Senator William H. Seward’s enemies in Congress called him a villain and a traitor, but they rarely missed his parties. Invitations to his soirées—which took place several times a week in the eighteen-fifties, during Washington’s winter social season—were more coveted than those to the White House. Seward was an impresario of dinner diplomacy. He thought entertaining was indispensable to his political success, and, as of 1854, to the future of the new Republican Party. In those days of polarized politics, it was Republicans who espoused the rights of Black men, and reactionary Democrats who indignantly defended white male supremacy. One of Seward’s regular guests was the Democratic senator Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, who described slavery in the United States as “a moral, a social, and a political blessing.” After Seward reminded colleagues that the enslaved were human beings, Davis branded him the country’s most insidious “sapper and miner” of the Constitution. Black people, he said, “are not fit to govern themselves.” Seward, who prided himself on his persuasive powers, thought little of Davis’s attacks. He serenely assumed that if politicians got along outside Congress they were more likely to overcome ideological differences.
He loosened up senators and representatives, Supreme Court Justices, prominent journalists, and foreign diplomats with rich meals and good wine, followed by after-dinner brandy and cigars. His wife, Frances A. Seward, spent much of her time in Washington drawing up guest lists and menus and shopping for provisions. She dressed formally in the morning for visiting and receiving visitors, and more so each evening, especially when Henry, as she called her husband, entertained: braided chignon, breath-constricting corset reinforced with light steel, and wide hoopskirt overlaid with a heavy gown. She glided through the rooms of Henry’s residence, exchanging pleasantries as women flicked their fans at men and appraised one another’s silks.
Frances hated these parties. She wrote in her scrapbook, “The moral & intellectual degradation of woman increases in proportion to the homage paid by men to external charms.” By her estimate, dressing and socializing consumed two-thirds of the time of well-off women—making them as vapid as they were presumed to be. In Henry’s first months as a senator, Frances wrote to her sister, Lazette, that she hadn’t done one important thing all week. The city’s hierarchy was more in keeping with a royal court than a democratic republic. Senators’ wives had the same status as the wives of Supreme Court Justices—second only to the President’s family. Frances couldn’t see the point of it all, except to make idle women feel almost as busy and important as their husbands. It was, as she morosely put it, “the life to which I am doomed.”
Henry was the former governor of New York and the putative head of the Republican Party. Frances was a sub-rosa abolitionist. She read William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper the Liberator, which damned Washington, with its flourishing slave trade, as one of the foulest places on earth. She was revolted by the sight of men, women, and children being herded in coffles to the slave pens between the Capitol and the White House, to be sold at auction. The women Frances met through Henry did not share her commitment to sweeping reforms for the rights of Blacks and women, and he thought it best for her to keep quiet about such things. His foes already considered him a dangerous “Black Republican.” If he was seen as unable to control his wife, voters might reconsider their support for him. Frances, an important influence on Henry’s politics, was obligated to hold her tongue in public, but she did what she could. One Northern dinner guest noted that Mrs. Seward had “clearly developed her own place and her own views—which are not always those of her husband. She is said to be much more thorough in her religious and political radicalism than he.” Seward said playfully that night, “My wife doesn’t think much of me.” Mrs. Seward replied, “You do very well as far as you go.”
When Frances Miller met William Seward, she was sixteen, he was twenty-one, and both were filled with youthful idealism. Frances was the daughter of Elijah Miller, an influential county judge in Auburn, in upstate New York. Her mother had died when she was five, and Judge Miller sent her to boarding school and then to Emma Willard’s Female Seminary, in Troy, which gave “young ladies of means” an education as rigorous as at any male college, while preparing them to be the wives of upstanding citizens.
In 1821, during a break from school, Frances went to Florida, New York, to visit a classmate named Cornelia Seward. Cornelia’s older brother, William Henry, was there, and he and Frances were introduced. He was not much to look at. Five feet six, slight and hawk-nosed, he had unkempt rusty-red hair and sloping shoulders that didn’t quite fill his jackets. But Frances, a tall, cerebral beauty, barely noticed his appearance. A quick-witted conversationalist, Seward was steeped, as she was, in history, literature, and current affairs. They almost certainly talked about slavery. It was the year after Congress passed the Compromise of 1820, which allowed slavery in Western territories south of the Missouri line but prohibited it to the north. Henry had no doubt that the issue could be settled amicably if the South would agree to a plan of gradual emancipation.
