By Patrick Eakin
Horatio Seymour was the governor of New York during the anti-draft riots of 1863. The Democrats nominated him for president of the United States in 1868.
He was born in Pompey Hill, Onondaga County, New York on May 31, 1810. His name, Horatio, honored his Uncle, Senator Horatio Seymour of Vermont, who had served from 1821 to 1833. His father, Richard, a New York state senator, served on the canal commission, held part ownership in a mercantile store, and was also a banker. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of General Jonathan Forman. General Forman had served as an intelligence officer for George Washington, and had commanded troops during the Whiskey rebellion.
Even though young Horatio came from a prominent family, he took his place in the public school until he was ten years old. He later attended the local Oxford Academy, and in 1824 he enrolled at the Geneva Academy, which we now know as Hobart College. A year later he was a student at Partridge’s Military School at Middleton, Connecticut. Seymour’s scholastic ability, and perhaps some favorable circumstances, gave him the opportunity to study law under two of New York’s leading attorneys, Greene C. Bronson and Samuel Beardsley. Bronson had served as the state’s attorney general from 1829 to 1836, and on the state court of appeals from 1847 to 1851. Samuel Beardsley had been a member of the US House of Representatives and served as Chief Justice for New York State in 1847. In 1832 Seymour passed the New York Bar exam. However, handling the affairs of his own families property, and later those of his wife’s family, took up most of his time and kept him from pursuing a career in law.
Seymour married Mary Bleecker in 1835. The Bleeckers had been one of Albany New York’s most prestigious families.
In 1833, as a result of his family’s favorable relationship with prominent Democrat, and future president, Martin Van Buren, Governor William Marcy retained Seymour as his military secretary until 1839. Marcy later served as Secretary of War for James K. Polk, and Secretary of State for Franklin Pierce.
The Panic of 1837 left Seymour’s father with no hope for the future. Depressed, and seeing no way of providing for his family, he killed himself. After helping his Mother and siblings recover from the shock of their terrible personal loss, Horatio carefully managed what was left of the family estate. He succeded in providing his family with more than enough to maintain an adequate lifestyle. Years later, at the pinnacle of his political career, some of Seymour’s political opponents would remind the public of the suicide and raise the question of Seymour’s own mental stability.
In 1841 he ran, as a Democrat, and won a seat in the New York State assembly. A year later, he ran for Mayor of Utica and defeated Whig candidate Spencer Kellogg, a merchant who had been instrumental in bringing steam powered looms to Oneida County. After serving his two year term, Seymour was defeated for re-election by Frederick Hollister, the founder of a textile company named the Standard Silk Company, losing by only 16 votes. Later that same year, he was re-elected to the state assembly. As Chairman of The Committee of Canals he urged the state to use the canals surplus revenue to construct new locks on the Erie Canal. He also favored building new canals on the Black River and the Genesee Valley. He saw the canal system as essential to building trade routes to the West. During the debate over the canals, some legislators believed that foreign loans would be necessary, but Chairman Seymour would prove to be correct when he convinced them that revenue earned by the canals would be sufficient to pay for building costs.
In 1844 he was reelected to the state assembly, and became the Speaker of the state’s House of Representatives in 1845. During that time the Democrats were deeply involved in intra-party squabbles. The constant verbal banter may have convinced Seymour to leave the legislature at the end of his term. In 1848 he served as chairman for the Democrats’ state convention.
In 1850 the Democrats nominated Seymour for Governor of New York, but he lost to the Whig’s candidate, Washington Hunt by less than 265 votes. Hunt had been an advocate for repealing or modifying the Fugitive Slave law. That same year, Seymour’s cousin, Thomas Hart Seymour, became the governor of Connecticut. After serving his term, Cousin Thomas later served as the minister to Russia for President Franklin Pierce. During the Civil War he sympathized with the South on the slavery issue and became a leading advocate for a negotiated settlement
In 1852, when the Democrats met in Baltimore for their national convention, Seymour led a delegation determined to make William Marcy the candidate. The delegates were divided between New York’s William Marcy, Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan, and Illinois’s Stephen Douglas. After much debate, the convention finally agreed on dark horse candidate Franklin Pierce.
