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  Name:  Thurlow Weed
  Born:  November 15, 1797
  Died:  November 22, 1882

  Complete HarpWeek Biography:

Weed, Thurlow (November 15, 1797—November 22, 1882)

Thurlow Weed was a newspaper editor and New York State political boss, nicknamed “The Wizard of the Lobby.”  He used his considerable political skill to help William Henry Seward win the governorship and then a seat in the U.S. Senate.  After failing to secure Seward the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, Weed worked for the election of the party’s choice, Abraham Lincoln.

Weed was born on November 15, 1797, in Greene County, New York, to Joel and Mary Ells Weed, who were farmers.  The family moved two years later to the nearby town of Catskill, where his father failed at a carting business.  The family’s poverty often landed the elder Weed in debtors’ prison, forcing young Weed to cut short his brief education at the age of eight in order to help support the family by taking various jobs, including as a bellows–blower in a blacksmith shop and two years as a cabin boy on Hudson River sloops.  The family moved to Cincinnatus in 1808 and Onondaga Hollow in 1809, both in the central–west, frontier section of New York.  Young Weed was able to get in a few months of schooling, but mainly worked at various jobs before becoming a printer’s apprentice for the Onondaga Valley Lynx

Shortly after the outbreak of the War of 1812, the teenage Weed served seven months with the 40th Regiment of the New York State Militia for which he became quartermaster sergeant.  He did not see any military action, and continued as a journeyman printer when not on duty.  His first exposure to state government came when employed in 1815–1816 by the Albany Argus, printer for the state legislature.  His interest in politics heightened during a few–months residence in New York City where he joined a print–workers union, the New York Typographical Society, and participated in labor rallies.  Back in the state capital in 1817, he became foreman and occasional editorialist for the Albany Register, which led to positions as editors for newspapers in the small central– New York towns of Norwich and Manlius.  Weed married Catherine Ostrander of Cooperstown on April 26, 1818; the couple later had five children, one of whom was adopted. 

Weed took a job as assistant editor of the Rochester Telegraph in 1822 and became its part–owner three years later.  A promoter of internal improvements and alcohol temperance, he won recognition for his role in encouraging the state legislature to enact bank charter legislation in 1824.  That same year, he lobbied successfully for the legislature to cast a majority of the state’s Electoral College votes for John Quincy Adams (there was no popular presidential vote in New York until 1828).  Weed served in the state legislature during the 1825 term.  The next year, he joined the crusade against the Freemasons and in 1828 sold his share of the Rochester Telegraph to found the Anti–Masonic Enquirer.  He editorialized for state intervention to promote economic development and discourage moral vices (e.g., gambling), and again supported Adams in the 1828 presidential election.  The following year he was elected again to the state legislature. 

In 1830, Weed became editor of the Albany Evening Journal, a new publication.  Over the next three decades, he established the newspaper as a potent partisan voice for Anti–Masons, then Whigs (1834), and finally Republicans (1855).  In 1838, he managed the gubernatorial campaign of his friend William Henry Seward, which ended in victory for Seward and more political clout for Weed.  The publisher served in the lucrative position of state printer in 1839, and became deeply involved in the distribution of political patronage. 

In 1840, Weed backed the presidential candidacy of William Henry Harrison and influenced the Whig campaign to generate popular enthusiasm with parades, rallies, and our community–wide events.  Criticized for the power he had amassed within the party, Weed largely stayed on the sidelines during the 1844 presidential election in which Whig Henry Clay was defeated by Democrat James K. Polk.  Returning to national politics four years later, he worked successfully for Whig Zachary Taylor’s election as president.  In 1849, Weed saw his protégé Seward elected U.S. senator as a Whig and was himself a close advisor to Taylor until the president’s death in 1850.

Weed opposed opening the Western territories to slavery through the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854.  Therefore, he joined the new Republican Party, but only after Seward was reelected to the U.S. Senate in early 1855.  Weed abandoned the Albany Evening Journal editorship (1855–1858) in order to minimize the perceived link between the former Whig Party and the Republican Party, even as he transferred his power base from one to the other.  After persuading Seward not to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1856, Weed backed the senator’s candidacy four years later.  When the nomination went to Abraham Lincoln, the New York powerbroker easily shifted his allegiance to the Illinois Republican. 

After Lincoln’s election, Weed met frequently with the president, but the editor’s advice had limited impact on policy and personnel except for the appointment of Seward as secretary of state.  When the Civil War began in April 1861, Weed worked unofficially but effectively to recruit and supply Union troops from New York.  He was sent by Lincoln in the winter of 1861–1862 as a secret envoy to dissuade European governments from recognizing Confederate independence.  In December 1862, Lincoln again used Weed as an intermediary, that time in an unsuccessful attempt to convince Horatio Seymour, the newly elected Democratic governor of New York, to back Lincoln administration policies. 

In 1863, Weed sold the Albany Evening Journal and moved to New York City.  Differing from Lincoln and the radicals’ support of emancipation, and struggling to retain influence over the state Republican Party, Weed turned his attention primarily from politics to business, and made millions in speculative ventures.  Countercharges of corruption between Republican New York Mayor George Opdyke and Weed culminated in Opdyke’s libel suit against Weed, which ended with a hung jury in 1865.

Following Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War in April 1865, Weed supported President Andrew Johnson against the Radical Republicans.  In 1867, he bought the New York Commercial Advertiser, using it as a platform for his opposition to voting rights for blacks and women.  He endorsed Republican Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868 and continued to comment on public issues for several years.  Thurlow Weed died in New York City on November 22, 1882.

Sources consulted:  Glyndon G. Van Deusen, “A Young American, Frontier Style:  The Early Years of a Famous Citizen of Rochester,” Rochester History, edited by Dexter Perkins and Blake McKelvey, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 1944, pp. 1–24; Phyllis F. Field, “Weed, Thurlow,” American National Biography Online, February 2000,–01194.html; “Thurlow Weed,” Mr. Lincoln’s White House, The Lincoln Institute under a grant from The Lehrman Institute; “Thurlow Weed, Esq.,” Harper’s Weekly, November 23, 1861, p. 751; “The Hon. Thurlow Weed,” The New York Illustrated News, April 13, 1861, p. 364; H.C.B., “Weed, Thurlow,” Dictionary of American Biography, pp. 598–600.


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