The size and scope of the William Henry Seward Papers, along with the quality of the materials it contains, not only makes it the crown jewel in the special collections at the University of Rochester but also places it in the top rank of major historical 19th-century manuscript collections in this country. The collection, the largest extant Seward archive, documents Seward's career over a 50-year period and constitutes an invaluable resource for the study of mid-19th-century American political, diplomatic, and social history. Containing over 160,000 items with more than 60,000 pieces of correspondence, the collection was given to the library by the Seward family starting in 1945, and then, in 1951, by the bequest of William Henry Seward III, Seward's grandson. In addition to the public, private, and family correspondence of William Henry Seward and his immediate family, the collection is comprised of files from Seward's term as governor of New York State (1839–1842); as Senator from New York (1849–1861); as Secretary of State under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson (1861–1869); personal financial and legal records; speeches, proclamations, diaries, and secondary printed material and memorabilia relating to his life and career.
The collection also contains the personal papers of Seward's wife Frances Adeline (Miller) Seward, a Quaker, abolitionist, and major influence on Seward's political and social beliefs. The correspondence of his three sons, Augustus, Frederick, and William Henry Jr., his daughter, Frances (Fanny) Adeline, and his daughter-in-law Janet McNeil (Watson) Seward can also be found here.
As can be expected with a collection of this size and historical importance, within the papers there exist several "special" special collections. Most notably: 80 letters, notes, memoranda, and documents from Abraham Lincoln to Seward, added to the collection in 1987; the diaries of daughter Fanny Seward, started at the age of 14 and continued until her death at the age of 22, which include her impressions of Washington political life during the war years as well as her personal account of the attempted assassination of her father as part of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy; a collection of over 1,000 letters exchanged between the Seward and Miller families that provide a fascinating glimpse into mid-late 19th-century family life; and a collection of over 3,000 rare pamphlets dealing with the controversial issues of the day—slavery, abolitionism, foreign policy, and so forth.
In addition to being the focus of exhibits and presentations to undergraduates, the William Henry Seward Papers continue to provide primary source material for books, doctoral dissertations, master's theses, and scholarly articles. Doris Kearns Goodwin recently used the collection while researching her book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005).
The collection is featured in the department's online exhibit "150 Years, 150 Treasures: An Exhibit in Honor of the University's Sesquicentennial." In 2007, the library began its Lincoln Letters Online Project, which will include digital facsimiles and transcriptions of Seward letters and documents selected from the collection. Both print and online finding aids are available.
Collection Profile and Overview: Richard Peek
Illustrations: Christine Elfman