Seymour returned home and defeated Washington Hunt by over 22000 votes. One of the first acts signed into law by Governor Seymour authorized the merger of the state’s railroads to form The New York Central Railroad. The new bigger and more efficient railroad would make the Erie Canal obsolete.
Seymour had decided not to seek re-election in 1854 and instead expressed a desire to move west. He had written to his former employer, now Secretary of State, William Marcy, and had requested that he be recommended for the governorship of the Nebraska Territory.
Back in New York, the local Democrats saw him as their strongest and most able candidate. Reluctantly, Seymour succumbed to their appeals and agreed to run for another term as governor. Temperance became one of the big issues of the campaign after the legislature had passed a bill outlawing the sale of alcoholic beverages. Governor Seymour vetoed the bill saying it was unconstitutional. It was a close election. Seymour lost by just over 300 votes to Myron H. Clark, the candidate who ran with the support of the temperance movement. As governor, Clark had made several attempts to ban the sale of alcoholic drinks. The stand against prohibition had been a strictly constitutional decision for Seymour. He did not enjoy alcohol and therefore had no personal reason to keep it legal in New York. Upon reviewing the law, the state’s Supreme Court would agree that the law banning the sale of alcohol was unconstitutional. Another factor in Seymour’s defeat was the division of votes between four candidates. Ironically, one of candidates had been his former law instructor, Greene C. Bronson.
When the Democrats met in Cincinnati for their 1856 convention delegate Seymour strongly supported the nomination of James Buchanan for president and John C. Breckinridge for Vice President. During the campaign Seymour made a speech in Springfield Massachusetts. “That government is most wise which is in the hands of the best informed about the particular questions on which they legislate, most economical and honest when controlled by those most interested in preserving frugality and virtue, most strong when it only exercises authority which is beneficial to the governed.” The speech gained national attention and President Buchanan offered Seymour a position as a foreign minister, but he declined.
After the Southern states had announced their plan to secede, Seymour, who at that time was in Wisconsin, helped organize the state’s volunteers. When he returned to Utica New York he rallied the crowd with a speech defending the Union. He denounced Lincoln, but called on the people to support the war effort against the Rebels. Working with Governor Edwin Morgan, Seymour helped the state organize troops for the war to save the Union. Governor Morgan had served as the chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1856 to 1864, and also served as a major general for the New York volunteers.
Seymour returned to politics in 1862 when the Democrats nominated him again to be the governor of New York. He declared that the war could have been avoided, and criticized the policies of the Lincoln administration. He defeated the Republican’s candidate, General James Wadsworth, who had been serving as the military governor of the District of Columbia, by over 10,000 votes. General Wadsworth returned to military duty which included the battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.
In his inaugural address, January 7, 1863, Governor Seymour said, “The assertion that this war was the unavoidable result of slavery is not only erroneous, but has led to a disastrous policy in its prosecution. The opinion that slavery must be abolished to restore our union creates an antagonism between the free and the slave states. Which ought not too exist.” Despite his differences with Lincoln, Governor Seymour did see that 12,000 New York state militia reported for duty at Harrisburg Pennsylvania.
A clause in the draft law allowed men to buy their way out of duty by having a proxy fight for them. Protestors began demonstrating in New York’s streets against unfair draft laws. The protests soon got out of control and became the notorious draft riots. They lasted four days causing destruction of property and the loss of life. Governor Seymour appeased those who opposed the draft by asking Lincoln to suspend it in order to give New York a chance to organize volunteers. The President was sympathetic but he still refused to halt the draft. New York State eventually won concessions from Congress when the draft quotas for New York City and Brooklyn were found to be “erroneous and excessive’.
Seymour’s efforts to empathize with the rioters, most of whom were from poor working class families, could be compared to future Democrats whose allegiance to labor became the basis for their political ideals.
In early December of 1863 Seymour was being considered as a possible candidate to challenge Lincoln in the next election with one report saying, “Next to General McClellan, Horatio Seymour is the most prominent of the Democratic candidates.” When the Democrats made their choice at their convention in 1864, Seymour reluctantly supported candidate General George B. McClellan. That same year he lost the governor’s office to Republican Reuben E. Fenton, by over 8000 votes. Fenton had been one of the founders of the Republican Party. He has been noted for his efforts to provide aid and educational opportunity for Union veterans. Fenton also signed the charter establishing Cornell University.
