World-Changers: Thurlow Weed

English: Black-and-white bust portrait of Thur...

English: Black-and-white bust portrait of Thurlow Weed, Republican political boss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He should be remembered just for his name: Thurlow Weed. He should be remembered just for the politicians he advised, backed, or helped get elected:  DeWitt Clinton, John Quincy Adams, William H. Seward,  William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, and Abraham Lincoln. He should be remembered just for his publishing of the Albany Evening Journal, for decades a nationally leading Republican journal whose headquarters still stands as a distinct wing of the better-remembered Delaware and Hudson Railroad Headquarters, now SUNY Central Administration.

Weed was born in Cairo down in Greene County, and as a boy worked on boats up and down the Hudson River. The family went west toward Rochester for a time, where he got himself into the newspaper business and became a member of the anti-Masonic movement. He bought the Rochester Telegraph, then founded the Enquirer, the voice of the anti-Masonic movement in new York, which strongly backed John Quincy Adams and eventually formed the Whig Party. Elected to the State Assembly in 1824, Weed started production of the Albany Evening Journal in 1830. It became the main Whig paper and in the 1840s had the largest circulation of any political newspaper (which was most of them) in the United States.

Lest you think this all connotes an air of respectability,
consider what historian Burton J. Hendrick wrote:

“Thurlow Weed was a leader of nimble wit, genial, lovable personality, and uter unscrupulousness, so far as politics were concerned, in aim and method. The son of a shiftless farmer who occasionally spent periods in debtors’ prison . . . New York had known political bosses before Weed’s ascendancy, but hardly one who had constructed a machine so selfish in its purpose and so well oiled in its articulation. By all accounts he was the ablest spoilsman who had thus far appeared in the state whose politics, in the words of Seward’s other guardian angel, John Quincy Adams, were ‘the devil’s own incomprehensibles.'”

Using the power of the press, he became a Whig kingmaker, and as the Republican party arose, he became influential in the new party. “Tall, slender, awkward, and solemn, in his ways, he had a stoop in his shoulders that did not come from the study of books, but from bending over in a confidential way to hear what others had to say. He was the most confidential man in manner I ever encountered,” according to Ohio journalist and politician Donn Piatt.
Weed’s national prominence peaked as a backer of William Seward, the Union College graduate who became governor of New York, a United States Senator and finally the Secretary of State under Lincoln. Ultimately he’s best known for Seward’s Folly, the purchase of Alaska from Russia, but he was also seriously in the running for the Republican nomination in 1860.

Weed ran his empire from Albany but also held court in New York City. In addition to his newspaper, he owned the publishing company Weed, Parsons and Company, which held the contract to print the state legislature’s bills (then and for a very long time an extremely lucrative contract), as well as publishing numerous volumes that are central to understanding Albany’s history.

His was a busy life, so busy that mention of Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest political name of the 19th century, doesn’t appear until page 602 of Weed’s autobiography.  They first met in 1848, when Lincoln was stumping for Zachary Taylor in New England and called upon Weed in Albany, where Weed introduced him to Millard Fillmore, then the Whig candidate for Vice President. They did not meet again until 1860, when Weed’s favorite Seward failed to achieve the nomination and Weed traveled to Springfield, Illinois, not realizing until laying eyes on the candidate that they had met years before. His visit convinced Weed that Lincoln was “sagacious and practical,” and he put his efforts to work in support of the Republican. Once the election was past, Weed provided considerable advice on the making of the President’s cabinet, of which Seward would be part. He would support Lincoln throughout the war, which Weed had predicted in an editorial in the Evening Journal, and in 1861 was sent on an unofficial mission to England and France to tell the Union’s side of the story, which was how Thurlow Weed came to meet the Queen.

Weed’s long life came to an end in 1882. He is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery. His daughter published his autobiography the following year.


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