After graduating from Union College, he studied for the bar and moved to Auburn, attracted by its growing class of bankers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs—and by Frances. Judge Miller approved of young Seward, and asked him to join his law practice. Henry and Frances fell in love, but that was almost incidental; marriage was a contractual matter overseen by parents. Henry assured his father—a judge and a member of the State Legislature—that Frances would inherit a small fortune, and that she would be “a wife with a strong mind together with a proper respect for me.” Miller agreed to the match on one condition: they must live with him until his death. In return for overseeing the servants and keeping him company, Frances would inherit the house.
Frances imagined a quiet life: Henry would practice law, and together they would raise their children, tend the gardens, and spend evenings reading and talking by the fire. Soon after they married, he punctured this fantasy, telling her, “I fear, abhor, detest, despise and loathe litigation.” He pursued politics instead, which he considered the most important business in the country. She found the constant dealmaking of his chosen career rather squalid.
She did, though, feel passionate about the critical issues the nation faced. As Henry rose from state senator to governor to U.S. senator, she urged him to follow his conscience and not the path of expediency. Henry’s consuming ambition and Frances’s insistence on a retiring life led to an unconventional marriage. They spent more time apart than together: he lived in Albany and Washington, while she mostly stayed in her childhood home with her multigenerational family: father, grandmother, aunt, and children.
The Sewards wrote to each other almost every day. He was busy and fulfilled, excitedly describing his work and the people he met. After seeking out the former Vice-President Aaron Burr, by then a somewhat disreputable lawyer in Albany, Henry wrote, “Do I actually grasp the hand which directed only too successfully the fatal ball which laid low Alexander Hamilton?” He cultivated the former President John Quincy Adams, whom he and Frances regarded as the nation’s finest statesman. Adams, serving in his later years as a U.S. representative, saw Henry as a protégé, telling him, “I trust, Mr. Seward, you will allow me to say that I hope you will do a great deal for our country.” Henry described his wily, ever-present political consultant, Thurlow Weed, as a “magician whose wand controls and directs” the party. As far as Frances was concerned, Weed controlled her husband, too.
With Henry gone for months at a time, Frances grew lonely. She suffered from chronic headaches, insomnia, and depression, ailments that she sensed sprang from the strain of raising two young boys with little help from their father. Doctors were no use. Women afflicted with anything from a toothache to feelings of despair were given a diagnosis of “hysteria,” and casually prescribed laudanum, a highly addictive tincture of opium.
The Sewards hoped that time together and a change of scene would help, and in 1835 they took a leisurely summer excursion through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington. Frances felt restored by family pleasures: picnics, long conversations with Henry, and reading under a shade tree as he fished for trout with their son Frederick. But, as they travelled into Virginia, the roads became rougher and the farmhouses and towns fewer and farther between. The blight of slavery was pervasive. Virginia enslaved four hundred and seventy thousand people—almost half its population. Stopping at a tavern one day, the Sewards heard weeping and moaning, and saw ten naked boys tied together by their wrists, being driven forward by a white man bearing a whip. They watched with horror as he led them to a horse trough to drink, and then to a shed, where they lay down, sobbing themselves to sleep. The man had bought the children from several plantations, and was taking them to Richmond—a few of the tens of thousands of people Virginia supplied every year to the cotton and rice fields of the Deep South. Frances, unable to get the scene out of her mind, was struck by the emptiness of Thomas Jefferson’s promise of “equal and exact justice to all men.” She wrote in her journal, “Slavery—slavery the evil effects constantly coming before me and marring everything.”
The trip made a lasting impression on both of them. In 1838, after seven years as a state senator, Henry successfully ran for governor. Following Weed’s advice, he campaigned as a moderate, but he intended to govern as a progressive. For Henry’s inaugural message to the legislature, Frances encouraged him to take positions that remained contentious two centuries later. He argued that Black men were imprisoned disproportionately because they were treated abominably and denied access to educational opportunities and jobs. Immigrants, he said, were vital to America’s economic growth, and so barriers to citizenship must come down. Prison inmates must be treated humanely, religious discrimination ceased, and public schools opened to all children: “Education banishes the distinctions, old as time, of rich and poor, master and slave. It banishes ignorance and lays axe to the root of crime.”
