Of Kendall County’s nine townships, Seward and NaAuSay were traditionally the least populated. Seward Township is located in the far southeastern corner of Kendall County, and, like NaAuSay, has had no municipalities until, in recent years, the growing community of Joliet annexed into it. But Seward’s population was also swelled when a second municipality, Minooka, also annexed into it.
Some seem to think the township was named after the Steward family of Plano—despite the clear differences in spelling. The Stewards were a prominent 19th Century Kendall County family. Lewis Steward founded Plano, narrowly lost a bid for governor in 1876 running on the Democratic ticket. Although well-liked locally, he failed to carry Kendall County while losing by fewer than 5,000 votes statewide. He had more success running for Congress in 1890, elected in that economically depressed year when Republicans had over-reached by promoting English-only laws, coming out strongly as anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, and favoring the rich and corporations over wage earners. Any comparison to modern U.S. politics is, of course, silly. Right?
But in any event, Seward Township was not named for the Steward family. Rather, its namesake is William H. Seward, former governor and U.S. Senator from New York, and U.S. Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln.
Seward was born May 16, 1801 in Orange County, N.Y. 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, one of the many anti movements of the time. 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 was elected.
Seward was an early anti-slavery advocate, a popular position in New York outside of New York City, and in 1848 his stand against slavery got him elected to the U.S. Senate under the Whig Party banner.
The politics of that era was turbulent. The Whig Party was beginning to crack into the “conscience” and “cotton” wings over the slavery issue, and the American Party—also known as the Know Nothings—that was virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, was gaining strength. Seward was in constant conflict with the Know Nothings as they used the Whigs’ disintegration to step in and pick up some of the pieces.
The 1840s and 1850s marked one of the high tides of the nativist movement, the members of which called themselves Know Nothings, because when questioned about the group’s activities they professed to know nothing. The Know Nothings’ rallying cry was to ‘save America for Americans.’
It doesn’t take reading many Know Nothing political speeches to realize that Donald Trump almost seems to be using them as campaign source materials.
Trump, of course, is not anti-Catholic (although he doesn’t seem to like the Pope very much, the sentiment seemingly reciprocated), although the Know Nothings viewed Catholics as dangerously anti-American because of the supposed influence of the Pope on church members.
Most of the immigrants of that era were fleeing Ireland’s terrible potato famine as well as the Enclosure Laws. 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 societies such as the American Defense Society, the American Patriotic League, and the American Protective Association among others, all of which were organized around the kind of rituals and secrecy pioneered by Freemasonry. They were extremely successful in certain areas of the country—particularly New York.
Seward was never a nativist. After his brief fling with the anti-Masonic movement, which was a reaction against the supposed power the fraternal organization had on American politics, he seems to have become an extremely tolerant person for his day.
Many northern Know Nothings, while rabidly anti-foreigner were also anti- slavery. As a result, they were attempting to persuade anti-slavery Whigs to join the American Party at the expense of the Republican Party, which was, in the early 1850s, just getting going.
And that’s where Seward decided there was a line to be drawn. 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 newly-minted Republican.
What had happened in the meantime? The northern and southern wings of the Know Nothings split over slavery, just as the Whig Party had. They also split over Catholicism. Many Louisiana Know Nothings were Catholic, something northern party members couldn’t abide. Nor could the southern party members abide the northerners’ anti-slavery positions. After reaching their high water mark in 1852, the American Party’s fervor burned out.
The Know Nothing phenomenon was never very 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 just too many inﬂuential ethnic groups in the Midwest for nativism to catch on at that time.
Meanwhile, when Kendall County had to name its nine townships in 1850, local folks arrived at names with a variety of origins. Originally, the township in the county’s far southeastern corner was named Franklin Township, but since that conflicted with another township in Illinois, a new name had to be found, and it turned out to be Seward. Why honor a New York politician out here on the Illinois tallgrass prairie? Seward was a respected politician from the home state–and even the home county–of many of Kendall County’s early settlers, and his anti-slavery and anti-Know Nothing stands were popular here.
Seward Township’s name is a reminder of an unfortunate time in American history when bigotry was normalized into a political party, something that seems, in this election year of 2016, to be happening all over again. But today’s politicians would do well to take heed of what happened to the Know Nothings when political bigotry got out of hand. We ought to all hope that somewhere among our modern crop of politicians, there is one who will be as courageous as William Seward in fighting religious bigotry and racism in U.S. politics.