Reflections: Township’s namesake a reminder of a tumultuous time in U.S. history

Roger Matile

Seward Township isn’t usually a topic of discussion in our home, but it did come up not too long ago. From what I overheard some folks talking about, the origin of the township’s name seems to be a mystery to many.

For reference, Seward Township is located in the far southeastern corner of Kendall County, and, like NaAuSay Township, until recent years when Joliet and Plainfield began annexing Kendall County farmland, had no municipalities, at least for its first 150 or so years of existence.

For some reason, some people seem to think the township was named after the Steward family of Plano. The Stewards were indeed a prominent 19th Century Kendall County family. Lewis Steward founded Plano, was elected to Congress, and narrowly lost a bid for governor. Unfortunately for Steward, he was a Democrat in a county that was first overwhelmingly Whig in political affiliation, and then after the party was established, Republican. The poor guy didn’t even carry his home county in his campaign for governor.

But in any case, Seward Township’s name lacks that pesky “T” in its name, and so obviously was not named for the Steward family. Rather, it was named after William H. Seward, former governor and U.S. Senator from New York, and future U.S. Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln.

Seward was born May 16, 1801, in Orange County, New York. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1822, and quickly became involved in state politics, including, in the late 1820s, with the anti-Masonic movement. He was elected to the New York state senate in 1830. After an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1834, he ran again in 1838, and that time was elected.

Seward was an early anti-slavery advocate, a popular position in New York outside of New York City, and in 1848 his anti-slavery stand got him elected to the U.S. Senate under the Whig Party banner.

Because of more than one of Seward’s political positions, he was in constant conflict with the Know Nothings, a rabidly anti-foreigner and anti-Catholic movement. Their rallying cry was to save America for Americans. After reading several Know Nothing speeches, it almost appears that the modern U.S. right-wing has plagiarized the group’s manifestoes.

They came to be called “Know Nothings” because when members were questioned about the group’s often violent political activities, members professed to know nothing.

But unlike most of the nation’s modern right-wingers, Know Nothings were also rabidly anti-Catholic, believing them to be anti-American because of the supposed influence of the pope on church members.

Most of the immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s were fleeing Ireland’s terrible potato famine. The flood of cheap Irish Catholic labor into some of the nation’s largest cities led to nativist violence and to the formation of a number of secret fraternal organizations, such as the American Defense Society, the American Patriotic League, the American Protective Association– and the Know Nothings.

All of these nativist fraternal organizations adopted rituals and secrecy of the kind pioneered by Freemasonry, and they were very successful in certain areas of the country – particularly New York City.

From the 1830s through the early 1850s, the nation had two major political parties, the Democratic Party and the Whig Party. But by the early 1850s, the slavery issue was about to tear the Whig Party apart. The slavery issue had split the party into the Northern “conscience” wing and the Southern “cotton” wing, and the “Know Nothings” were eager to step in and pick up some of the pieces.

Seward, however, was never a nativist. After his brief fling with the anti-Masonic movement, he seems to have become an extremely tolerant person for his day.

Strangely enough, many of the northern Know Nothings, while rabidly anti-foreigner, were also anti-slavery. As a result, they were attempting to influence anti-slavery Whigs into joining the American Party – the political arm of most of the Know Nothing fraternal lodges – at the expense of the Republican Party, then just aborning.

Which is where Seward drew the line, and fortunately, he was powerful enough to do so. In 1852, Know Nothings virtually took control of New York, but just two years later, Seward won a resounding reelection to the U.S. Senate as a Republican.

What happened? The northern and southern wings of the Know Nothings split over slavery, just as the Whigs had. They also split over Catholicism. For instance, many Louisiana Know Nothings were Catholic, something northern party members couldn’t abide. Nor could the southern members abide the northerners’ anti-slavery positions. Hate, it seems, is always hard to keep finely focused.

Out here in the West of that era, the Know Nothing phenomena was never strong in Illinois. In the 1856 election, the only time an American Party candidate appeared on the ballot in Kendall County, the Know Nothing candidate for president, Millard Fillmore, got just 13 votes, while the party’s candidate for governor got only 10. There were apparently just too many influential ethnic and religious groups other than White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the Midwest for nativism to catch on.

Meanwhile, in 1850 Kendall County adopted the township form of county government. The township in the far southeast corner of the county had always been informally called Franklin, but when that name was submitted to state officials in 1850, they denied it because there was already a Franklin Township elsewhere. So the Kendall County Board chose Seward as their alternative.

Why? Seward was a popular, respected politician from the home state – and even the home county – of many Kendall County pioneers. And his anti-slavery and anti-Know Nothing stands were also popular out here on what had been the western frontier just a couple decades earlier.

Seward Township’s name is a reminder of an unfortunate time in American history when bigotry was normalized into a political party. Today’s politicians would do well to take heed of what happened to the Know Nothings when political bigotry got out of hand.

The big questions these days seems to be whether there will ever be another William Seward waiting in the wings to save us from ourselves.

Looking for more local history?