Frances, pregnant again and unable to contemplate greeting five thousand guests at Henry’s public reception, didn’t travel to Albany for the speech. Nor did she enjoy the time she spent in the Kane Mansion, with its cavernous ballroom, rented furniture, and unfamiliar staff, where Henry began entertaining on an extravagant scale. He thrived on glad-handing; Frances found it difficult to talk with people who did not interest her.
Auburn was a conservative town, but Frances had an ally: Martha Coffin Wright, a rebel who rarely encountered an institution she didn’t want to challenge. Martha, married to a practicing lawyer, felt as trapped in her existence as a homemaker as Frances did as the wife of a famous politician. By the eighteen-forties, she and her husband, David, had six children, and, except for an Irish girl who helped in the kitchen, Martha did the domestic labor herself. She took care of her rambunctious brood, sewed the family’s clothes by hand, changed soiled hay in the mattresses, and darned the carpets when they grew threadbare. Each fall, she made soap and candles, and canned fruit for the winter. Seeing no end to her drudgery, Martha complained, “The only way is to grub & work & sweep & dust, & wash & dress children, & make gingerbread, and patch & darn.”
Frances, now the mother of four, had a cook, a gardener, a coachman, and housemaids. Martha was envious, but she was a stalwart friend, and mordantly funny about women’s plight. She was strongly influenced by her older sister Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister who lived in Philadelphia—one of the earliest, and most insistent, American proponents of human rights. Unlike most white abolitionists, Lucretia believed that society should be fully integrated, by race and sex. When her Black friend Robert Purvis called her the most belligerent pacifist he’d ever seen, she welcomed the characterization, saying, “I glory in it.” She modelled herself on the early Friends, whom she described as “agitators, disturbers of the peace.”
Martha fed Frances’s hunger for reform with her stories about her indomitable sister. Frances, in turn, lent Martha books from her library. She had approvingly marked up a printed lecture by an unusually enlightened judge, who said that women were “entitled to the full enjoyment” of unalienable rights. As a girl, Frances had read John Locke and John Stuart Mill, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft’s treatise “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” The judge borrowed from Wollstonecraft’s argument that women were men’s chattel: “They may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent.”
Wollstonecraft’s words, written in 1792 in England, were just as true for American women in the nineteenth century. Upon marriage, a woman became her husband’s property. She was required by law to turn over to him any money, land, or goods she had inherited. She could not make a will or sign a contract, attend college or enter a profession. She had to confine herself to her “proper sphere”—little more than a form of house arrest. Domestic abuse was pervasive, but wives had no legal recourse, even when their husbands threatened to kill them. If a woman pursued divorce, she became a social pariah and lost her children and any money she had brought into the marriage.
In December, 1841, Martha and her husband invited Governor and Mrs. Seward to tea at their house, a large, plain saltbox several blocks from the Sewards’. The conversation turned to the Married Women’s Property Act, an extraordinarily controversial bill before the State Legislature. If passed, the bill would grant wives the right to their inherited property. It had a stunning ramification: women who owned property would pay taxes; if they paid taxes, they could legitimately claim the right to vote. As one alarmed legislator put it, the measure raised “the whole question of woman’s proper place in society, in the family and everywhere.”
Martha pointed out that the bill would be a boon to husbands who encountered business setbacks. To her embarrassment, David sharply contradicted her, saying that, in nine cases out of ten, when a man failed in business it was because of his wife’s extravagance. That night, in a letter to Lucretia, Martha tried to make light of the remark: “Now, I think it a great shame for David to make so ungallant a speech as that.” David shared her progressive beliefs on other issues, but, like most men, he thought the idea of women’s rights was preposterous. Henry, thankfully, agreed with Frances. A decade earlier, writing to him in anguish to report that Lazette was being battered by her drunken husband, Frances had said, “Men have framed laws I believe to uphold themselves in their wickedness.” As governor, Henry did his best to get the property act passed, but the legislature voted it down.
