oratio Seymour was the 1868 Democratic presidential nominee and twice governor
of New York (1853-1855 and 1863-1865). He was born to Mary Forman Seymour and
Henry Seymour, a storekeeper, in Pompey Hill, New York. He attended local
academies, then moved with his family to Utica, where he studied law. He passed
the state bar in 1832, but, having inherited a considerable estate, never had a
need to practice law. In 1833, Seymour moved to Albany and became involved in
Democratic state politics, serving as military secretary to Governor William
Marcy. In 1835, Seymour married Mary Bleecker; they had no children.
Seymour made his electoral debut in 1841 when he won a seat in the New York
state legislature, followed by a victorious run for the mayoralty of Utica in
1842. Defeated for reelection as mayor, he returned to the state assembly in
1844. As chairman of the canals committee, he gained recognition as a persuasive
advocate for upgrading the Erie Canal. Having built a reputation for effectively
forging compromises between competing wings of the Democratic party, he was
elected speaker of the assembly in 1845.
Seymour and Marcy were leaders of the "Hunker" faction, which
supported government-funded internal improvements, liberal chartering of state
banks, and opposed the anti-slavery movement. They battled for control of the
New York Democracy against former president Martin Van Buren's
"Barnburner" faction, which favored free enterprise and opposed the
expansion of slavery. Frustrated by the in-fighting and disappointed with the
legislative session, Speaker Seymour did not seek reelection.
The Hunker support of President James Polk's policy of territorial expansion,
partially aimed at extending slavery to the West, provoked the Barnburners to
bolt from the Democratic party and to nominate Van Buren for president on the
Free-Soil ticket in 1848. With the Hunkers in control of the Democratic party,
Seymour decided to seek the governorship. In 1850, he lost to Washington Hunt,
the Whig nominee, by less than 300 votes, but defeated Hunt in 1852, 50% to 46%.
As governor (1853-1855), Seymour oversaw the enactment of penal reform and
opposed prohibition and nativism.
During Seymour's gubernatorial term, the New York Democratic party once again
divided; this time over the presidential administration of Democrat Franklin
Pierce. In the four-way gubernatorial race of 1854, Seymour, nominated by the
pro-Pierce "Hard" faction, faced nominees of the anti-Pierce
"Soft" faction (led by Daniel Dickinson), the Republican party, and
the nativist American party. Seymour lost by just over 300 votes to Republican
Myron Clark, and returned to private life. He continued to participate behind
the scenes in Democratic party politics, switching to the "Soft" side,
which supported Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois against President James
When the Civil War began, Seymour guardedly supported the Union war effort, and
was not aligned with the anti-war "Peace" Democrats. As the war
progressed, he increasingly spoke out against what he believed were the
misguided policies of the administration of President Abraham Lincoln,
especially government centralization, emancipation, the military draft, and
violations of civil liberties.
In 1862, Seymour was again elected governor, and worked hard to fill his state's
military quotas. He fought against the Lincoln administration's attempt to
censure and harass Peace Democrats. When draft riots erupted in New York City in
July 1863, Seymour traveled there in an attempt to pacify the situation. In a
controversial speech, he addressed the rioters as "My Friends." Since
the rioters had destroyed property, lynched blacks, burned the Colored Orphan
Asylum, and resisted federal policy, Republicans were infuriated and would
forever link him with the riots.
In 1864, Seymour lost his bid for reelection as governor to Republican Reuben
Fenton, but became one of the national spokesmen for the Democratic party. After
the Civil War, Seymour opposed Radical Reconstruction and urged the nation to
move forward to other issues, such as monetary policy.
In 1868, a deadlocked convention turned to a reluctant Seymour as its
presidential nominee. Running against Civil War hero General Ulysses S. Grant,
Seymour stood little chance of victory. During the campaign, Republicans
"waved the bloody shirt" by tarring the former New York governor as a
Confederate sympathizer and a callous supporter of the draft rioters. Cartoonist
Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly demonized the Democratic standard-bearer by
continually exaggerating the candidate's wavy hair into demonic horns and, on
one occasion, by presenting him as Satan. The shoot-from-the-lip antics of
Seymour's running-mate, Frank Blair Jr., further undermined the chances of the
Democratic ticket. Although losing the election, Seymour garnered 47% of the
vote, the highest tally for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1852.
In his final years, Seymour participated in Democratic politics as an elder
statesman, mentoring Samuel Tilden, Grover Cleveland, and other rising party
leaders. Seymour was again nominated for governor in 1876, but declined the
offer. He died in 1886 in New York.