Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Arthur Sewall was a transportation tycoon who was selected as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 1896. He was born in Bath, Maine, the third son of Rachel Trufant Sewall and William Dunning Sewell; the latter having been financially successful as one of the town’s first shipbuilders and an investor in railroads and other business corporations. After an education in Bath’s common school, Arthur Sewall apprenticed in his father’s shipyard, learning each job, and was sent to Prince Edward’s Island for instruction in cutting ship timber. In 1854, he joined his older brother, Edward, to form E. & A. Sewall, which took over their father’s shipbuilding firm. Upon Edward’s death in 1879, the name was changed to Arthur Sewall & Co., and the business managed was by Arthur, as senior partner, with his second son, William, and a nephew, Samuel Sewall.
Arthur Sewall’s firm launched its first ship, the thousand-ton Holyhead, in January 1855 and built 80 ships over the next 50 years. During the Civil War, Sewall placed patriotism above business by rejecting the option of registering his ships with Britain so that they could more safely traverse the sea-lanes. As a result, his vessel, the Vigilant, was captured by the Sumter, the first Confederate blockade raider captained by Raphael Semmes. With renewed demand for ships in the mid-1870s, Sewall’s company constructed 10 innovatively designed vessels of superior quality. After weathering a depression in the shipbuilding trade during the 1880s, his shipyard produced four 3,000-ton ships in the early 1890s, including the Roanoke (1892), the largest wooden sailing ship built in the United States. Realizing that the days of wooden vessels were rapidly passing, Sewall revamped his shipyard, following a research tour in Britain, to produce steel ships. In 1894, his firm launched the first American-built, steel-hulled, square-rigger, the Dirigo, the name reflecting Maine’s state motto, “I lead.”
Sewall was also involved in other businesses, mainly in the transportation sector. He was director and for nine years (1884-1893) president of the Maine Central Railroad; president of the Eastern Railroad and the Boston and Maine Railroad at various times; a director of the Mexican Central Railroad and other lines; president of the Portland, Mount Desert, and Machias Steamboat Company (1884); and president of the Bath National Bank (1871-1900).
The only electoral offices Sewall ever held were those of city councilman and alderman in his hometown of Bath, Maine. However, he was a leader of the Democratic Party in Maine, served on the Democratic National Committee from 1888 until his death in 1900, and was a delegate at all the Democratic National Conventions from 1872 through 1900, except 1888 (which he did attend). In 1893, he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, but lost the election in the Republican-dominated state legislature.
In 1895, Sewall announced that he favored “free silver,” the inflationary policy of unlimited coinage of silver as a plan to assist debt-ridden Americans (primarily, farmers). That stance had emerged as the majority view of Democrats, becoming the centerpiece of the party’s national platform in 1896. After delegates selected William Jennings Bryan as the Democratic standard-bearer, they turned to Sewall as the vice presidential nominee. Despite his lack of political experience, the shipbuilder’s age, reputation as a successful businessman, Eastern residence, and tariff protectionist sentiment balanced Jenning’s youth, image as a dangerous radical, Western residence, and tariff-for-revenue position. Democrats may also have hoped that Sewall would contribute some of his wealth (estimated at $5-6 million at the time) to the campaign. However, the Populist Party considered Sewall to be anti-labor, and so nominated a ticket headed by Bryan, but substituted Thomas E. Watson, a former Populist congressman from Georgia, as his running mate. Both Bryan and Sewall campaigned energetically, but lost the election by a substantial margin to the Republican ticket of William McKinley and Garret Hobart.
In 1859, Sewall had married Emman Duncan Croker; the couple had three sons. Their eldest, Harold, served as a diplomat in the Republican administrations of Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley, as a Maine state legislator, and as a delegate to the 1896 Republican National Convention. On September 5, 1900, Arthur Sewall died at his summer home at Small Point, Maine.
Sources consulted: American National Biography [Paolo E. Coletta]; Gilbert Fite, “Election of 1896,” in History of American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985; Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History; Harper’s Weekly; The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography; Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia (Houghton-Mifflin online; and, 1896: The Presidential Campaign, Vassar College website.