Lewis Benedict, Iron Man and the Tariff Party

Lewis Benedict was an Albany, New York, industrialist whose wealth grew from the iron hardware manufacturing business. He was a behind-the-scenes political boss whose influence spread far and wide in antebellum years. He was the principal financier and political operator behind the rise of Thurlow Weed, William Seward and Horace Greeley, three of the most important leading men of the Republican Party.

In 1812 Lewis married Susan Stafford, the daughter of Spencer Stafford, a manufacturer of iron hardware in Albany. In 1813 he joined his father-in-law in the firm of Stafford, Spencer & Co., a pioneer manufacturer of iron stoves, operating as "The Sign of the Gilt Stove," a hardware store at 387 Market Street in Albany and casting stoves at a foundry located at the junction of Washington and Central Avenues. Lewis continued in that business until 1825. Thereafter, as the senior partner, he entered into numerous successful business partnerships. The stove-casting industry grew to a major industry in Albany by mid-century. The hardware business was profitable and he stayed with it for the remainder of his business career.

Lewis became one of the leading men of Albany. He was one of the founders of the Commercial bank in 1826 and remained on its board of directors for the rest of his business life. As a banker and as a borrower, he took a keen interest in banking affairs and played a leading role influencing banking legislation while his party was in power in the state. He was a stockholder and director in several Hudson River steamboat companies and a founder and director of more than one railroad. On September 24, 1832, he was a passenger on the first official railroad trip on the Albany and Schnectady Railroad, one of the oldest in the United States. He was especially interested in the construction of canals and played an important role in the enlargement of the Erie Canal.

Benedict became a the leading power in the Whig political party of New York State and served for many years as chairman of the Whig state committee. He lived in a house that adjoined the capitol building in Albany. There he entertained legislators with "generous" hospitality. He paid close attention to legislation. It was said of him that "few knew better than himself what was doing, why it was done, and by whom."

Benedict became acquainted with the politically astute editor and part owner of the Rochester Telegraph, Thurlow Weed. Benedict saw in Weed a "fertile and powerful mind" and a man fit to be a party leader. Benedict invited Weed to become the editor of the Albany Evening Journal. Weed accepted the offer and remained with the paper for thirty years, supporting first the Anti-Masons, then the Whigs and finally the Republicans. Benedict and Weed formed a close political partnership that lasted for the remainder of Benedict's working career.

In 1830 Weed and Benedict decided to back a promising young politician, William Seward, whose fire and feistiness they saw as ideal for their purposes. They managed his election to a four-year term in the state senate. In 1838 Seward was elected Governor of New York and served from January 1839 to January 1843.

In 1849 the Whigs were able to recapture the state legislature, enabling Weed and Benedict to get Seward elected to the U.S. Senate. In his first major speech in the Senate, Seward opposed the extension of slavery to the new territories. In politically provocative language now become a familiar to all who study that period of history, he charged that a "higher law" than the Constitution, dictated against the extension of slavery.

The "higher law" speech established Seward as the radical leader of the anti-slavery men in the Congress and the heir apparent to the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. In the eyes of many in the North, however, he was too radical on the slavery issue, an impediment that was to cost him the presidential nomination in 1860.

Benedict played the key role in making the Whig party successful in New York and in elevating Seward to public office. Without Benedict's "generosity," wrote Seward, "I should have been a stranger to all benefits of the party success."

Benedict played an indispensable role in raising to the stage another important player in the antislavery agitation, Horace Greeley. When the Panic of 1837 gave the Whigs their opportunity to oust the Democrats, Benedict and Weed decided to establish a cheap campaign newspaper that would give wide circulation to their political message. In their search for an editor, they noticed Greeley's work as editor of the New Yorker, a marginally profitable literary magazine. Weed and Benedict traveled down the Hudson to New York City and invited Greeley over to Benedict's hotel where Benedict offered Greeley $1,000 per year for his part-time editorial work. Greeley accepted the job and for the next year traveled up and down the Hudson River between Albany and New York, staying in Albany in the winter months when ice made steamboat travel impossible.

The campaign newspaper, The Jeffersonian, was an important factor in Seward's victory in the gubernatorial election. For Greeley, it was an important introduction to the power of political journalism and an appreciation of the Whig wealth that was interested in supporting it. It brought Greeley out to the front rank of political journalists.

In the 1840 presidential campaign Greeley published the Log Cabin, a four-page weekly Whig campaign newspaper, advocating protective tariffs, and distribution of the proceeds of the sale of public lands. Its circulation soared in nine weeks to 56,000 and later to 80,000. It was an important lesson for Greeley. He observed how political journalism could rapidly build up circulation of a newspaper.

On April 10, 1841, Greeley began publishing the New-York Tribune, a strongly anti-slavery reform newspaper that also campaigned against the evils of war, rum, tobacco, seduction, grogshops, brothels and gambling. Having offended Weed and Seward, he did not at first get Whig support. However, he brought in an astute Whig business partner, Thomas McElrath, who not only provided money but persuaded New York Whigs to support it with advertising. McElrath made it a solid foundation for Greeley's great editorial talent.

The Tribune prospered and became the leading Whig then Republican political organ, agitating against the extension of slavery to the western lands and for protective tariffs, internal improvements and a homestead law. It was the leading anti-southern newspaper.

For Lewis Benedict's iron hardware business, tariff protection would have been of high importance. His son-in-law, John Tayler Hall, wrote of him, "The revenue policy of the country was settled rather by the ballot-box than by Congress, and the Tariff question was seldom absent from the elements of party strife. In relation to such matters he was a competent adviser and his counsels were received with respect."

Hall noted the "curious coincidence" that the question of slavery divided the country along the same lines as questions of political economy:

It is curious as a fact and not less fortunate as a coincidence, that the same lines which divided the People on questions of political economy, also separated them in respect to those which concerned the rights and liberties of the citizen. Hence, the Liberal party comprised the same body that made up the party of Protection to American Labor; and the Proslavery party after the invention of the Cotton Gin by Whitney, was always the party of Free Trade.

Judging from Hall's mention of it, Benedict had been accused by some of complicity in causing the Civil War:

"Mr. Benedict was not spared the false charge that the Civil War was precipitated by the party he had done so much to sustain; nor when his son was a prisoner of war in the fearful hands of the confederates, that taunt, that but for the labors of such as himself, that son might have been safe in his father's house instead; but none of these things moved him. Before the captivity of his son was ended and while the strife of the Rebellion was raging, he died; his latest and most cherished belief being that, but for the education furnished by "Seward, Weed and Greeley," the people would not have attained to the degree of intelligent and conscientious patriotism, of which the Civil War was at once the evidence and the measure. With his own share in that grand course of discipline and instruction, which comprised a generation in its term, and in its graduates a nation, and with its momentous consequences, he was happy and satisfied; and with serene unconcern he left to such as took knowledge of it, the task, or the pleasure as it might be, to define its limits or calculate its value."

Benedict died on January 14, 1862, less than a year after the Civil War began. Two years later, his son, Col. Lewis Benedict Jr., was mortally wounded by a Confederate volley in the Battle of Pleasant Hill in Western Louisiana and died on April 9, 1864.