The dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863, is mostly remembered for the short speech that President Abraham Lincoln delivered there that day. At the time, however, most of the public attention went to a much longer, formal oration by Edward Everett, former Massachusetts governor, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State.
But there were other speakers at Gettysburg as well, including two New Yorkers, Secretary of State (and former U.S. Senator and governor) William H. Seward, and Governor Horatio Seymour.
At the time, Seward and Seymour were nationally recognized and influential leaders and their short speeches were widely noted and reprinted in the press.
William Seward: the war’s grand purposes
Seward was rightly regarded at the time as the second most important person in the administration, after Lincoln himself. Seward rode the train with Lincoln from Washington to Gettysburg on November 18. That evening, a crowd that had gathered asked Lincoln to speak but he begged off, saying that he had to be careful not to say foolish things and often the best way to do that was to say nothing at all. He then retired to the house where he was staying for the night to work further on his speech for the next day.
The crowd then moved to the house where Seward was staying and asked him to speak. He was glad to oblige.
While neither Lincoln nor Seward would directly mention slavery in their speeches, Seward, more of an abolitionist, came closer to doing so. He told the crowd that “I believe this strife is going to end in the removal of that evil which should have been removed by deliberate councils and peaceful means.” He added that “we shall therefore be united, only one country, having one hope, one ambition, and one destiny.” He continued that “we owe it to our country and mankind that this war shall have for its conclusion the establishing of the principle of democratic government.” He concluded that “this government of ours – the freest, the best, the wisest and the happiest in the world – must be, and so far as we are concerned practically will be, immortal.”
Some of the sentiments about the war’s grand purposes were similar to what Lincoln would say the next day. That is no surprise because around 11 pm that evening, after Seward had spoken, Lincoln arrived at the house where Seward was staying with a draft of his own speech, which the two discussed and edited for about an hour. Lincoln’s “…government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth” sounds a like Seward’s assertion that the war wound ensure that democratic government is immortal.
But while Lincoln was soaring in his vision the next day, earlier in his own speech Seward had offered a more modest vision, that the war was about maintaining a duly elected government. He endorsed “the simple principle that whatever party, whichever portion of the community, prevails by constitutional suffrage in an election, that party is to be respected and maintained in power” until the voters decide otherwise at the ballot box.
Seward had a flair for publicity. He gave his speech to the Associated Press so that it would be reprinted in many northern newspapers during the next few days.
Horatio Seymour: New York for the Union
There were a number of governors at Gettysburg, but Governor Seymour’s address was undoubtedly the most important. The federal government relied on the states to recruit volunteers for the war. Their full support of the war effort was critical. Seymour, a Democrat elected in 1862, had taken the stand that the Civil War could have been avoided and emerged as a prominent critic of the Lincoln Administration’s civil policies. He had called the Emancipation Proclamation “impolitic, unjust and unconstitutional” and denounced the draft, which may have helped spark the Draft Riot in New York City in July 1863. Over the summer and fall, Seymour and Lincoln had carried out an exchange of public letters where Seymour contended the draft was unconstitutional and unfair to New York (its troop quotas were too high, he insisted) and Lincoln defended his policies, claimed New York had been treated fairly, and deflected Seymour’s request to suspend the draft by saying simply that he “cannot consent to suspend the draft in New York.”
At the same time, governor Seymour was supportive of the war effort and New York had furnished more troops and material for the war effort than any other state. Pennsylvania had had more troops at Gettysburg, but New York had sustained more casualties than any other northern state or any of the states of the Confederacy.
This meant that Lincoln shared the stage at Gettysburg with one of the war effort’s most important leaders who was also one of the Administration’s most articulate and persistent critics. That must have made for some tension at the time, though whether Lincoln and Seymour spoke apparently is not documented.
In addition, Seward and Seymour were long-time acquaintances and political rivals.
