Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Seward House Historic Museum

Touring historic homes is not really my thing for a bunch of reasons.   First, I'm not exactly what you'd call a history buff.  Second, looking at fine china and ridiculously ornate furniture just doesn't do it for me.  Third, these houses often smell funny (even more so on a hot summer day when you are herded into a smallish room with lots of other sweaty tourists).   But Maggie and I found ourselves just down the road from the Seward House Historic Museum after our tour of the Harriet Tubman House and figured what the heck.  It turned out to be quite an interesting stop.

As people who remember their Civil War era history know, William Henry Seward was a pretty interesting guy.  He was a vocal abolitionist who ran against Lincoln for the Republican nomination for the presidency.  In 1858 he made his famous "irrepressible conflict" speech in which he predicted the Civil War.  (Seward viewed the political and economic systems of the free labor North and the slaveholding South as fundamentally incompatible and believed that a war was inevitable in order to determine which system would prevail.)  Many historians believe that Seward would have received the nomination had he been a bit less outspoken in his views.  (Perhaps Romney is a history student and this is why he doesn't appear to have formulated many opinions on the issues that would face him as president.  But I digress.)   Seward settled instead for a place on Lincoln's cabinet as Secretary of State.   While in Washington, Seward continued to work as an abolitionist, and his wife Frances opened their home as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Rendering of the assassination attempt
from the National Police Gazette (April 22, 1865)
The most interesting--and surprising to both Maggie and me--part of the tour was learning that there was an assassination plot to take out Seward and VP Johnson the night that Lincoln was killed.  Seward was supposed to be at Ford's Theater that night with Lincoln but had been in a carriage accident earlier in the week and was laid up in bed with some broken bones.  There was a knock on the front door, and Frederick (one of Seward's sons) found a man with a parcel who said that he had medicine that had to be personally delivered to Seward.  When Frederick resisted letting Lewis Powell (the messenger/would-be assassin) upstairs, Powell pulled a gun and attempted to shoot him.  The gun misfired, so Powell turned it into a club and beat Frederick to the ground.  Seward was being tended to upstairs by his daughter Anna and Sergeant Robinson, a bodyguard.  When Anna opened the door to find out what was going on, Powell spotted her and ran up the stairs, now wielding a knife.  He rushed into the room, stabbed Robinson and ran to the bed where he stabbed Seward several times around the face and neck.   Seward's other son Augustus was also in the house and responded to Anna's cries for help.  Powell fled the room believing that he had accomplished his mission.  Powell was captured the next day.  Seward and all of the others recovered from their injuries.

Whew!  This sounds like it could be a movie.   When we called Maggie's sister to confirm that we weren't just sleeping through our history classes, Maria spewed out the information about the assassination plot.  We momentarily felt a bit stupid until Maria told us that she had just watched "The Conspirator," a 2011 Robert Redford film about the Lincoln assassination and the later trial featuring James McAvoy, Robin Penn Wright, Tom Wilkinson, and Kevin Kline.  Something to add to my Netflix queue!

Seward's home is filled with the inevitable china that was used for state dinners and gifts that he received during his diplomatic journeys (the bear umbrella stand was my favorite).  What was really fun, though, was the foyer filled with 132 photographs of people he'd met along the way that he particularly admired.  The pictures are numbered and are kept in the same (seemingly random) spots where they were hanging when he died.   The portrait of Lincoln is number 66.  The portrait of Seward himself is number 66 1/2 (both because he thought he should have been president and because he and Lincoln turned into good friends).  There were portraits of the Queen of England and the King of Siam and other dignitaries from around the world.  He reluctantly included a portrait of abolitionist John Brown of Harpers' Ferry fame following his death.  (Seward didn't approve of Brown's methods but felt that he deserved some acknowledgment for his work post mortem.)

All in all, the afternoon was an exciting adventure in history and a look at the ways that people worked to make our country great.  (Imagine me waving a flag at this point.)   The exhibit about the Underground Railroad in the Seward House included a placard about what you can do to help make a difference.  The answer is simple:  get out and vote.  

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