Wednesday, March 21, 2018

William H. Seward's "Irrepressible Conflict Speech" -- Southern Ohio and Slavery in 1858


“Our forefathers knew it to be true, and unanimously acted upon it when they framed the Constitution of the United States. They regarded the existence of the servile system in so many of the States with sorrow and shame, which they openly confessed, and they looked upon the collision between them, which was then just revealing itself, and which we are now accustomed to deplore, with favor and hope. They knew that either the one or the other system must exclusively prevail.”

William H. Seward, excerpt from his “Irrepressible Conflict” Speech

Willliam Henry Seward's October 1858 speech in Rochester, New York, is know as the “Irrepressible Conflict” speech. It was part of his campaign to secure the Republican party nomination and was widely covered in the press. His denunciation of the Democratic Party as the party of slavery and his stark call for the inevitable completion of the “revolution” for freedom electrified the antislavery movement and helped convince Southerners of the radical ambitions of the Republican Party.

William Henry Seward (May 16, 1801 – October 10, 1872) was United States Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869, and earlier served as Governor of New York and United States Senator. A determined opponent of the spread of slavery in the years leading up to the American Civil War, he was a dominant figure in the Republican Party in its formative years, and was praised for his work on behalf of the Union as Secretary of State during the American Civil War.

Seward's strong stances and provocative words against slavery brought him hatred in the South. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1855, and soon joined the fledgling Republican Party, becoming one of its leading figures. As the 1860 presidential election approached, he was regarded as the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. However, several factors, including attitudes to his vocal opposition to slavery, his support for immigrants and Catholics, and his association with editor and political boss Thurlow Weed, worked against him and Abraham Lincoln secured the presidential nomination. Although devastated by his loss, he campaigned for Lincoln, who was elected and appointed him Secretary of State.

Seward did his best to stop the southern states from seceding; once that failed, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the Union cause. His firm stance against foreign intervention in the Civil War helped deter the United Kingdom and France from entering the conflict and possibly gaining the independence of the Confederate States.

Seward was one of the targets of the 1865 assassination plot that killed Lincoln, and he was seriously wounded by conspirator Lewis Powell. Seward remained loyally at his post through the presidency of Andrew Johnson, during which he negotiated the Alaska purchase in 1867 and supported Johnson during his impeachment. His contemporary Carl Schurz described Seward as "one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints.”

Portsmouth Times

It was the Irrepressible Conflict speech that drew my attention to the November 23, 1858 edition of the Portsmouth Times. The Times printed Senator Seward's speech on the front page in its entirety, and, in the same edition, the paper critiqued his views in a long editorial. Of course, the Times was not the only publication to criticize Seward. As you can expect, opposition to slavery was common in Southern states. Here is an excerpt from the Clarksville Jeffersonian (Tennessee) on November 24, 1858:

The speech lays down clearly and explicitly that doctrine that the slavery question must and shall continue to be an issue between parties and sections, until either the Free or the Slave States are completely subjugate, or in other words, that the contest must continue until slavery is entirely abolished and rooted out by the constitution, or until it is carried into every Northern State.

Now , while we can only regard such conclusions as the merest ravings of political fanaticism, we cannot blind ourselves to the fact, that Mr. Seward who enunciates them, is one of the ablest and shrewdest statesmen and politicians our Country has produced …

(Despite the veiled compliment) He has not sought to wage, as he now does, a war of extermination against slavery and slaveholders, and it is an important sign of the times that he had added so much virulence and malignity to his views. This face should be a not of warning the people of the South, and should impress them with importance and necessity of united action.”

Seward's speech proved divisive and quotable, alleging that the U.S. had two "antagonistic system [that] are continually coming into closer contact, and collision results. Seward believed it was an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it meant that the United States must either become entirely either a slave-holding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation. White southerners saw the "irrepressible conflict" speech as a declaration of war.

Parts of the Portsmouth Times response are included in these (blue) passages ...

“Senator Seward We have chosen to print this document at length because we hate “excerpts,” and for the further reason that it is a bold, clear, systematic and authoritative exposition of the tenets and tendencies of the sham Republican party; set forth, withal, in the precise language and logical arrangement of it shrewdest Statesman ...

“On slavery per se, … the people of Southern Ohio have heard precisely similar talk from Father John Rankin, Rev. Dyer Burgess, and others of the old radical abolition school. Yet, even here, if the reader watch closely, he can detect the gravest errors both of principle and statement.

“Now, as the common sense of nine-tenths of the American people understands it, American slavery … reposes upon the fact that 'the white is the superior race (not class) and the black the inferior, that subordination, with or without Law, will be the status of the blacks in our mixed society, and therefore it is the interest of both, of the inferior race especially, and of the whole society, that this status should be fixed, controlled and protected by law.' In other words, the inequality of the negro leads to his subjection in American society. Substitute the idea of negro equality for this fact, and abolitionism is, of course, the logical sequence ...

“We merely remark that the character of Mr. Seward's mental organization is eminently speculative as that of Henry Clay was singularly practical. According, the whole speech abound in the grossest errors about common facts.

