Friday, January 14, 2011

Seward and Disunion, 1861

William-seward-bradyOne hundred fifty years ago this week, outgoing Senator William H. Seward delivered an impassioned, but futile, appeal for maintaining the Union on the eve of the Civil War.

Seward of New York had become an important political leader in the 1850s and expected to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. However, he was outmaneuvered by Abraham Lincoln at the Chicago convention and settled on becoming Secretary of State.

A noted orator, Seward became especially noted for his “Irrepressible Conflict” speech given in Rochester, New York, in 1858. In that speech, he argued that the division between the practice of slavery and free labor would inevitably lead to a “collision.”

Such a prediction was shocking but perhaps not surprising. Over the previous four decades, slavery and its impact on the nation’s economy and politics had become an increasingly divisive issue. Several legislative leaders who helped cobble together several North-South compromises were gone as confrontations intensified from 1854 onward.

Seward’s Irrepressible Conflict speech was an example of growing stridency among Northern politicians. Here he starkly argued: “Our country is a theater which exhibits in full operation two radically different political systems; the one resting on the basis of servile or slave labor, the other on the basis of voluntary labor of freemen.”

In speaking of the coming collision, he argued: “They who think that it is accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators, and therefore ephemeral, mistake the case altogether. It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation.”

His speech was acclaimed in the North and denounced in the South. Seward, himself, was on a collision course as he joined Lincoln’s cabinet in the aftermath of ever greater vitriol in the previous next years.

But as Seward was about to share the reins of power, he argued against disunion. On the floor of the Senate on January 12, 1861, he said, “Dissolution would not only arrest, but extinguish the greatness of our country.”

He disputed the arguments of those justifying secession following Lincoln’s election. He noted: “Has the Federal Government become tyrannical or oppressive, or even rigorous or unsound? Has the Constitution lost its spirit, and all at once collapsed into a lifeless letter? No; the Federal Government smiles more benignantly, and works to day more beneficently than ever.” Work within the political system, he pleaded.

To Seward, as to Lincoln, the preservation of the nation was paramount. And he seemed hopeful for a successful resolution of the crisis, saying that “my faith in the Constitution and in the Union abides, because my faith in the wisdom and virtue of the American people remains unshaken. Coolness, calmness, and resolution, are elements of their character.”

But in the end, Seward was correct in his assessment of an “irrepressible conflict.” The confrontation between two sections and two economies growing widely apart was too much to repair within the political arena. War came three months later, and it would redefine America.

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