For Frances and Martha, the revolution began at home. They raised their children in keeping with Wollstonecraft’s dictum “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.” Martha sent her two youngest to an avant-garde boarding school in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, which was integrated by race and sex. Martha told David, “The bigoted and narrow-minded chose other schools for their children—those who had not emancipated themselves from the prejudices of education & circumstances.” Frances homeschooled her daughter, Fanny, with a curriculum that included Herodotus, Shakespeare, and Voltaire, along with contemporary greats: Frederick Douglass, Charles Dickens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Fanny grew up playing with children of both races. Emulating her mother, she supported abolition, women’s rights, and temperance. When a friend asked Frances about the difficulties of overseeing a young girl’s lessons while also preparing her for courtship, she replied that she was educating Fanny “not to be married.”
In the eighteen-thirties, many presumably open-minded abolitionists refused to allow women to join their political organizing, so women in Philadelphia, led by Lucretia Mott and her friends, formed a racially integrated anti-slavery society of their own. They travelled to other cities to hold meetings, and by 1837 there were a hundred and thirty-nine such societies, from Boston to Canton, Ohio. Their members inundated Congress with anti-slavery petitions, and demanded basic freedoms for themselves. One influential activist wrote, “All I ask of our brethren is, that they take their feet from off our necks.”
As Martha saw what Lucretia was accomplishing, she grew more restive. In 1848, forty-one years old and pregnant with her seventh child, she joined Lucretia, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and two other reformers to convene the first meeting in America devoted to women’s rights: the Seneca Falls Convention. It was attended by Frederick Douglass, the world’s best-known abolitionist and the publisher of a recently established newspaper, the North Star. Afterward, he expressed support for a resolution that the delegates had vigorously debated, writing, “There can be no reason in the world for denying women the exercise of the elective franchise.” Within days, an obscure rural village noted for making wheelbarrows was being vilified as the seedbed for women’s suffrage.
Martha’s burgeoning activism helped convince Frances that it wasn’t enough simply to oppose slavery. After Congress passed the draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the question was not whether she would violate it but how. The new law allowed slave catchers to travel to free states to hunt down “runaways,” and required citizens and police to deliver suspected fugitives to federal commissioners, who held perfunctory hearings before returning them to the South. People who protected them could be fined a thousand dollars and sentenced to six months in prison.
The Fugitive Slave Act radicalized the North. Frances wrote to her son Augustus, “The public opinion against Slavery is daily growing warmer—It is impossible to see where it will all end.” Henry opposed the law, and kept up a brisk correspondence with abolitionists, but he was hamstrung by Congress. When a pen pal in Boston urged him to be more strident, Henry pleaded for patience, considering “what gales I have had to encounter from that quarter.” For Frances, the conundrum of her life was trying to act on her convictions without damaging Henry’s career, or appearing to be “extravagant or unwomanly.” She wrote to Lazette, “The Abolitionists & women’s rights women will act for us,” but “are we sure that we can join them & is it right for us to be silent?”
Frances was catalyzed most of all by a friend far removed from the reactionaries of Auburn and Washington: a freedom seeker from Maryland’s Eastern Shore who, at the age of twenty-seven, had walked out of slavery, leaving behind her parents and siblings and her free husband. Born Araminta Ross, she went by her mother’s first name, Harriet, and her husband’s surname, Tubman.
Harriet had begun planning her escape in the fall of 1849, when she learned that she was to be sold to a slaveholder in the Deep South. Her destination was Philadelphia, a city where people of both races sought to overthrow slavery, and where Blacks could find jobs for themselves and schools for their children. To her disappointment, her husband, John, refused to go with her. He had steady work and no desire to take his chances elsewhere. If he was caught fleeing with a fugitive slave, he was liable to be sold into slavery, shot in the back, or torn apart by bloodhounds. Harriet left alone, relying on her wits and on contacts in the Underground Railroad.
