University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The William Henry Seward Papers

Volume VII · Autumn 1951 · Number 1
The William Henry Seward Papers

In his will, the late William Henry Seward III, of Auburn, bequeathed to the University Library all the collection of correspondence, legal papers, diaries, account books, and manuscript records of his illustrious grandfather, Secretary of State William Henry Seward, and of other members of his distinguished family. This great collection, which has accumulated in the Seward residence in Auburn for well over a century, presents a storehouse of source material for scholars engaged in the study of nineteenth-century American history. Much of the material has scarcely been touched by historians; and the subject matter of those manuscripts which have been used has by no means been exhausted. The generosity of Mr. Seward in placing the collection at the disposal of research workers will be a source of gratification to all who use it in years to come, and the honor conferred on the University by his choice of Rush Rhees Library as a repository, will be a matter of pride to all of us who are members of the institution.

The size of the collection, as well as the quality of the material it contains, places it in the top rank of manuscript collections in this country. A preliminary survey indicates that the total number of items will reach, possibly exceed, one hundred thousand. Some one hundred seventy volumes contain approximately twenty-four thousand letters written to Seward between the years 1840 and 1872, letters concerned largely with his public career. These volumes have been shelved for many years in the library of the Seward home, and represent the material which has been consulted from time to time by scholars working on various phases of American history. Stored away in attics, closets, storerooms, and barns were trunks, packing cases, hampers, and boxes of letters, neatly folded and docketed. Written as early as 1776, and as late as the early years of the twentieth century, the letters in this part of the collection number at least sixty, possibly seventy thousand items. They are much the same as those in the bound volumes-letters addressed to Seward relating to political affairs, and for the most part written by persons of prominence in local, state, or national life. A list of Seward's correspondents reads like a roster of America's leaders in all walks of life during the middle years of the nineteenth century, and the names of many British leaders frequently appear in his correspondence of the fifties and sixties. This vast collection represents material as yet unused by scholars, for the condition of the letters would indicate that they were probably read only at the time of their receipt, and possibly only by the recipient. In his bequest of the manuscripts to the University, the late Mr. Seward made one important exception. All the letters from President Lincoln to Secretary of State Seward, and there are many, were bequeathed to members of his family, and will be retained in Auburn. [Note: In 1987, these letters joined the rest of the Seward Papers at the University, through the good auspices of the Emerson Foundation.]

In addition to the correspondence, the collection is enriched by other types of manuscript records. Twenty-eight volumes of accounts reveal the nature and extent of Seward's legal practice and his private affairs. One box of manuscripts relates to the business affairs and career of Judge Elijah Miller, father of Mrs. Seward, and a prominent figure in central and western New York State history in the early years of the century. Two more boxes contain manuscripts pertaining to the military career and business transactions of General William Henry Seward, son of the Secretary of State. Two more boxes contain the papers of another son, Augustus, whose entire adult life was spent in the service of the United States Army. More than a hundred packets enclose applications for political appointments during the years when Seward served as governor of New York State, from 1838 through 1842. Some thirty more packets contain applications for pardon, made during the same period. There are drafts of Seward's speeches, and of his diplomatic messages, State Department vouchers and receipts, and other financial records.

One part of the Seward papers which deserves special mention is the large collection of family letters. The Seward family of Florida, in Orange County, and the Miller family of Auburn were both families of social prominence in their communities, and families of more than average means. Well over a thousand letters which passed between various members of the two families have been preserved. They are well written, and are often enlivened with keen observations on affairs of the day, interspersed with the usual accounts of births, weddings, and deaths, sermons, social events, and gossip. They present a picture of family life which no social historian can afford to overlook.

Mrs. Seward and her sister Lazette, who became the wife of Alvah Worden, were educated at Miss Willard's seminary in Troy, an advantage which few girls in their locality at that time could boast. Both were well read, and keenly interested in literature and public affairs. Mr. Seward's legal practice and political activities kept him away from Auburn during part of each year from the time he entered state politics in 1830 until his death in 1872. Mrs. Seward, when her health and the activities of her family permitted, accompanied him, spending many months each year in Albany and Washington. During her long absences from home, she wrote to her sister each week, often more frequently, giving in minute detail accounts of social affairs, descriptions of the new fashions, observations on men and events. She was a woman of great discernment, with a witty and sometimes caustic pen. Her "off-the-record" comments, particularly on persons of prominence in Albany and Washington, add sparkle and zest to her letters, which because of their frequency and wealth of detail, read like a diary.