“We have gone into these minutiae to show up the utter unreliability of the statements brought forward by Senator Seward to support his positions. And, we will say, in all modesty and deference, that through the entire performance, the facts, – those stubborn things which it is not for man to make or invent, and from which all true reason is but the outcropping – the facts, we say are falsified in a most wonderful manner. Speaking of the Compromise of 1850, Mr. Steward says:

(Seward's words) “When, in 1850, Governments were to be instituted in the Territories of California and New Mexico. the fruits of that war, the Democratic party refused to admit New Mexico as a free State and only consented to admit California as a free State on the condition as it has since explained the transaction of leaving all of New Mexico and Utah open to slavery to which was also added the concession of perpetual slavery in the District of Columbia and the passage of an unconstitutional, cruel, and humiliating law, for the recapture of fugitive slave, with a further stipulation that the subject of slavery should never again be agitated in either chamber of Congress.”

Times “The Compromise of 1850, like those of 1788, were the triumph of patriotism over faction – of nationality over sectionalism. Then for once, Whigs and Democrats met and united for the sake of the Union.

“But the strong feature of this speech is the sentiment running through it, that slavery must be abolished or the Union dissolved. State rights are to be invaded, the guarantees of the Constitution set aside, and an institution coeval (equal) with the very existence of several States rooted out, and all because it is requisite to the permanence of this Union that the domestic policy of every one of the States do the same. Mr. Seward says that the two systems as embraced in the Confederacy are 'incongruous' – more than that, they are 'incompatible.'

“Fellow citizens of Lawrence and Scioto – conservative men, by whatever name you are called – you who love the Union of these States and pray for its perpetuity – read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this astounding document. The 'true issue' – the real point to which this agitation has been tending all along – is revealed, yea, avowed, at last – Choose ye, this day – For a “revolution” of this government or against it!”

In this editorial, the local paper acknowledges the controversy over slavery and a potential civil war. It is revealing that the Portsmouth paper defends Henry Clay, “the Great Pacificator,” and the Compromise of 1850 as triumphs of patriotism. Many historians do believe the resolutions delayed the Civil War for a decade.

But, it also caused tremendous controversy over the Fugitive Slave provision that decreed ordinary citizens of free states could be summoned to join a posse and be required to assist in the capture, custody, and/or transportation of the alleged escaped slave.

The law was so rigorously pro-slavery as to prohibit the admission of the testimony of a person accused of being an escaped slave into evidence at the judicial hearing to determine the status of the accused escaped slave.

And, consider Clay owned 60 slaves. Yet he called slavery “this great evil…the darkest spot in the map of our country” and did not modify his stance through five campaigns for the presidency, all of which failed. Clay maintained a so-called “moderate” stance on slavery: He saw the institution as immoral, a bane on American society, but insisted that it was so entrenched in Southern culture that calls for abolition were extreme, impractical and a threat to the integrity of the Union. He supported gradual emancipation and helped found the American Colonization Society, made up of mostly Quakers and abolitionists, to promote the return of free black people to Africa, where, it was believed, they would have better lives.

Also, the editorial berates Seward as a follower of a radical school of abolitionists like Rev. John Rankin, who now is acknowledged as a major force in abolishing slavery. No doubt, abolitionists were “agitating” the consciences of Americans by pushing the issue at a time when the Southern economy depended largely on their labor; however, the social and political movement had a great effect on emancipation and the abolition of slavery.

In his speech, Senator Seward boldly states a truth that had long confounded (and continues to confound) those who believe in liberty and justice for all Americans: the Founding Fathers knew that slavery would one day divide the United States. They knew bondage was wrong, yet they extolled the virtues of those who practiced slavery's unspeakable horrors. Seward believed that the breaking point was upon the country in 1858, and, rightly so. In essence, the nation had been in the throes of the Irrepressible Conflict since its birth.

In this piece, the mixed feelings about slavery in Southern Ohio are revealed. Make no mistake, Scioto County in that era was not a cradle of absolute liberty for slaves. Senator Seward's words were meant with a great deal of opposition in a time when racism ran high. Still, according to Daniel W. Crofts, historian of American National Biography: "Seward and Lincoln were the two most important leaders spawned by the intersection of antebellum idealism and partisan politics. Lincoln, of course, will always overshadow Seward. Before 1860, however, Seward eclipsed Lincoln."

I will conclude this post with the words of William H. Seward taken from the “Irrepressible Conflict” Speech ...

The secret of the Republican Party's assured success lies in that very characteristic which, in the mouth of scoffers, constitutes its great and lasting imbecility and reproach. It lies in the fact that it is a party of one idea, but that idea is a noble one – an idea that fills and expands all generous souls; the idea of equality – the equality of all men before human tribunals and human laws, as they all are equal before the Divine tribunal and Divine laws.

I know, and you know, that a revolution has begun. I know, and all the world knows, that revolution will never go backwards … While the Government of the United States, under the conduct of the Democratic party, had been all that time surrendering one plain and castle after another to slavery, the people of the United States have been no less steadily and perseveringly gathering together the forces with which to recover back again all the fields and all the castles which have been lost, and to confound and overthrow, by one decisive blow, the betrayers of the Constitution and freedom forever.”



Speech of Senator W.H. Seward, delivered at Rochester, October 25, 1858.

“Mr. Seward's Speech.” Portsmouth Times. November 23, 1858.

“Mr. Seward's Speech.” Clarksville Jeffersonian (Tennessee). November 24, 1858. 

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