Seth Webb, Jr.
“A person of fine culture and attainments, Of amicable and manly character and of superior ability.”
Boston Journal, June 25, 1861
By David Corbin
All through the spring and summer of 1861 the city of Boston's many newspapers competed against each other in reporting the latest in war rumors. Since the outbreak of hostilities with the firing on Fort Sumter, Boston newspapers were filled with reports of southern sabotage and spy rings that were soon to infiltrate northern cities. Aside from these daily reports of intrigue was President Lincoln's appointment of a Boston lawyer and son of Scituate to the post of Commercial Agent to Haiti. With Lincoln's election victory in 1860 came the steady appointments to federal posts. Among the distinguished Republican Party leaders in Massachusetts was the son of a long line of merchants and mariners. Those who knew him described him as hard working and warm hearted, yet unbending in principle and causes he held dear. By profession he practiced law and had soon established a reputation as one of the most sought after advocates in Boston. His appointment, which had been personally recommended to Lincoln by Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, marked a crowning achievement for a man who no doubt may have moved on to yet greater things had his life not been cut short at the age of 39.
Seth Webb, Jr. was born on February 14, 1823. He was one of thirteen (eleven surviving) children born to Captain Seth and Eliza (Dunbar) Webb. Seth, Jr. came into the world in an upstairs chamber at the harbor home of his seafaring father. In 1820 Captain Seth had improved on an earlier structure built by his father Captain Lemuel Webb. The dwelling, rebuilt in the classic federal style of the day was later moved back from present day First Parish Rd to make way for St. Mary of the Nativity Catholic Church at the harbor. The mansion as it was known still stands today serving as the parish rectory.
Seth Webb, Jr. had been born into a prominent family. Captain Seth Webb (1796-1870) himself was the son of a master mariner. His father Lemuel had married Leah Coleman, who herself was descended from a seafaring family, in 1795. By 1820 Seth Webb, Sr. had established himself as a master mariner involved in coastal trading. That same year two very successful Scituate families were united when Seth, Sr. married Eliza Dunbar, daughter of Squire Jesse Dunbar. Jesse Dunbar, a wealthy merchant and owner of many coastal vessels, lived in his Georgian-style mansion on Front Street. His home was the scene of many entertainments for visiting merchants and mariners, for it was directly across from "Dunbar's Wharf," the scene of much coastal trading activity.
As a successful master mariner Capt Webb was away from home many months of the year. His voyages carried him down the steamy coast of South America and into the icy reaches of the Baltic. In 1826 his father-in-law and brother-in-law Jesse, Jr. became owners of the brig Oregon which had just been completed by Cushing and Henry Briggs at their shipyard. Capt Webb later became the master of the Oregon making many trips throughout the Mediterranean and Baltic seas. The senior Webb was also a shareholder along with his father-in-law in many coastal traders. Their interests ranged from the 23 ton schooner Star to the 130 ton brig Michigan.
While his father was away at sea, young Seth, Jr. attended private schools at Hingham and later at Bridgewater. At the age of fourteen in 1837 he was sent to Phillips Academy at Exeter, New Hampshire, where he excelled in Latin and oratory. Completing his studies at Phillips he entered Harvard where he excelled. He graduated in 1843. Upon graduation he embarked on an extended vacation that would mold his principles as a successful lawyer and public servant. From November 1843 to June 1844 Seth, Jr. traveled throughout the American South into New Orleans where he observed the workings of slavery. He witnessed the human tragedy of slave markets. His travels also carried him to Jamaica and Cuba. He again returned to New Orleans where he embarked by steamboat up the Mississippi where he continued to observe life. Reaching Cincinnati, Ohio, he disembarked and traveled by rail back to Massachusetts arriving in Scituate by mid-June.
Upon his return Seth, Jr. moved to Boston. His experiences from his trip made him a staunch supporter of the anti-slavery movement which was finding growing support throughout New England, as well as in many northern states. In Boston Seth first studied law under John Tyler Bigelow. Later he studied with Manlius Stimson Clark and Charles Greely Loring, all leading Boston lawyers. In 1845 he was admitted to the Suffolk Bar in Boston. That July he was present at the opening term of the Court of Common Pleas. In autumn he went into partnership with 0. Z. Chapman, Esq. They opened an office in Brighton. The partnership lasted until 1848 when Seth, Jr. opened his own office in the city. This lasted until 1851 when he met fellow advocate and abolitionist Charles G. Davis. The two soon became friends and formed the partnership Davis & Webb. This partnership would last ten years, their friendship a lifetime. In 1852 Seth married Helen Gibbons of Quincy. They made their home in both Scituate and Boston. With his practice with Davis prospering he began establishing connections that reached into the State House. Back home in Scituate he was praised as a supporter of many local concerns such as the fishing and agricultural industry. In 1859 he was chosen to address a dinner meeting of the Bridgewater Agricultural Society. He spoke to a full house addressing market concerns. Despite his busy law practice he found time to serve on the Scituate Town Committee and assisted in drawing up plans to enlarge and improve the Harbor Burying Ground - now present day Union Cemetery.
On May 3, 1860 a crowd of over 300 townspeople packed Union Hall to hear Seth, Jr. give the welcoming address for the annual "Festival of May" which included recitals by schoolchildren and a traditional maypole. As the crowd listened to his speech, they no doubt felt a local sense of pride toward one of their own.
Months earlier the townspeople of Scituate learned that Seth, Jr. was to represent the Second District of Massachusetts as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago. Only days after his address at Union Hall he boarded a train for Chicago. He arrived there on May 16, 1860 for what would prove to be one of the most pivotal political conventions in American history.
With his many accomplishments came personal loss. In 1857 the Webb family lost brother Jesse to illness. The following year Seth's wife Helen passed away