In 1866, despite his differences with Congress, President Andrew Johnson had hoped to organize the Union Party that had successfully elected Lincoln and him in 1864. But by 1868 the Republican Party ran under its own banner and nominated Ulysses S. Grant for president and Speaker of the house Shuyler Colfax for vice president.
The Democrat’s met in New York’s new Tammany Hall. The list of delegates included financier Augustus Belmont, the politically influential Boss Tweed, Clement Valladigham, who had attempted to negotiate a peace with the Confederate States, and Confedrate general, Nathanial Bedford Forrest. The most prominent candidate was George Pendleton, the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee from the previous national election. Seymour served as the convention’s chairman.
A major financial issue was the “Ohio Idea” proposed by popular candidate George Pendleton: Government bonds could be repaid with greenbacks. Seymour, a strong supporter of hard currency, disagreed and threw his support behind Indiana’s Thomas Hendricks, who later served as vice president under President Cleveland. After twenty-one ballots it became obvious that no candidate had enough votes, not even the popular George Pendleton, or Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. Seymour had warned the delegate earlier that he had no desire to serve as the party’s nominee. While he was absent from the podium the Ohio delegation appealed to the convention, “Let us vote for a man who the Presidency has sought, and who has not sought the Presidency”. A rally started and the convention nominated Seymour unanimously as their candidate. In later years Seymour would remember his failure to avoid the nomination, “as the mistake of my life”.
The convention selected Francis P Blair jr, of Missouri, to be the nominee for vice president. At the beginning of the secession crises, he helped lead the fight to keep Missouri in the Union. He achieved the rank of Major General in November of 1862. His father was the Publisher of the Washington Globe and one of the founders of the Republican party. His brother, Montgomery Blair, served as Lincoln’s Postmaster General. One of the more controversial issues concerning reconstruction was suffrage for the former slaves. It was one thing to ask the South to give up ownership of their “Negro property”, it was quite another to ask them to treat Negroes as equals at the polling place. Blair left no doubt as to his opinion on Negro suffrage when he said, “I take the broad ground that the white race is the only race in the world that has shown itself capable of maintaining free institutions of a free government.”
The campaign of 1868 got off to an uneventful start. Grant saw no need to campaign, as everyone already knew who he was, and Seymour thought it was beneath the dignity of a presidential candidate to give public speeches. In the first post war election, the Republicans nominated a man who had shown no interest in the Party’s political policies prior to accepting the nomination. The Democrats nominated a man, with a checkered history of wins and losses, who had stated very clearly that he had no desire to be the nominee. It is somewhat bewildering as to why, at a time when our nation was rebuilding from the terrible horrors of the war, in addition to the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, and the political crises caused by the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, that no experienced legislative leader could gain enough control to emerge as a true and active leader.
The Democratic platform presented the following demands:
1. The immediate restoration of all the states to their rights in the Union, under the constitutional and civil government.
2. Amnesty for all past political offenses, and the regulation of the elective finances of the states by their citizens.
3. The payment of public debt of the United States as rapidly and practicable as possible.
4. Equal taxation of every species of property according to its real value. Including government bonds and securities
5. One Currency for the government and the people.
The pro-Democrat press had this to say about their candidate: “For twenty years no man has exerted a wider influence than Governor Seymour upon public affairs in the Democratic Party. No man is better known or more highly admired.” The compliments concluded with, “He is the pride; he is the ornament of the Empire State.” As for their opinion of the Republican candidate: “Having declared that the principals of the Declaration of Independence should be made a living reality in every inch of American soil, they put in nomination a military chieftain who stands at the door of the system of despotism that crushed beneath its feet the grand principals of the Declaration of Independence.”
The Ohio Democrat of New Philadelphia Ohio, described Seymour as a “practical farmer who personally cultivates his large farm in Deerfield, Oneida County New York, and lived under the same roof as his hired men.” The paper also mentioned that Seymour had been the president of the local dairymen’s association.
