- By Gabrielle Griswold
Henry Seymour Conway – A Friend of Colonial America
Contrary to what some people believe, the face carved and painted in the wooden medallions at Conway Marketplace is not that of George Washington but of Henry Seymour Conway.
The town was named for him — but who was Henry Seymour Conway? And why, at a time when the American colonies were seething with rebellion, would a remote village in the -White Mountains name itself for a British army general who never set foot on this continent?
Our hero (for so the colonists considered him) was born at Beaufort House, Chelsea, England, the second son of Francis, first Lord Conway. Since the British system of primogeniture bestowed the title on his elder brother (later first Earl of Hertford), Henry followed the traditional path of a younger son and entered the military at an early age. Educated at Eton College, Paris and Geneva, he made the ritual Grand Tour of Europe before settling down to the serious business of taking his place in the world.
In 1741, besides entering the military, he entered politics as a member of both the English and Irish Parliaments, and continued to sit in the House of Commons until 1784. It was in his political capacity that he eventually became known to colonists overseas.
Conway appears to have been virtually a model English aristocrat of the Age of Enlightenment. Like our own Thomas Jefferson, he was a man of many parts: soldier, statesman, inventor, thinker, architect, gardener, litterateur and man-about-town.
Born into the highest social circles, Conway was handsome, reserved but gracious, of an elevated mind and cultivated tastes, an idealist renowned for his incorruptible integrity and for his courage both physical and moral. He married the beautiful and wealthy Lady Ailesbury in what was considered a true love match, and thereafter she accompanied him on many of his travels. Both were welcome guests at the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.
Although a polished courtier, Conway never hesitated to oppose the English King and government in defense of principles he believed in. He opposed both George II and George III on a number of occasions, standing firm against the abuse of royal prerogative and championing such avant-garde causes as freedom of speech and of the press. In the process he suffered considerable personal loss, but, despite the ups and downs of royal favor, seemingly his worth was such that the monarch never totally broke with him. Thus, throughout his life, Conway remained in positions of influence and power.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, far from the luxurious courts of Europe, a few hardy settlers had been making their way up into the White Mountains of New Hampshire and putting down roots here.
Rebellion was stirring in the colonies as more and more oppressive measures were enacted by British legislators out of touch with the realities of American life. When news of the Stamp Act reached New England, riots erupted everywhere. In Portsmouth, a "funeral" was held for the Goddess of Liberty on Nov. 1, 1765, the day the act was due to take effect.
The Stamp Act was hated by many Britons as well, who thought it detrimental to trade with America, which provided great wealth for the island kingdom. They believed the act would kill the goose that laid the golden egg.
As secretary of state and leader of the House of Commons, Conway made the motion to repeal the Stamp Act in February 1766, and earned the enduring gratitude of colonists when the motion was carried. Edmund Burke wrote that during the final Stamp Act debate Conway spoke eloquently, with "the face of an angel."
However, it may not be entirely for this reason that our town was named for him. The document by which King George III granted land for "a new plantation" here was dated Oct. 1, 1765. In that document, he decrees that, with the "advice of our trusty and excellent Benning Wentworth, Esq., governor and commander-in-chief of our said province of New Hampshire" [who was, incidentally, a close friend of Henry Seymour Conway] a tract of land be "divided into 69 equal shares ... and that the same be and hereby is incorporated into a township by the name of Conway."
In other words, the naming of the town preceded Conway's motion to repeal the Stamp Act. Even though the issue had probably been lengthily debated beforehand, his popularity with the colonists may equally have derived from his 1764 position on the Wilkes case.
This case, much publicized on both sides of the Atlantic, centered around one John Wilkes, an English parliamentarian and representative of the Sons of Liberty, who kept in close touch with American patriots and had campaigned for parliamentary reform and justice for the colonies. When he was arrested and imprisoned in 1763 for criticizing British foreign policy in his periodical The North Briton, Wilkes became a symbol of opposition to tyranny in American eyes.
Objecting to the prosecution of Wilkes, Conway sprang to his defense, thereby so enraging King George that he stripped Conway of his military command and of his position as Groom of the Bedchamber in the royal household, both important sources of revenue for Conway. Although others besides himself had condemned the attempt to crush Wilkes, Conway was a particular target for the King's wrath because of his closeness to the court and to the royal person.
Earlier, in 1763, Conway had been among a minority who had fought for freedom of the press by resisting the imposition of "general warrants," which sanctioned the seizure of private papers and the arrest of their owners by authority of the secretary of state.
Later, in 1767, he stood alone in the House of Commons in opposing a scheme for suspending the legislative powers of the New York Assembly. He also objected to suggested measures for oppression of the East India Company, and consistently opposed the taxation of American colonists and war with America.
Conway's appeal in America was as an advocate of American rights, for which he was known throughout his career. So popular was he on our shores that James Otis and Samuel Adams requested his portrait (painted by Gainsborough) for Faneuil Hall in Boston, and in Philadelphia his health was drunk at the American Philosophical Society.
Besides our own, a number of other American towns were named for him, the closest geographically being Conway, Mass.
Interestingly, there was another Conway (probably unrelated) who was active in America at about the same time. This was Thomas Conway, who seems to have been something of a renegade, a general whom George Washington trusted when he first met him in 1777, then later came to loathe.
This Conway was purportedly involved in what is sometimes called "the Conway Cabal," a military-political plot challenging Washington's command of the Revolutionary army and ostensibly seeking to replace him with the hero of Saratoga, General Horatio Gates. Although troublesome to Washington, no lasting harm came of the conspiracy which petered out with time — but not before Thomas Conway engaged in a duel over the matter that wounded but did not kill him (he outlived Washington by a year).
Although some historians have questioned the entire episode, Alexander Hamilton never doubted a conspiracy had existed and qualified Conway as "vermin."
Much as our Conway was a hero, this one appears to have been a villain. Happily, our town was named for the good guy, not the bad one! •