Thursday, March 24, 2011

Seward Was an Upstate Lawyer

Dan Allosso

I was looking through the materials I photographed on my last trip to the American Antiquarian Society. This trip was mostly about acquiring background on the places where the people I’m researching lived. Although there are a LOT of old newspapers now available online, as Heather has recently pointed out, there are many that are not yet. The American Antiquarian Society has a huge collection of early papers, as well as broadsheets, political pamphlets, and books.

I photographed a lot of material, which is my strategy when I go to archives like this. Whenever digital photography is allowed, I focus on locating and recording as much in the archives as I possibly can in the time I have. There’s never enough time, but this strategy allows me to go home with more material than I’d ever be able to read, sitting at the desk in the archive. It amazes me that just a decade or so ago, people had to sit in these places for months and months—and then in many cases they still only managed to scratch the surface of what was available.

That’s not to say that past researchers haven’t done fabulously, getting to the meat of an issue and finding the relevant material. But I suspect it limited the time they had to look around the information they were seeking, to see, for example, what else might have been on people’s minds on the particular day a specific newspaper article they were looking for was printed. Not to mention, what might have been in the advertisements on the edge of the page.

For example, I was looking at a table of New York Bank Note discounts, in the Lyons NY Countryman for Tuesday, March 2nd 1830. The table was in the fifth column of page four. After I photographed it, I noticed there was a notice about the sale of a defaulted property in Lyons at the top of column six. So I shot a quick photo of it and moved on. It wasn’t until I reviewed my photos at home, that I read it through and found that, in addition to being an interesting example of a notice, complete with a detailed property description and a little more background information to add to my knowledge of people in Lyons, the final line answers an unresolved question from my earlier research.

As I was putting together all the legends that surround my subjects in upstate NY, I ran into a story that claimed they had spent a lot of time trying to build a ship canal around Niagara Falls. There were obviously good precedents to support the idea of an additional “internal improvement” in upstate New York. But it would take government money to build it, so they needed a patron. There was a brief mention of a long, late-1850s carriage-ride one of my subjects had with New York Senator and former Governor William Henry Seward, during which my guy bent Seward’s ear about the project and received the response that it would never happen until there was a change in administration. Which he took to be Seward’s way of saying “when I become President.”

I liked this story, and had always planned on using it. But the accidental newspaper discovery makes it much more plausible. The 1830 lawyer handling the default sale in Lyons, whose name appears at the bottom of the advertisement was none other than “Wm. H. Seward, Att’y.” A reminder that my guys, even though they were merely upstate businessmen, had a completely credible connection with the man who went on to become a key member of Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals.” Too often we forget that many of the “great men” who stride through the big histories, started somewhere as regular people. Unexpected material from the archives can not only provide background for a narrative, but from time to time, it can provide unexpected clues about meaning and context.


Randall said...

I was just speaking to students in one of my seminars about library-browsing serendipity. Finding that special book or journal in the stacks can be a thrill.

PW said...

Dan, I love the example of finding something buried in an archive that completed a part of your research. It's a great feeling, isn't it?

You also made an excellent point about "great man" history that's often overlooked. Too often, writers are starry eyed when writing about Lincoln, Washington or a thousand other greats, but overlook the warts-and-all humanity of their subjects.