They both hailed from central New York, Seward from Auburn and Seymour from Utica. Seymour had served as a member of the Assembly, 1841-1846, overlapping with Seward’s tenure as governor, 1839-1843. Along with other Democrats, he had been critical of Seward’s fiscal policies. He had been Speaker of the Assembly in 1845, where he helped revise some of the fiscal policies Seward had put in place. Seymour had previously served as governor, 1853-1855, during Seward’s tenure as U.S. Senator from York (1849-1861). Seward, a Whig turned Republican, had supported Seymour’s opponents for governor in 1852, 1854, and 1862.
Their long rivalry as leaders of competing political parties in New York, and Seymour’s attacks on the Lincoln administration, meant they were not friends. But they shared the venue at Gettysburg and undoubtedly talked at least briefly about New York affairs, though there apparently is no record of their conversation.
Seymour’s speech was actually longer than Lincoln’s. He might have used it to continue his criticism of Lincoln’s policies, call attention to New York’s accomplishments and sacrifices, or suggested ways to end the war.
Instead, he deftly praised New York’s soldiers who had died, expressed pride in the New York soldiers who were in the audience, and at the same time affirmed his strong commitment to the Union.
“We love our whole country without reservation. But while we do so…we love [and are] proud of our own state” We honor “the glorious dead of our good and great state.” He told New York soldiers of his confidence that they would “do honor to yourselves, and to the great State which you represent and the still greater country to which we all belong.”
The governor told them that “my heart did quicken and my pulse tingle” at the sight of New York troops. He presented them with a banner sent by the merchants of New York City “to be borne through every field of triumph, of toil, of danger” to the war’s end.
At the end, he asked New York’s soldiers to “give three cheers for the Union of our country and three cheers for the flag of our land.”
New York history needs more prominence
Both Seward’s and Seymour’s speeches were reprinted at the time, but now they have been all but forgotten. It is another example of New Yorkers prominent and important in their time fading into the historical background.
Of course, Lincoln’s short address has achieved iconic status. But as Gary Gallagher explains in his book The Union War, at the time the response to it was tepid. Gallagher disputes the contention of Garry Willis, in his influential book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The War That Remade America, that Lincoln’s speech transformed the purpose of the war into a struggle to destroy slavery and create true equality in a united nation. Gallagher explains that “…United States victory in the war, the accomplishment of emancipation as part of that victory, and Lincoln’s assassination and civic apotheosis all helped elevate the speech into a position that warranted the kind of analysis that Garry Willis and countless others have provided.”
There are only a few biographies of Seward, who is chiefly remembered for negotiating the purchase of Alaska in 1867. The only biography of Seymour so far as I know is Stewart Mitchell’s Horatio Seymour of New York, published in 1938. A book published earlier this year by William C. Harris, Two Against Lincoln: Reverdy Johnson and Horatio Seymour- Champions of the Loyal Opposition, helps accord Seymour the importance in history that he merits.
On the other hand, a search for Abraham Lincoln on Amazon Books reveals “over 20,000 results.”
New York and important New Yorkers deserve more historical visibility.
Horatio Seymour was one of the governors who realized that. He would probably be disappointed, but not surprised, that New York speakers at Gettysburg have been forgotten and his own role in New York’s war effort is also little known.
In a public lecture on The Typography and History of New York in 1856, he noted that ” the history of New York has been unjustly neglected. We have overlooked the evidences of virtue, wisdom and patriotism which its annals afford. The people of this State have not been inspired with the veneration due to its founders.” He continued that “the advancement of our state since the last war with Britain has been unparalleled.” New York was a leader in education, legal reform, canal and railroad development, commerce and other areas.
But New Yorkers have been modest in writing about and asserting their state’s historical importance.
“Heretofore, our citizens have been unjust to the history of their State. While our brethren, in other portions of the Union, have, with becoming and patriotic pride, recorded the services of their ancestors and have erected monuments to commemorate the great events which have occurred within their territories, we have been indifferent to the glorious annals of the past. We are more familiar with the early history of New England or Virginia than with our own.”
Portrait of William Henry Seward.