University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Seward's Visit to Harriet Martineau

Volume VII · Autumn 1951 · Number 1
Seward's Visit to Harriet Martineau

During his trip to Europe in 1859, William Henry Seward was entertained by notables of many countries. Conversation was sought with him to discover his opinion of the current slavery tension in the United States. In turn Seward was interested in the European reform movement, especially as it was developing in England. He met and talked with the great nineteenth-century liberals, Palmerston, Grey, Russell, and Macaulay. This keen interest in English reform and his own position on slavery highlighted in his recent "irrepressible conflict" address led to the Democratic accusation that Seward made the trip to gain the support of the English abolitionists for his candidacy in the coming presidential election of 1860. Although this accusation was obviously a political strategem, it did reflect the mutual political interest of British and American abolitionists.

An interview indicative of this international sympathy, which Seward fully recorded in a letter to his wife, Frances, occurred during his visit to England. Harriet Martineau, English reformer, had been openly opposed to slavery before her celebrated visit to America in 1835, and, influenced by abolitionist meetings in Boston, she had been converted to that cause. After returning to England, she continued to devote much of her time and energy to the movement, and a month after Seward's arrival in England sought this interview with him.

The letters printed below are Miss Martineau's invitation to Seward and his description of his visit. -- Jane H. Pease.


June 29/59

My dear Sir

I have been inquiring in two or three directions how to get at you, in order to say how thankful I should be for a little conversation with you if you should be traveling in this direction; and now I hear from my cousin, Mr. Keene, that he has had the pleasure of making your acquaintance, and has done me the kindness of opening the way for our meeting. He tells me that he has explained my position, and told you "all how and about it"; so I will only say that if I had been better, instead of worse, than when Mr. Keene was here last autumn, I should have asked the favour of you to make my house your inn, while in this neighborhood. But I am so ill that it is really impossible to invite any guest. If we know when you are coming, however, my niece, Miss Maria Martineau, will take care that, amidst the throng of summer tourists, you shall have comfortable accommodation in Ambleside. It seems very audacious to invite any guest when I can only converse for a short time; but I need not tell you why I am anxious for conversation with you on the affairs of your country. Perhaps you are aware that I have other personal gratifications in view in obtaining information on American affairs, and in discussing American interests.

Permit me to add that my high respect for you personally makes me particularly thankful for the prospect of becoming acquainted with you.

Believe me truly yours

Harriet Martineau

Kier [i.e. Keir], Scotland, July 3d 1859

My dearest Frances,

My diary leaps today over as much of space as it does of time. Occupations and travel have left me no leisure to write sooner.

