on deposit at Rush Rhees Library.

The names of Weed's correspondents make up a roster that is distinguished and impressive. The ideas of men like Fish and Seward and Morgan, as well as those of less well-known friends and political allies, have a peculiar virtue for historians when expressed in private correspondence. Such expression, intended for the eye of the recipient rather than for the public, comes much closer to the real thoughts and feelings of the writer than any speech or essay. It is the private letters of the past, rather than great orations or even the files of newspapers, that give the greatest amount of historical light. Sometimes this light simply illuminates the hopes and fears, the strength or the weakness of the writer; but often it shines still further, clarifying motives and events that have been vital to the nation's destiny.

It is difficult to achieve an adequate conception of the characters of Thurlow Weed and William Henry Seward without reading their letters to one another, for only there is revealed the true quality of that noble affection which bound the two men together, only there (outside of private conversation) did they display their inmost hopes and fears and ambitions. No one can truly measure the greed of place seekers until the letters written by such men to Weed and Seward have been read. There it appears in all its grossness, naked and unashamed. Often the letters of a statesman will reveal points of view or knowledge of popular opinion that is concealed from the eyes of ordinary individuals. This is illustrated in a letter from Seward to Weed written from Washington on June 25, 1861. The Civil War had just begun and the Secretary of State wrote that many people wanted action, often cruel action. Then he added, "Forty letters a day come complaining that we don't kill prisoners taken in war." This was not a thing that a political leader who was seeking a united war effort could complain about in public. It had to be and was reserved for his private correspondence.

The Weed papers, classified, arranged in chronological order, carefully indexed, scrupulously guarded against deterioration, are available to all who care to study them. Already men and women from all over the country have come to Rochester for the purpose of examining the collection. Others, prevented from coming here by distance or by the exigencies of wartime travel, have written, requesting copies of letters and information about specific points in their fields of interest. For these papers have gifts for all who come to use them. Here the university student, the producing scholar, and the professor emeritus who is working on what may be his last and greatest book, may dig with equal freedom for buried treasure, and all may profit by the digging.

The Weed papers are not the only historical source materials in Rush Rhees Library that deal with the nineteenth century in America. They can and should be used in conjunction with such important collections as the George W. Patterson papers (now on deposit at the Library through the courtesy of Mrs. Frank W. Crandall); the nearly three hundred Weed to Seward letters, generous gift of the latter's grandson, William Henry Seward; the Porter papers; and other collections as well. Indeed, the value of the Thurlow Weed Collection steadily increases as the University's manuscript resources expand in volume, and cross references to the related collections multiply.

So it is with good reason that the number of visitors to the Local History and University Archives Department of Rush Rhees Library steadily increases. There the University of Rochester is developing one of its most effective and important services to our culture. It is making available the raw materials of history, materials that must be studied with infinite care and patience if we are to understand the evolution of the present out of the past. There the Thurlow Weed Collection forms the nucleus of a collection of historical source materials that cannot safely be neglected by any student of the history of nineteenth century America.