Throughout the campaign, the Democrats wanted to emphasize the fact that compared to the Republican candidate, who had spend his entire career as a soldier, their candidate was by far the more politically savvy, and intellectually prepared for the responsibilities of the presidency. The Democrats called it “Brains versus Buttons”. The Republicans reminded the voters, “Buttons” was receiving the surrender of Vicksburg , as “Brains” was telling his dear friends that the Rebels could not possible be conquered.
A quote from the Republican press said, “The record of Horatio Seymour for the past twelve years ought to defer any freeman from voting for him who does not desire to be a slave.” They also wrote, “Horatio Seymour said that the South should be allowed to withdraw from the Union, rather than that slavery should be overthrown to save the Union. Grant said Not so. Horatio Seymour said, to prevent revolution by force would place the nation foremost in overthrowing the principles of our government. Grant said Not so.” In another part of the same paper: “A quote from a Union soldier: Ulysses S. Grant bared his breast to Rebel bullets. Horatio Seymour opened his heart to Rebel Cheers.”
The Democrats knew they would have to muddy Grants “hero” image if they were to have any chance of winning the election. Accusations of “Grant the drunkard”, and “Grant was seen drunk in public” were made in order to deter voters from casting their votes for the Republicans. Grant was also accused of being the father of an Indian woman’s daughter.
When it became apparent that there would be no way to stop the newly freed Negroes from voting, a bit of “Southern logic” was used to persuade the Negroes to vote for Seymour. In an editorial titled “The Colored Voter: A Sober Appeal to His Interest and His Sober Reason”, a Nashville newspaper told the former slaves they owed their freedom to the Democrats and they should vote for the Seymour-Blair ticket. According to their reasoning, “If your state and her sister Southern states had not seceded from the Union you would not today be free.”
For the Republicans, Grant’s status as a war hero was not enough to guarantee the majority of the popular vote. In the previous war time election Democrat George McClellan had won almost forty-five percent of the vote proving that northern Democrats still preferred their own party’s candidates. Reconstruction of the South was the main issue of the campaign, and when the votes were counted it had been the Negro voters who gave Grant the majority he needed to carry the popular vote. Grants majority was only 310,000 votes, but that was enough for 214 electoral votes, as compared to Seymour whose seven states only gave him twenty-one electoral votes. It should be noted that Louisiana and Virginia did not participate in the election, and we can only speculate how many former Rebels refused to participate in the Southern states won by General Grant.
Following the election Seymour returned to private life. He had been criticized for failing to use his position as a major party leader when he took no part in the investigation of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. As far as post war policies were concerned he viewed Reconstruction as a “policy of revenge, not reconciliation.” He turned down the state’s request to be their US Senator, and in 1876 he was again nominated for the office of Governor, but the “retired” Seymour made it clear that he was not interested. He did agree to be the president of the Oneida County Historical Society, which earned him the title, “The Sage of Deerfield”. He also served as the president of the New York Agricultural society in 1879. According to the Virtual American Biography, “It may be said broadly that he was master of everything connected with the history, topography, and institutions of New York.”
Horatio and Mary Seymour never had any children. He lived his final day in quiet retirement until his death on February 12, 1886. The city of Seymour Wisconsin had been named in his honor. In his home town of Utica, there used to be the Horatio Seymour School, but it no longer exists.
“Scratch a Democrat and you’ll find a Rebel under his skin”, cried the New York Tribune. Many Republicans attempted to portray Seymour and his fellow Democrats as Rebel sympathizers, but that sentiment failed to recognize Seymour’s early efforts to rally and organize troops, and the contributions made by many other Northern Democrats who actively participated in the war against the Rebels.
Grant’s lack of political aptitude in 1868 meant nothing. People were voting for the hero who won the war and saved the Union. As for Seymour, he may have viewed the mission of overtaking the Republican block in the populous Northeastern states as impossible and instead was content with being a caretaker candidate while his Party regrouped as they compromised on a national agenda.
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11.. William Marcy, Biographical Directory of the United States. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=M000127
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30. Voices of the press, St. Joseph Herald, July 15, 1865
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