Volume XIX · Winter 1964 · Number 2
Mrs. Seward in Washington
--RUTH VAN DEUSEN
Editor's Note: Mrs. Van Deusen has been collaborating with her husband in research which will lead to a definitive biography of William Henry Seward. Her particular interest is in the Seward family correspondence, from which she has been able to draw remarkably fine pictures of members of the family, as well as many of the public figures with whom Seward was associated. Mrs. Seward was an observant woman, with a witty and sometimes caustic pen which added sparkle and test to her letters. It is from her letters to her sister, Mrs. Alvah Worden of Auburn and Canandaigua, that the following picture of Washington protocol in 1850 is drawn.
When Mrs. Seward went to Washington in the late fall of 1849 as the wife of the new Senator from New York, Washington society was only fifty years old. It had, however, established rules of protocol which governed the social activities of government officials with an iron hand. Mrs. Seward was not by nature a woman who enjoyed official social intercourse, but she had been in Albany for a number of "seasons," first as a state senator's wife and later as the wife of the governor, and she had no intention of making any mistakes. She went to Mrs. Carroll, the wife of the clerk of the Supreme Court, and found that, "Senators wives rank next to those of the judges of the Supreme Court who are second only to the Presidents family-of course they are only required to call first upon the Presidents family and the wives of the judges not excepting the Secretaries and foreign ministers."
So, while her family was still sleeping on the floor awaiting the arrival of the furniture, she called at the White House where she saw President Taylor and his daughters. Just a week later they were invited for dinner at the White House. There were about forty guests and Mrs. Seward, being the only Senator's wife, went in to dinner on the President's arm and sat at his right. "The dinner was handsomely served . . . ten courses before the desert [sic]-a variety of wines but no healths drank-We sat down at 6 and rose at 9-took a cup of coffee in the drawing room and came directly home-" To her sister she confided, "I enjoyed the evening very much-the President was very sociable. Henry says he looked at no one but me during dinner." The President complained that he was having difficulty with rules of etiquette, and Mrs. Seward suggested to him that it would be a good idea to have "a book like the Army regulations and reduce such matters to a system that might be studied."
Other wives were not as diligent as Mrs. Seward in ascertaining the correct procedures. "Now some of the wives of the new Secretaries do not understand this and are still waiting for me to call which the initiated say I must not do as it will establish a bad precedent I see the propriety of this and am therefore standing upon my dignity-is it not laughable-I told Mrs Carrol that the ladies in question (who are Mrs Crawford [Mrs. George Walker Crawford of Georgia] wife of the Sec of War-living next door to us-and Mrs Preston [Mrs. William Ballard Preston of Virginia] wife of the Sec of the Navy)-would probably not discover their mistake and feel dissatisfied with me all Winter-She said she should certainly make their duty known to them when she met them-As it is it affords us considerable mirth-" More than a month later she wrote to her sister, "Mrs. Crawford has at length learned that she must call on the wives of Senators first-She has deferred it so long that it will be rather an awkward business-"
Calling did not necessarily mean seeing the person called upon. More often than not, it simply meant leaving a card. "I being first in town have called upon the wives of all the Senators-that is I have left my card Washington etiquette requires nothing more-unless one prefers-" "Most of the ladies whose husbands are members of the Cabinet receive company one evening each week or fortnight Mrs Bliss [the President's daughter] has a 'drawing room' every Friday evening- then there are receptions mornings innumerable-every lady any way distinguished appropriating one morning of each week to herself to receive calls-" Accordingly, Mrs. Seward chose Friday as her time to receive. On February 3, 1850, she wrote to her sister, "My 'reception' Friday was attended by the élite of the city-among others Lady Bulwer [the wife of the British minister] who is pleasing from her natural and easy manner without being in the least assuming because she is the daughter of an English Lord…Mrs. Webster… is a tall well looking woman with an uncommonly fine black eye…."
But careful as Mrs. Seward was to do the correct thing, she brought criticism on herself by calling first on Lady Bulwer. "I acknowledged that I did call first and that I did so knowing that I was acting contrary to the established etiquette but that Sir Henry first sent his card and that I had ventured to deviate in favour of a lady coming to a strange land- however I said if it had occasioned any misunderstanding I would see Lady Bulwer and explain-I came home and sent a note to Lady Bulwer requesting an interview on business-Dennis conveyed the note and returned with the answer that Lady Bulwer was ready to receive me-Henry and I drove round after the adjournment of the Senate…we were ushered into the dining room-Lady Bulwer soon came in received us cordially-I explained the object of my visit-She said she had recently learned that she was required to call first on the Senators wives and being desirous to comply with the established custom had immediately sent her card to every one-She added that her mother had been at the different courts in Europe as Ambassadress where it was only customary for them to make the first visit to the Ministers, though she did not understand the distinction here she was very willing to comply with the requisition-Henry explained to her that this custom was established at the time of the formation of our Government- That there is not in any monarchical government any body precisely corresponding to our Senate… I took my leave after proffering my services if I could be useful in any way-It really did seem hard to me that a lady who had always occupied a position of distinction at home should be compelled to make advances to some persons here who occupy the situation of Senators-"
Every day except Sunday from 12 noon until 4 was thus devoted to visiting or receiving calls. Mrs. Seward found it very tiring, but Mr. Seward was a sociable man, and there were frequent dinners at the house on F Street. The dining room table was designed to seat only four guests, and it was necessary to get a carpenter in to elongate it. "I might just as well have come prepared to entertain any amount of company as it is impossible for Henry to avoid having them." "Thursday we had a dinner party of 6 ladies & gentlemen-Mr & Mrs Edward Stanley N. Carolina Mr and Mrs Hugh White of N. York and Mr and Mrs Warren-Mr Warren is 2nd assistant Post Master General-a warm friend of Henry's-Our dinner was served in the French manner. . . The dinner came at 6-guests stayed until 9-" At one such dinner she describes the menu as follows: ". . . stewed terrapins fried oysters and roast ducks-with all varieties of wine-"
Although Mrs. Seward disliked high society and the demands it made on her time and energy, she did, however, find Washington much more agreeable than Albany in this respect. And she did find time to attend sessions of the Senate and listen to speeches on the Compromise of 1850 by such eminent members as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. These, as well as the social activities, are described at length in her unreserved letters to her sister in Auburn. In one such letter, her general feelings about Washington are well summed up. "I must repeat it again that the society in Washington quite meets my expectations-I can count now among the acquaintances I have made half a dozen women of talents this you will admit is a great deal. . . . It is pleasant to be appreciated for the moderate share of ability one has-probably this is one thing that renders Washington so much more agreeable to me than Albany ever was-People in Washington are not estimated by their dress or the furniture of their houses and in this respect they differ from any other City I have ever seen-"