University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Story of the Seward Papers (Part I)

Volume XXXI · Autumn 1978 · Number 1
The Story of the Seward Papers (Part I)

Historians, American and otherwise, have always been interested in discovering and utilizing the papers of eminent men. Conversely, men of eminence, great or small, have been prone to preserve their accounts, diaries, and correspondence.

Such preservation has sometimes been made with the often mistaken idea that their descendants will read over these mementoes of the past with a worshipful eye. Sometimes the motive has been the honest and honorable conviction that these pieces of paper will reveal the part their original possessor played in the shaping of history, or that they will illuminate ideas making for a better world.

It is impossible to say which, if any, of these motives influenced the first William Henry Seward. It is even conceivable that the mass of letters and documents in his possession "jest growed," after the manner of Topsy, and that he, busy with plans for travel and overwhelmed by the criticism to which he was subjected during his last years, simply became indifferent to their fate. The bulk of the material for the decade of the 1860s was ranked in bound volumes in the library of the Seward home, but many thousands of letters and documents of various kinds remained completely disorganized.

In 1900 Frederick Bancroft published a biography of William Henry Seward. The family, convinced that Bancroft had been unfair in his analysis of the statesman's career, closed the papers to outside inspection, and they remained closed for almost half a century. They rejected Dexter Perkins' request that he be allowed to use the bound volumes in gathering material for his work on the Monroe Doctrine. Only members of the Seward family had access to the Seward Papers.

Time dulled the sense of outrage at the Bancroft biography. Seward's grandson, William Henry Seward III, was growing old, and the disposition of the papers became more and more of a problem. When I was writing my life of Thurlow Weed (Seward's close friend and political ally), I was given access to the material in Mr. Seward's library, and similar permission was given for my life of Horace Greeley. By that time the Sewards and myself were on cordial terms. We all knew that my next biography would be a life of the first William Henry Seward. I longed to have the papers at Rochester, where I could work on them more steadily and effectively, but nobody broached the subject of their disposition.

Then Claire Seward, Seward III's wife, came to me one day with some startling information. Would I be interested in seeing documents and letters that had been stored in the attic of their home? Mr. Seward, badly troubled with arthritis, had not been up there in years, and might have even forgotten about their existence. Would I like to see them?

I shall never forget the sight that met my eyes in that attic. Great masses of material, largely letters to William Henry Seward, were there, some in trunks, boxes, and valises, some bound up in bundles, all covered with the dust of decades.

My main desire was now to get this material, and that in the library, to the University of Rochester Library, where the whole collection could be arranged for preservation and for use. I went to my friend, John R. Russell, then librarian of the University of Rochester, and he eagerly promised to help.

Word of this find soon got around. Yale, a Seward alma mater, wanted those papers. The Library of Congress sent a representative to Auburn to plead for their removal to the Library of Congress. But John Russell and I were also busy. We promised that the papers, if given to Rochester, would have immediate and meticulous care, describing in detail the procedure that would be followed at the University Library. We brought President Alan Valentine to Auburn, and he used his charm with good effect on the Sewards. We had lunch with the Sewards, and mingled praise for the cook with discussion about the disposition of the papers.

At length Mr. Seward made a proposal for dividing the papers. How would it be, he asked, if he left those dealing primarily with Seward's national career (1848-1872) to the Library of Congress, giving those that concerned Seward's earlier career to the University of Rochester? We advised strongly against any such division, urging that the papers could be used more effectively if they were left as a whole to one place or the other.

Finally, Mr. Seward decided to give them in to Rochester. His reasons, he told us, were twofold. He believed that they would be cared for fully as well at Rochester as they would be at the Library of Congress. He also believed, rightly, that they would be made ready for use by scholars much more quickly at Rochester than they would be at Washington. It must also be added that Mrs. Seward, whose influence was considerable, also favored giving the papers to Rochester.

That was how the decision was made. What followed will be told by my ally, John Russell.


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