Slavers knew that abolitionists helped enslaved people vanish, but they couldn’t fathom how. As one of them said, fugitives were concealed “in a labyrinth that has no clue.” A loose network with no central office or command structure, the railroad was staffed by free and enslaved African-Americans, white businessmen and housewives, sailors and captains, ministers and farmers, Quakers, Unitarians, Methodists, and others who believed slavery was the worst of all sins. Freedom seekers sometimes dressed as members of the opposite sex or attempted to pass as white. They hid in cramped root cellars and rat-infested holds of boats, travelled on trains with forged papers, or by foot after dark, arriving at safe houses on moonless nights and leaving before the cows were milked.
Harriet made her way from Poplar Neck to Philadelphia, a distance of nearly a hundred miles. When she arrived, she was assisted by the city’s vigilance committee, founded by Lucretia Mott’s friend Robert Purvis to help “colored persons in distress.” As she began to plot a series of rescue missions into Maryland, she introduced herself to every abolitionist in town, and soon became close with Lucretia. It isn’t known how Harriet met Frances and Martha, but it is likely that Lucretia introduced her to Martha during one of her visits to Philadelphia. Martha, in turn, likely introduced Harriet to Frances in Auburn.
Very few people ever returned to the place they’d risked their lives fleeing, but, after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, Harriet began her incursions into the Eastern Shore, escorting out family members and other freedom seekers a few at a time. She told her first biographer, Sarah Bradford, “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer; I brought them all clear off to Canada.” England had long since abolished slavery in its colonies, and in 1857 Harriet moved to the town of St. Catharines, where she had deposited numerous siblings, cousins, and friends.
Frances and Martha were transfixed by the story of Harriet’s life. She couldn’t remember her oldest sister, who was sold when she was three years old. Two other sisters had been leased away by their enslaver, as her mother pleaded for mercy. Harriet had scars on her neck from whippings at the age of six or seven by a sadistic woman who’d refused to instruct her about her chores, then thrashed her repeatedly for failing to do them to her liking. She had periodic blackouts from a head injury she’d suffered when an overseer hurled an iron weight at an enslaved man at a drygoods store and hit Harriet instead.
The trouble in her head, as Harriet called it, gave rise to visions that she considered prophetic. Although she could not read, she had memorized long passages of the Bible. To Frances, an observant Episcopalian, she brought to mind Isaiah: “Forget the former things; do not dwell in the past. I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
Whatever Frances’s and Martha’s frustrations with their husbands, it never would occur to them to strike out on their own. Harriet had made the solitary walk to Philadelphia expecting that, when she returned to Maryland, John Tubman would accompany her back North. Instead, he had taken another wife. Others subjected to such adversities would be embittered or broken. Harriet was wry, matter-of-fact, and undeviating. She finished one expedition only to plot the next. For Frances, this small, unstoppable woman, some eighteen years younger but apparently unafraid of the slave power of the South and the lawmakers in Washington, embodied the exigency and the potential of abolition.
Frances began her revolt modestly. In Washington, she allied herself with Emily Howland, the daughter of an Underground Railroad conductor near Auburn, who had moved to the capital to teach at the Normal School for Colored Girls, founded by another abolitionist. Frances gave money to the school, and she and Fanny often visited with gifts of books and mittens. She also helped Howland develop a private aid channel for freedom seekers. Howland assisted one woman who needed to raise nine hundred dollars to buy her children out of slavery; the “owner” had set a price and then doubled it. Howland commented acidly, “The market value of humanity must have risen in Virginia.” Frances, who had helped the woman once, made a second donation.
The death of Judge Miller, in 1851, freed Frances to take direct action. She had always followed his rules in Auburn, just as she did Henry’s in Washington. Now, with the Married Women’s Property Act finally passed, Frances became the legal owner of her father’s house, as well as considerable property he’d bought up around town. The original basement kitchen and dining room were empty after an extensive remodelling, and she turned the rooms into a haven for freedom seekers. Henry approved of the idea. In a speech in Cleveland in 1848, he had advised extending a “cordial welcome to the fugitive who lays his weary limbs at your door,” and defending him “as you would your paternal gods.” He also rather enjoyed the subterfuge. Who would suspect the proper Mrs. Seward of being a dangerous dissident?
