Friday, January 1, 2010

Summertime Visit to Auburn, NY

In the shadows of William Seward and Harriett Tubman, I fell for sweet Frances!
by Charlie Leck

Our wonderful and exciting friend from England, after whom we named our last born child, chastened my wife and explicitly warned her: “Don’t let that mad-Hungarian teach him his own style! Make sure he learns classic four-in-hand driving!”

I was about to leave for Auburn, New York, to visit the American Four-in-Hand Training Center and its Director, the mad-Hungarian, Doctor Leslie Koszely. It was 1984 and I was in my early forties in age. My wife wanted me to learn how to drive a four-in-hand of horses so that, from time to time, I could relieve her when we were out on long drives with other enthusiasts of this art-form or sport; but that is another story.

The training center was in the community of Auburn, in the finger-lakes region of New York State, just to the north of Owasco Lake. To me, that, and the opportunity to spend some entertaining time with Leslie, made the idea of a two-week stay palatable. I agreed.

The regimen required me to spend four hours every morning in training. I won’t bore you with a description, but it was both exciting and challenging; and Leslie was more demanding on me than on most of his students because he had placed a bet with another lunatic friend of mine from Toronto, claiming that he could prepare me to publicly and acceptably drive in a two week period. The test, determining which of these fellows paid off to the other, was that I had to publicly drive a four of horses through the streets of Rochester (NY) on a Sunday afternoon (in a drive of carriages that had been previously scheduled for that day). The loser would pay for dinner for approximately a dozen people, including the winner, at a Hungarian Restaurant, on that Sunday evening. An independent, non-partisan judge was recruited to determine my skills or lack of such.

Each afternoon during this sojourn in Auburn, I was free to dawdle about the community and nearby region to my heart’s content. A round of golf at the famous Skaneateles Country Club was included in my dalliances. One tasty afternoon was spent visiting the historic home of Harriett Tubman, who had managed the release of an extraordinary number of slaves from the south of the nation in pre-Civil War years. One would need to be a goofus not to be impressed with the Tubman name and story or with the historic site in Auburn.

However, it was at the historic Seward House that I spent at least three afternoons in near rapture as I learned about Seward and his heroic wife, Frances Miller Seward. The woman won my heart during those afternoon visits, as if I had sat down to tea with her, and I have always thereafter considered her a great champion of justice. More about her will follow.

Her husband I knew about before my visit because I was an amateur student of the life, times and career of Abraham Lincoln. Seward had been one of Lincoln’s rival candidates for the Republican Party’s nomination for election as U.S. President in 1860. After his successful election to the high office, Lincoln talked Seward into becoming his Secretary of State.

“I have advised Mr. L. that I will not decline,” wrote Seward in a letter to Frances in 1860. “It is inevitable. I will try to save freedom and my country.”

You may remember that Seward, as part of a massive plot, was brutally stabbed in his home in the nation’s capitol on the same night that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford Theatre.

You might also remember that Seward recovered to continue his service as Secretary of State to Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. The Secretary of State was responsible for strategizing the purchase of the Alaska Territory from Russia for approximately seven million dollars. He was reamed by his critics for that purchase, which became known as “Seward’s Folly.” In fact, history now lists it as the most important achievement in Seward’s extraordinary legacy.

Seward died in his Auburn home in 1872. I was intrigued with his last words to his family in the mini-moment before he died. I would offer the same instructive plea to my children and grandchildren as well; for nothing is more important in life or death: “Love one another!”

The tour guides, who led me through the house in Auburn, were rehearsed to inform us that Seward was a devout abolitionist. It’s not exactly true. As a U.S. Senator and as a candidate for his party’s nomination for President, he found it politically expedient to soften his stand on the question of freeing the slaves. To find a similar middle ground that was held by a majority of the voters, Seward moved his stand toward holding the line on slavery to those states where it already existed. Slavery was not to be allowed to expand into the western territories and the new states that were bound to develop within them.

Frances, his very intellectual and liberal wife, was shocked by his retreat from moral principle and threatened not to speak to him again if he didn’t return to the stand of pure abolitionist. And it was Frances, not William, who had arranged to help Harriet Tubman settle comfortably in Auburn and organized the loans that would allow Tubman to secure property on South Street for her home (a home in which Tubman would live for more than fifty years).

Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, writes of Frances’ deep concern about Seward’s compromises:

“When it appeared that the 1852 Whig Convention was on the verge of endorsing the Compromise in an attempt to create a moderate platform for its presidential candidate, General Winfield Scott, Frances begged her husband to come home.

"‘I do not wish you to be held responsible for the doings of that Convention if they are to endorse the Compromise in any manner or degree,’ she wrote. ‘It will be a sad disappointment to men who are true to liberty.’

“Nor did she spare him whenever she detected a blatantly conciliatory tone in his speeches or writings. While she conceded that ‘worldly wisdom certainly does impel a person to swim with the tide’ – and ‘if they can judge unerringly which way the tide runs, may bring them to port,’ she continued to argue for ‘a more elevated course’ that would ‘reconcile one to struggling against the current if necessary.’”
Frances threatened to join the abolitionists and that caused Seward enormous worry about his standing in the Senate. She told her husband that her confidence in main stream politics had disappeared.

This idealistic woman was also a fighter for women’s rights at a time when it was very unpopular. She suffered numerous nagging illnesses and she often blamed them on the frustrations felt by an educated woman. “To share in any kind of household work is to demean herself, and she would be thought mad, to run, leap, or engage in active sports.” Frances felt the need for her, and other women of stature, to be allowed “fitting employment – real purpose in their life.”

Frances had been raised in that home that came to be called the Seward House. In fact, it had been the home of her father, Judge Elijah Miller. Seward moved to Auburn in 1823 and set up a law partnership with the great judge. He had met Frances in Troy (NY) a year or two earlier. He admitted that it was “…a partiality I conceived for her that led me to stop in Auburn.” William married the judge’s daughter in 1824 and moved into the judge’s home on South Street and remained there until his death.

Frances Miller Seward was an extraordinary lady. I first learned about her on my visit to Auburn. I spent a number of afternoons with her spirit, roaming the house she so loved. She was, in her heart, an abolitionist who refused to publicly take the title in order to not destroy her husband’s political career. It would have been so grand to take tea with her in her lovely garden on a summer afternoon in Auburn. Could she ever have believed back in 1860, or could I have believed in 1984, that the nation would elect an African-American to the supreme office that her husband so coveted. How deliriously happy she would have been if such an event could have been foretold.

I enjoyed your community and your home so much Frances; and the time I spent with you as well. What a glorious, beautiful and peaceful place. I envy your rich friendship with Ms. Tubman.

You can read about the Seward House in Auburn at the city’s historical society web site.

I managed well enough in the Four-in-Hand Training Center and, yes, my friend, Leslie, won his side of the bet with dear Sam Freedman. I drove capably through the city streets of Rochester, a patient and forgiving team in hand. My wife had flown out for the examination that would lead to my graduation and a brother had driven up from New Jersey. They both sat nervously in the wagonette that I piloted up and down the broad boulevards and narrow, alley-like back streets without a single accident or scrape.

I wished very much that Frances Miller Seward could have been among my passengers and that she could have chatted with my dear wife about the great strides women and the black, African slaves have made toward their ultimate freedom in Lincoln’s post-civil war America. The battle is not yet over, Frances, but we have made enormous strides toward the glorious, decisive victory. No bets, however!

As we put the horses to the Wagonette, the band played on!

My brother (left), Sam Friedman, my Canadian friend who had bet against me,
and my wife all look on as we take a little practice spin around the parking lot.
They all look quite concerned.

While, David Remley, one of my instructors at the American Four-in-Hand
Training Center, sits beside me on the box, my brother, in the back, looks
quite concerned about a narrow opening through which I had to fit horses
and wagonette.

Here I make quite a good turn, taking the lead horses to my left, while holding
the wheelers in a relatively straight line until it was their turn to bend to the
left. It was such moves that won me a passing grade and cost my friend, Sam
Freedman, a marvelous dinner at a Hungarian restaurant.

1 comment:

  1. Is Mr. Sem Freedman the famous harness maker from Canada?

    Jan Maiburg