Begley chronicles the Whig Congressman from Guilderland

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Book in hand: Alice Begley, Guilderland’s town historian, fit years of research on the life of John L. Schoolcraft into a slender volume, just 60 pages, published in an elegant paperback by the Troy Book Makers. It is for sale at The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza or by calling the author at 456-3032. The book costs $14.95.

— Rendering by Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects

Bought by the town of Guilderland in 1994, the Schoolcraft House, which was built in the 1840s, is currently being restored by the town and The Friends of the Schoolcraft Cultural Center. A drive is underway now to buy paint for the historic structure to make it watertight, and an open house is planned for the holiday season. “We want to show people how far the house has come,” said the town’s historian, Alice Begley, who has spearheaded the project. “It’s beginning to look like the house John Schoolcraft lived in.” She hopes “within a year or two” the center will be hosting “Sunday afternoon musicals, lectures, book readings, and all sorts of nice things.”

GUILDERLAND — The town historian responsible for saving a landmark mansion from demolition has for years been piecing together the story of the man who built that mansion.

Now, Alice Begley has published a book called Congressman John L. Schoolcraft…and his house.

“If the house is worth restoring, the man who built it is worth writing about,” Begley said this week.

Begley’s book weaves the discoveries she’s made about Schoolcraft’s life with her observations about his 19th-Century mansion, perched on a knoll overlooking the Western Turnpike. She viewed paintings he purchased in Europe in the Cincinnati Art Museum; she painstakingly transcribed a cache of his letter, which had lain dormant in the vault of the Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester; she tracked down the obelisk that marks his grave at the Albany Rural Cemetery.

All these, and more, informed her view of the Schoolcraft Mansion.

Begley knows Schoolcraft’s birthplace intimately — the town of Guilderland where she lives herself and serves as historian. The book opens with a brief foray into Schoolcraft genealogy, familiar to Enterprise readers of Begley’s history column.

John Lawrence Schoolcraft was born in the hamlet of Hamilton, home of the Glass Works, on Sept. 22, 1806. His father died when he was but three months old. His widowed mother remarried and moved to Michigan, but young John Schoolcraft remained in Guilderland and was raised by his grandfather with the same name.

The family amassed nearly a thousand acres and ran a tavern and hotel on the Great Western Turnpike.  Schoolcraft’s grandfather helped organize the first school districts in Guilderland and was named to the first board of education. Both the grandfather and grandson were trustees of the Hamilton Union Church that stands now next to the mansion the younger Schoolcraft built.

Spurred by his rejection as a cadet to West Point, the young Schoolcraft left Guilderland at 18 and took up residence at the City Hotel in Albany. Poring through the listings of mid-19th-Century city directories, Begley found Schoolcraft was involved in owning a number of city businesses. He was also a banker and eventually became president of the Commercial Bank of Albany, a forerunner of KeyBank.

What was most important, though, about his move to the City Hotel was the company he kept.  “I found out what happened when he stayed at that big hotel near the capitol…He met Thurlow Weed, the Albany newspaper editor, and a lot of political players,” said Begley.

Begley’s book describes Weed, editor of the Albany Evening Journal, as a huge man with a commanding presence. She writes, “Ten years Schoolcraft’s senior, the large-boned, six-foot-one-inch man with enormous hands presented a formidable father figure to the new young man on the political block.”

Schoolcraft became close friends with Weed and with William Seward, who served as New York’s governor and senator, and had aspirations to be president.

Inspiration for a mansion

In 1843, when Schoolcraft was 37 and a wealthy businessman, he and Weed sailed for Europe. Although Weed didn’t complete the tour, returning home, Schoolcraft kept him informed, through letters, about the journey.

Begley surmises that Schoolcraft became enamored of Gothic castles and churches on his European travels and wanted to replicate them in his Guilderland country retreat, built in the popular Gothic Revival style.

Begley documents, through Schoolcraft’s letters to Weed, the artwork he acquired on his trip. On April 2, 1844, he wrote to Weed, “I shall have nine large pictures.  The thought just occurred to me what shall I do with them. It will require two large rooms.  I must arrange for this when I return.”