On cold nights, Frances kept a fire going downstairs, and, when someone knocked at the back door, she had bedding and a hot meal prepared. In the spring and summer, she used the woodshed behind the house as a shelter that she called her dormitory. On one occasion when Henry was at home and Frances was off visiting a friend, he couldn’t resist writing to her about a pair of unexpected guests: “The ‘underground railroad’ works wonderfully. Two passengers came here last night.” The Sewards’ bulldog, Watch, mistaking them for intruders, bit one of the men. Henry remarked, “I am against extending suffrage to dogs. They are just like other classes of parvenues.”
In December, 1858, Frances found herself dreading the New Year. It was not only the looming obligations of the Washington social season. The United States had been moving ineluctably toward self-annihilation, as the westward expansion became a source of bitter debate. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act enabled voters in the Western territories to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery. A large migration of settlers, subsidized by abolitionists in the East, set out to insure that Kansas entered the Union as a free state. They found themselves facing off against pro-slavery militias, led by David Rice Atchison, a recently retired U.S. senator from Missouri. The militias, dubbed Border Ruffians by the Northern press, vowed to “lynch and hang, tar and feather, and drown every white-livered Abolitionist who dares to pollute our soil.”
Martha told an Auburn friend that she expected the pioneers to “maintain their ground manfully, and not be driven off by the idle threats of the Missourians.” But Atchison and his men meant what they said. Kansas’s first legislative elections, in 1855, empowered the new legislature to write a state constitution, which would determine the state’s position on slavery. The day before the polls opened, a thousand well-armed militia members crossed the border, intent on voter suppression and fraud. Carrying preprinted ballots, they fanned out to free-state towns, stuffing ballot boxes and accosting voters and election judges. When the Ruffians’ candidates won, the besieged free-staters refused to accept the results of a patently fixed election. Rejecting what they called the “bogus legislature,” they established a rival government and set out to write their own constitution.
“Bleeding Kansas” further inflamed the national frenzy over slavery. On May 19, 1856, Frances’s friend Senator Charles Sumner, an intemperate abolitionist from Massachusetts, gave a speech titled “The Crime Against Kansas.” In it, he eviscerated Democratic colleagues and President Franklin Pierce for their complicity in the “incredible atrocity of the Assassins and of the Thugs.” Two days later, the Border Ruffians sacked the free-state town of Lawrence. The day after that, the South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks approached Sumner in the well of the Senate, where he sat bent over his desk franking a stack of printed copies of his speech, to be mailed to sympathizers. Before Sumner could stand, Brooks began striking him with his cane, with such force that it splintered. “I wore my cane out completely,” Brooks remarked, “but saved the head which is gold.” Sumner was carried home unconscious. Frances, aghast at the near-fatal attack on her friend and the savagery of the Missourians, wrote that the events had “deepened that furor in my soul.”
The Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, in 1857, made the spread of slavery seem inexorable. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, writing for the majority, declared that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution defined Black men and women as citizens—they were, in his words, “beings of an inferior order.” The decision repealed the Missouri Compromise, insuring the perpetuation of slavery across the United States. As Republicans and abolitionists warned of civil war, the new President—James Buchanan, a Democrat and an enthusiastic supporter of the Kansas-Nebraska Act—predicted blithely that “all good citizens” would “cheerfully submit” to the decision’s effects.
Henry issued a slashing response to Dred Scott, followed by a speech in Rochester in which he defined slavery as “an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces.” He told the crowd, “A revolution has begun.” Privately, though, Frances worried that Henry’s good will sometimes got the better of him. After visiting an old colleague and his wife on their plantation in Culpeper, Virginia, he wrote to her about a husking “frolic” he witnessed—a “merry and noisy scene.” He added, sounding like a slaveholder himself, that his hosts treated their “hands” with “kindness, and they appear clean, tidy, and comfortable.”
She also suspected that Henry’s decade in the Senate had made him too quick to compromise. By late 1858, Henry was thinking about running for President, and he maintained good relations with Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois senator who had introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Henry thought that Douglas might even switch parties, after pro-slavery Kansas officials pushed through their state constitution in a transparent effort, as Douglas himself called it, “to cheat & defraud the majority.” Frances wished that she, like Henry, could “generously forget” all that Douglas had done to advance slavery, but, she wrote, “I cannot.”
