William Henry Seward, the Virginia Controversy, and the Anti-Slavery Movement, 1839-1841

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1839 Isaac Gansey, Peter Johnson, and Edward Smith, three African-American sailors from New York who worked aboard the schooner Robert Center, found themselves at the center of a dispute that reflected the growing controversy over the institution of slavery that would spark the Civil War some two decades hence. The incident began innocently enough when the ship arrived in Virginia in need of some repairs before continuing on to New York City. A ship's carpenter, a slave by the name of Isaac, was brought on board to do the work. As Isaac undertook his tasks, he spoke with Gansey, Johnson and Smith, who were the only three African-Americans sailors on the ship. In the course of their discussions, one of the three told Isaac that he was "foolish to remain in Virginia as he could get good wages in the north." (1)

After the Robert Center departed, Isaac was nowhere to be found and his owner John G. Colley suspected that his slave was on board the ship. Colley therefore sent two men north by express, hoping to beat the schooner to New York. They succeeded and when the Robert Center arrived, a search of the ship revealed that Isaac was hiding in the cargo of oak timber. The slave was sent back to his master. Colley also insisted that the African-American sailors be arrested and extradited, back to Virginia for having stolen the slave. The Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, Henry L. Hopkins, complied with Colley's request to ask for extradition. The request for extradition subsequently made its way into the hands of New York's new Whig governor, William Henry Seward. Ultimately, Seward's refusal to cooperate in the matter touched off a "Virginia Controversy" that would not only run through the duration of his two terms as governor, but eventually allowed Seward to establish himself as one of the leading opponents of the peculiar institution.

Seward's early relationship with the anti-slavery movement, however, was much more tense and uncertain than his later career in the United States Senate and as Secretary of State under President Abraham Lincoln would suggest. To be sure, neither Seward nor his political mentor and friend Thurlow Weed, the editor of the Albany Evening Journal, supported slavery, but during the uncertain political climate of the 1830s they had to calculate carefully the impact on their political prospects of too-close an association with abolition. Initially the two had been drawn into the anti-Masonic movement as a vehicle to challenge the dominance of Andrew Jackson's Democratic party. Seward enjoyed some success in this regard with his 1830 election to the New York State Senate, but four years later he was soundly defeated in the gubernatorial contest by the incumbent, William L. Marcy. With the anti-Masonic party wilting, "like a cabbage leaf in a warm summer day" (2) Seward and Weed opted to join the new Whig party. Similarly at this time, those opposed to slavery as well as those who viewed foreigners (especially Catholics) as a threat, also organized politically in the state; the fact that many Whigs also harbored abolitionist or nativist sentiments would continue to vex Seward during his four years as governor.

Seward's problems with the abolitionists first surfaced shortly after he received the Whig gubernatorial nomination in September of 1838. Although estimates of the voting strength of the anti-slavery movement varied considerably, most observers assumed that the lion's share of abolitionists--perhaps as many as 90% of them--normally considered themselves to be Whig and that the loss of their support could well doom Seward's second effort to defeat Marcy. (3) At the same time, however, many viewed abolition as a radical fringe movement, and a close association with it could well be more damaging than helpful. For Seward then, prudence dictated caution, which in practice meant a largely passive stance on the issue in the expectation that the Democratic Party's association with the slave-holding South would naturally incline abolitionists to vote Whig. …