Begley believes Schoolcraft added the west wing to his mansion, shown at left in the accompanying drawing, to accommodate the art he acquired in Europe. Her book includes pictures of several of those paintings, now in Philadelphia or Cincinnati.

In his letters, Schoolcraft urged Weed to help the starving American artists working abroad. “Weed,” he wrote, “you could be of service to the small number of artists in Rome. They receive nothing from government and their commissions from their country are small. You have labored for your party, for the Irish and for the slave, let me urge you to say a word for the arts and the artists abroad….They are a fine gentlemanly set of men. If our countrymen will come abroad they will acquire a taste for pictures.”

One of the American artists Schoolcraft visited in Europe was the sculptor, Hiram Powers, whose statue of a naked “Eve” he admired.  “I suppose our over-modest and virtuous citizens would condemn a naked statue…at home it would be condemned,” he wrote. He portrayed American hypocrisy, stating that “it was immodest for a lady to set at her piano draped low, the gentleman standing by her side to turn over the leaves of the music book can see down the lady’s waist.” Schoolcraft concluded the exhibition of “Eve” in America would be beneficial to his countrymen.

Political to the end

Under Weed’s tutelage, Schoolcraft was elected to Congress in 1848 and again in 1850. “He became the eyes and ears of the Whig Party,” said Begley.

Begley’s book cites a contemporary account of the tumultuous Congress of the time: “Members of the House indulged in bad manners, unruly behavior and outright violence,” which included duels and beatings.

“Weed,” Begley wrote, “relied on the Guilderland Congressman for first-hand information about happenings in the Capitol for his editorials…Weed had earned the name ‘Dictator’ of the Whig party with his keen manipulation of the candidates and policies of the party known for its anti-slavery and anti-Masonic platforms.”

In the 18 months that Zachary Taylor served as president, Begley wrote, “Schoolcraft’s genial and persuasive manner put him in good favor…”

Seward was also doing well politically as he opposed slavery in the states that were to be named in the Compromise of 1850.

“Letters poured into Schoolcraft’s Washington office after Senator Seward gave his widely proclaimed speech opposing the pending 1850 Compromise on slave labor versus free labor,” wrote Begley. “His statement gripped the country’s attention that ‘there is a higher law than the Constitution’ regulating ‘our authority over the domain.’”

But the fortunes of triumvirate of Weed, Seward, and Schoolcraft changed after July 9, 1850 when, writes Begley, “a sudden attack of gastroenteritis took President Zachary Taylor’s life and changed the congenial, political scene.”

“We are at sea without a pilot,” Schoolcraft wrote to Weed in August 1850, after Taylor’s death.

He also wrote of the newly sworn-in president, Millard Fillmore, “Fillmore has found his level. He is despised by friend and foe….The good old president is gone and what will become of the country god only knows. The Whig party is broken up and where we are to be only time will tell.”

Seward and Schoolcraft remained close friends as well as political allies. In 1853, Schoolcraft married Seward’s niece, Caroline Canfield; he was 47 and she was 21.

The couple had just seven years to enjoy their Guilderland Gothic Revival home with their children.

Schoolcraft died of a heart attack on June 7, 1860 in Ontario on his way home from the Republican National Convention in Chicago where he had strongly supported Seward for the presidential nomination.  “Seward lost the nomination to Abraham Lincoln,” writes Begley, “a young lawyer from Illinois.”

Seward had been the favorite going into the convention and won on the first two ballots; he later served on Lincoln’s cabinet as secretary of state.

Begley quotes from obituaries written for Schoolcraft; one in the July 9 edition of The Troy Daily Whig said of Schoolcraft “Prudence and integrity brought in due time wealth. Political honors would have been lavished on him if he had consented to accept them; but he was ever zealous for others, never for himself.”

Begley also tracked down Schoolcraft’s gravesite in the Albany Rural Cemetery, and notes many prominent men had monuments built before their death. Schoolcraft’s was made five years before he died by a well-known monument architect of the era, William Gray — it is in the Gothic style, reminiscent of the Schoolcraft Mansion.

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