As New Year’s approached, Frances doubted that Henry’s opulent entertaining and his excessive courtesy toward slavery’s apologists would do anything to hold the country together. She did impose a modicum of restraint on his open house. Fanny wrote in her diary that, as she watched the kitchen staff prepare, she was glad to find that her mother had ruled out a whiskey punch. A would-be vegetarian, Fanny added that she was upset to see the cook scald “eight unfortunate terrapins” to death. “If I could influence everyone by doing so, I would never taste animal food,” she wrote. “At any rate I will not eat turtle, terrapins, lobsters, eels, and frogs.”
By noon on January 1st, the dining-room table was set: turkey, ham, tongue, and oysters, chicken salad garnished with hard-boiled eggs and celery, and, for dessert, delicacies from Henry’s favorite bakery in New York. The centerpiece was a white-frosted plum cake decorated with the state coat of arms and a banner emblazoned with Henry’s name. As Democrats laughed and filled their plates alongside Republicans, Frances could think only of Harriet Tubman’s infiltrations of Maryland, and the desperate people Emily Howland was helping. After the final guests departed, Henry complacently remarked that they must have entertained four hundred people.
The party triggered an internal rebellion that had been gathering force in Frances ever since Henry had first run for office. She wrote to Lazette a few days after the reception, admitting that she had failed as a political wife, and concluding, “There are so many things that Henry and I cannot think alike about.” Then she announced to him that she would no longer serve as his hostess. Henry, astonished, saw her decision not as an assertion of independence but as an admission of physical weakness. He’d once chillingly told a colleague, “She is too noble a woman to think of parting from and too frail to hope to keep for long.” He tried to cajole her, but she was adamant.
In mid-February, as the Seward household prepared for a formal dinner, Frances came down with a bad case of the flu. Henry wrote in exasperation to their son Frederick, who was working as a journalist in Albany, saying that he was “left in straits.” He needed someone to act “as and for Mrs. Seward, who is too feeble to preside.” Emphasizing that Frances’s duties were almost as onerous as his, he said that Frederick’s wife, Anna, was the only one who was qualified: “I want her to come, stay, and do it.” Anna, an obedient daughter-in-law and placid society matron, took to the job with apparent ease. Frances showed no hint of regret.
In Auburn that spring, Frances began to think more daringly about her life. Emily Howland taught free Black girls at the Normal School and ran her branch line on the Underground Railroad. Martha Wright organized conventions for women’s rights and for abolition, braving hecklers and mobs. Harriet Tubman had returned to the Eastern Shore some dozen times, even rescuing her elderly parents and taking them to Canada.
Frances shared Harriet’s love of family, and knew that her parents were unwell and unhappy. Harriet’s father had rheumatism; her mother blamed her for depositing them in a remote, frigid, foreign town, then rushing off with no guarantee that she would return. On her journeys, Harriet was hungry and exposed to the elements for weeks at a time. With the lives of her “passengers” utterly dependent on her decisions, she had to be constantly alert to the rustle of branches, the barking of bloodhounds, the muted exchanges among slave catchers on horseback. Auburn, midway across New York State, would be a far more convenient location for Harriet and her parents. One of the parcels of land that Frances had inherited was about a mile from her house on South Street. It included seven acres of farmland, a new frame house, a barn, and a few outbuildings. She decided that Harriet should have it.
The idea could hardly have been more subversive. Women rarely sold property—let alone to fugitive slaves. Frances would be flouting the Fugitive Slave Act just as Henry was beginning his bid for President. Yet he strenuously opposed that law, and the land belonged to Frances. For years, the Sewards had been integrating Auburn neighborhoods, building houses on the lots they owned and selling them inexpensively to immigrant and Black families. The state permitted Black men to vote if they owned at least two hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of property, and the Sewards’ real-estate sales made that possible for a number of Auburn residents. As Frances saw it, the transaction with Harriet would simply be a more assertive act of conscience.
Harriet was in no financial position to buy a house, and Frances might have made the place a gift, if it had been up to her. But Harriet, who gratefully accepted contributions for her Underground Railroad work, refused outright charity. The Sewards’ youngest son, twenty-year-old Will, who was starting a banking career in Auburn, helped Frances draw up the paperwork for a twelve-hundred-dollar mortgage. They settled on a modest twenty-five-dollar down payment and quarterly remittances of ten dollars with interest. Conveniently for Henry, the sale was completed while he was on an eight-month tour of Europe, Palestine, and Egypt.