I left Birmingham on Friday morning and passed hurriedly through Lancaster and other towns, discerning by the boldness of the outlines of the scenery and the less studied and elegant cultivation of the fields that I was entering a mountainous country after I had passed the line on which Liverpool and Manchester and Staffordshire the great English manufacturing Districts stand. At three o'clock I reached Kendall where a short haul of the rail road bore me through hills towering like the Onondagas to the valley of the English Lakes in Westmoreland and Cumberland. Windermere is exaggerated into a water of ten miles in length and Ullswater about as great. Grassmere is inconsiderable in dimensions. The English Lakes deserve the celebrity and affection they receive at the hands of Englishmen for to say the truth the Southern and Midland portion of their Island is painfully monotonous. But only a perverted American mind could come here to seek either lakes or mountains. Greenwood in Orange County, Lake George and the Thousand Islands far surpass anything on this island in native richness and beauty. And even our own loved lakes at home are infinitely more varied and attractive, as will be seen fifty years hence when genius shall have consecrated them as it has done the English Lakes for the worship of fashion. I saw the homes of Hemans, of Christopher North, and of Wordsworth in the vicinity of Lake Windermere, and I reverence it for these noble associations. But I went there not to see even the deserted haunts of poets, much less to study the natural beauties of the Lakes but for a different purpose, namely to see an intellectual and noble woman Harriet Martineau. I found her residence at Ambleside the head of the Lake, a quaint village of black slate stone without mortar. A few years ago a mere hamlet, now having all the bustle and energetic trifling of the Catskill Mountains or Lake George or other summer resorts of the pleasure seekers. Having secured a "bed room" (so they say here) at the "Salutation" Inn and ordered dinner, I doffed my sheeps grey tourist garb and donning a black coat and waistcoat, presented myself at a neat cottage home which I reached through winding lanes bordered by flowering shrubs and roses and which looked over a lawn down upon Lake Windermere. Does Miss Martineau live here. She does. Is she at home. She is. I have called to inquire whether she would see me. You are aware that Miss Martineau is an invalid and obliged to deny herself to society. Yes, and I did not expect that she would receive me now, but I had a hope that at some time during my stay here she might not be unable or unwilling to see me. Please give her this letter with my card, and I will wait to know her pleasure. The letter and card were delivered. Miss Martineau a niece appeared. "My aunt will be delighted to see you, and she has been looking for you, but just now she is more than usually unwell. Perhaps tomorrow? said I. Oh no, an hour or two hence-say eight o'clock. At that hour I was there again. Miss Martineau received me in the drawing room. She was seated and excused herself on the ground of being unable to rise. She appears florid and really handsome, something past sixty, a benevolent countenance, with matronly ways and manner. She applied her ear trumpet and we talked right on an hour and a half, chiefly of course about the great American question. Her intercourse has been chiefly with Garrisonian Abolitionists, and she spoke almost constantly from their standpoint. And of course she was very despondent. I gave her my own more practical views, and spoke of course hopefully if not confidently. She did not hesitate to repeat a question when my answer was not distinctly heard or understood. She betrayed or rather confessed an opinion that I was a politician rather than an abolitionist of her school. I explained to her that there was need of organizers of the Anti-slavery movement as well as of disorganizers of the Proslavery forces, and that I believed even Theodore Parker and Wendell Phillips were content that I should act in my own way. She readily understood and accepted all these explanations. Then asked about our prospects of Republican success next year adding "I know your interest in it." I replied, that I did not have any assurance of such an interest, as she alluded to, nor was I so sanguine as others were of success next year for the cause, but that I was sure of onward progress and of ultimate triumph.

At length she said, You will not go away tomorrow, you will come back. I replied that probably I could do neither, which I nevertheless deeply regretted. She said my strength is giving out. I have several days been much worse, and I must forego this conversation now. You know what is the matter of me. No. It is an enlargement of the heart, and conversation exhausts me. It is not nerves at all. It is an incurable disease. I only abide its ultimate development, but I am cheerful. I should indeed be better if I did not work, but we can't help but work when there is so much to be done. She took up some ornamental embroidery or needle work that lay before her, and said I have made seventy pounds ($350) this season by such work, for the Abolition cause, and that will go a good way you know in sustaining papers and lectures. I bade her adieu at ten o'clock with sentiments of increased respect and affection, and with rather vain promises to go there again.

At half past eight on Saturday morning, I returned to the line of the railroad and made my way Northward with some delays and interruptions, to Carlisle. A detention of two hours enabled me to ride through the town and see the country people there in the bustle and excitement of a market day. I visited the Fort and the Cathedral, but found nothing worthy of especial notice.

No sooner had I passed Carlisle than mountains naked of timber and sometimes even of heather, with intervening valleys in which people were cutting out peat for fuel, surrounded me. The conversation of the people became more provincial, the men and women wore more angular countenances, and were dressed less studiedly, barefoot children were running about at the stations, and I learned from all these indications that I was entering Scotland. Tall chimneys and coarse stacks of buildings appeared frequently on either side rising above the ruins of baronial castles. The neat and luxurious hedges so universal in England gave place to mighty stone walls, and the eye could perceive mountain slopes of ten miles in length unobstructed by groves or trees. Sheep were seen on the summits of the hills in infinite numbers and everything looked as if nature had denied to this region just in proportion as she had blessed the other parts of the island.