Letters interchanged between Mr. and Mrs. Seward, and their children as they grew into adulthood, reveal a family bound by strong ties of devotion. In 1833, and again in 1859, Mr. Seward traveled extensively in Europe. His long, closely written letters to his family from abroad contain minute descriptions of all he saw and did, and a record of impressions expressed with greater candor than is to be found in his letters to others. The family letters of the Civil War period give a particularly stirring picture. In them we have the story of a family whose members were deeply involved in public life and military affairs, often in grave personal danger; who survived the long trying years of the war only to be struck down by the attempted assassination of Seward and his son Frederick in April, 1865, and the death of Mrs. Seward in June of the same year, brought on by the shock and grief of the preceding months.

Closely related to the family letters are the diaries of Fanny, youngest child of the Secretary. Born in December, 1844, Fanny was first taken to Washington as a child of five. From then until her death at the age of twenty-two, she spent many months there each year, and as she grew older, she accompanied her parents on social calls, to receptions, to the theater and on excursions about Washington, or assisted them in entertaining at home. On Christmas day in 1858 she began a diary which she kept sporadically until October 17, 1866, less than two weeks before her death. In these delightfully written pages she has recorded her youthful impressions of official Washington during the war period, as well as the trials and sorrows through which the family passed during those difficult years.

Accompanying the manuscripts, and an important part of the bequest, is a set of over two hundred bound volumes containing some three thousand pamphlets. This voluminous collection of contemporary opinion on the many controversial issues of the day-internal improvements, the slavery issue, abolitionism, foreign policy, schools, banks, railroads, canals, political parties, and a host of other topics too numerous to mention-is an extremely valuable adjunct to the manuscript collection. Pamphlets are usually read and discarded. A generation after their issue many become extremely rare and difficult to locate. Duplication of the collection given to us by Mr. Seward would today be a monumental task, perhaps an impossible one. To have such a complete and well preserved collection at hand for the use of the historian is an advantage not to be underestimated.

Since the fall of 1949, when the first large group of Seward papers was sent to the University, they have been consulted by an ever widening circle of scholars. Professor Van Deusen, who had used them extensively in the Seward home while working on his biography of Thurlow Weed, has continued to use them in his study of Horace Greeley. Our graduate students have already gained valuable experience in historical research by using them in the preparation of papers for class work; two have used them in the preparation of doctoral dissertations. Visiting scholars have come from as far away as Florida, California, and New Mexico, and from the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Massachusetts. Numerous requests for assistance and information come by mail. The range of topics under investigation by these historians is indicative of the innumerable approaches to a collection of manuscripts of the breadth and extent of the Seward papers. They include, for instance, studies of the disruption of the Whig party, the formation of the Republican party, Michigan's first presidential campaign in 1840, the diplomacy of the Maximilian episode, economic policies of the Republican party, land and the freedmen. Scholars working on studies of Seward as an expansionist, Seward as a social reformer, Seward as an orator, and on biographies of Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, John Harrison Surratt, Cassius M. Clay, and Lewis Powell have thus far used the collection to their great advantage.

A large part of the manuscript collection has already received a preliminary sorting, and the long task of arranging the correspondence in chronological files is nearly complete. The index to the correspondence, already well under way, will take many years to complete. Great masses of financial records, documents, messages, petitions, and other official papers must yet be organized and cataloged before they can be made available to scholars.

The University has begun preparations for housing the collection in a manner befitting its importance.* A large room adjoining the Local History Room on the first floor of Rush Rhees Library has been remodeled, with adequate lighting and air-conditioning. Here the manuscripts, the bound volumes of pamphlets, pertinent books, and memorabilia will be properly preserved and placed at the disposal of qualified research workers. The room, to be known as "The William Henry Seward Room," and the neighboring rooms in which are already stored great collections of nineteenth-century manuscripts, will provide our faculty, graduate students, and scholars from all over the country with suitable surrounding for the innumerable projects on which they may be working for many years to come.

"We hold no arbitrary authority over anything, whether acquired lawfully or seized by usurpation. The Constitution regulates our stewardship; the Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defence, to welfare, and to liberty. 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."

--from Seward's speech delivered in the Senate of the United States March 11, 1850 


* In 1970, an addition to Rush Rhees Library was completed and the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections moved into a new location of the building. At that time, Mrs William Henry Seward III generously provided funding for the "William Henry Seward Room" in the department. 

Links to additional essays or collections:

  • Information about the Microfilm edition of the Seward Papers
  • The register for the Seward Papers
  • The register for the Seward Papers Addition