Harriet and her parents moved into her house in the spring of 1859. The political climate in the North had changed enough that she was raising money by speaking publicly, particularly in and around Boston, where the leading abolitionists were well-heeled and generous. On July 4, 1859, she appeared before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, in Framingham, her largest audience yet. She was introduced by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Boston Brahmin who was a radical minister, a militant abolitionist, and a women’s-rights advocate. He told the audience that Harriet Tubman was looking to raise funds for a “little place” she had bought for her parents. She secured thirty-seven dollars in donations, and returned to Auburn to “resume the practice of her profession.”
Harriet Tubman didn’t stay long in her new home. Civil war broke out in April, 1861, and the following spring she persuaded Northern officials to sanction a new profession: she would go to Union-occupied Port Royal, South Carolina, and become a kind of guerrilla operative. The Union Army had barely begun admitting Black men, much less Black women, but Harriet would not be deterred. She explained her sense of urgency by citing the Book of Exodus: “The good Lord has come down to deliver my people, and I must go and help Him.”
Just before Harriet departed, Frances used the same passage in a letter to Henry: “I think we may safely assume that the cry of the oppressed has reached the ear of God and that he has ‘come down to deliver them.’ ” For Frances, as for Harriet and Martha, the war was a “holy cause.” There would be no peace, she wrote, without a “promise of liberty to all.” Henry advised her to think strategically instead.
He had lost the Republican nomination of 1860, for the reason that everyone assumed he would win it: his thirty-year anti-slavery record. Abraham Lincoln, who’d been more circumspect on the issue, was seen as a safer choice. Henry had to settle for the position of Secretary of State, but he grandly thought of himself as the “premier” of the new Administration. Lincoln initially reinforced that impression. Staying in Springfield until his Inauguration, he left Henry to contend with a national emergency: the impending secession of all seven states of the Deep South. In his final speech before the Senate, Henry emphasized that Lincoln’s goal was not emancipation but restoration of the Union: “In political affairs, we cannot always do what seems to us absolutely best.” The Administration would even support a constitutional amendment barring Congress from abolishing slavery in any state. Frances was appalled, writing to accuse Henry of abandoning convictions he’d held his entire life: “Compromises based on the idea that the preservation of the Union is more important than the liberty of nearly 4,000,000 human beings cannot be right.”
Two years into the cataclysmic war, Lincoln found a way to justify emancipation, as a “military necessity.” Frances greeted the proclamation with relief, but not euphoria. She was equally subdued when the Thirteenth Amendment eventually passed, on January 31, 1865, inscribing into the Constitution the eradication of slavery. Back in Auburn, she read the Herald Tribune’s report about the giddy scene in Washington. The visitors’ galleries were full, and senators and Supreme Court Justices squeezed onto the House floor. Finally, Speaker Schuyler Colfax stood and gavelled the room to order, announcing in a quavering voice that the ayes had a hundred and nineteen votes, the nays fifty-six. As Democrats looked on stonily, Republicans threw their hats in the air, cheering and roaring. Women in the gallery waved their handkerchiefs. Artillery at the Capitol fired a hundred-gun salute. The Tribune’s headline declared, “FREEDOM TRIUMPHANT. COMMENCEMENT OF A NEW ERA. DEATH OF SLAVERY.”
It was a historic victory, but it had been won as much by political horse-trading as by deep principle. Henry and Lincoln, in a months-long backroom campaign, had lobbied wavering representatives with bribes and offers of jobs. And, Frances thought, it was too soon to celebrate. The amendment still had to be ratified by three-quarters of the states. Half a million men had died in the war, and it was not over. General William Tecumseh Sherman was moving through the Carolinas, and Ulysses S. Grant was eight months into his siege of Petersburg. There were rumors that rebels would attempt to assassinate the President. After reading about the joyous outpouring in the House, Frances wrote Henry a bracingly solemn note: “I congratulate you on the passage of the Constitutional amendment which I know you had much at heart. The prospect of abolishing slavery throughout the United States is indeed cheering.” The battle for equality had barely begun. ♦