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An address on the life, character and services of William Henry Seward (Volume 1) online

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was not unnatural that the single candidate from the
free States should have an advantage. He was elected.

But four years later appeared a very different state
of things. The slave-holding States had then con-
centrated on their most popular candidate, and,
forming an alliance with a large section of the
popular party in the North, they effected a complete
establishment of their power. Here is the origin of
the division of parties which prevailed for more than
thirty years. But it should be noted that this was
predicated upon the basis of what was called " the
compromise " established by the Missouri question,
and a consequent tacit understanding that the
subject of negro slavery was to be as much excluded
from political discussion as if it did not exist.


The Address.

The great State of New York had, by a division
of its electoral votes, contributed little or nothing to
the triumph. But, after the decisive result, an
organization followed, which, by pledging itself to
the fortunes of the new dynasty, succeeded in main-
taining its ascendency for many years. This claimed
to be the popular, or Democratic, party. In opposi-
tion were soon arrayed the class, in the free States,
leaning to conservative opinions in all questions
connected with the security of property ; and with
them were combined under the leadership of an
eminent statesman of the West, Henry Clay, so
much of the population of that section as could be
attracted to his banner. This was finally known as
the Whig party. It follows from this statement that
the issues made between these parties were mainly
confined to superficial questions of management of
the public affairs or the construction of Federal
powers. Hence it happened, singularly enough, that,
for a considerable period of time, the disputes were
turned in a direction which had no reference what-
ever to the most serious part of the policy upon
which the Government was secretly acting. That
policy was the extension of the slave-holding power
by gaining new territory over which to spread it.

For it should be observed that, while a profound
silence was observed at home, the new Administra-
tion had not been long settled in its place, before


JHE f.


secret agencies were set in motion, through the
diplomatic department, to procure expansion in the
direction in which this object could be the most
easily effected. This pointed southwest to Texas,
a territory then forming a part of the Mexican

Such being the state of things at the outset of
Mr. Seward's career, the first thing necessary for him
to do was to choose his side. Under his father's
roof the influences naturally carried him to sympa-
thize with the old Jeffersonian party on the one
hand, while the relics of the slave-system remaining
in the ftmiily as house-servants, the least repulsive
form of that relation, seemed little likely to inspire
in him much aversion to it on the other. Neverthe-
less, he early formed his conclusions adversely to the
organization in New York professing to be the
successors of the Jefferson school, and not less so to
the perpetuation of slavery anywhere. The reason
for this is obvious. With his keen perception of the
operation of general principles, he penetrated at once
the fact that the resurrection, in this form, of the
old party was not only hollow, but selfish. It looked
to him somewhat like a close corporation, made for
the purpose of dealing in popular doctrines, not. so
much for the public benefit as for that of the indi-
vidual directors. Moreover, it became clear that,
among those doctrines, that of freedom to the slave



The Address.

was rigorously excluded by reason of the bond of
union entered into with his masters at the South.
In reality, he was, in principle, too democratic for
the Democrats. Hence, he waged incessant war
against this form of oligarchy down to the hour
when it was finally broken up.

On the other hand, the selection of the more con-
servative side, which he finally made, was one not
unattended with difficulty. The idea of a popular
form of government which he had built up in his
own mind was one of the most expansive kind. He
applied it to our system, and saw at once the means
of its development almost indefinitely. In the
variety of details as they passed before him, whether
it was legislation, education, immigration, internal or
external communication, personal or religious liberty,
social equalization, or national expansion, he viewed
the treatment of all in his large, generalizing way,
always subject, however, to the regulation of general
laws. In this he was conservative, that he sought to
change, only the better to expand on a wider scale.
Neither by liberty did he ever mean license. So far
as I can comprehend the true sense of the word
" democracy," I have never found my idea more
broadly developed than by him. It is far more practi-
cal than any thing ever taught by Jefferson, and throws
into deep shadow the performances of most of his
modern disciples. The alternative to which he was

driven was not without embarrassments, which he
soon had occasion to feel. In allying himself with
a party in which conservative views had more or less
positive control, he could not foil to understand that
his doctrines would sometimes inspire many of his
associates with distrust, and some with absolute dis-
like, even though they might tolerate a union for
the sake of the obvious advantage of his effective
abilities. In point of fact, he soon became a repre-
sentative of the younger, the ardent, and the liberal
division, which favored a policy more in harmony
with the nature of our institutions than suited the
adherents to long established ideas. Yet these were
not long in finding out that he was possessed of
powers to direct the popular sense, which, on the
whole, it was not expedient for them to neglect.
Presently an occasion made him prominent in the
State elections. The inconsistency, which he could
not fail to expose, of the power of secret societies
with popular institutions, as illustrated in the well-
known story of the abduction and death of Morgan,
made him, first, a member of the Senate of this
State, and afterward raised him to be the Governor
for two terms. In all this public service he is found
boldly adhering to his broad views, even when they
were so much in advance as actually to conflict with
popular prejudices. He led so far that few could
keep pace with him. Some even jeered, and many


absolutely denounced him. The opposition was so
stubborn, at last, that he decided to withdraw from
the field. Yet the period soon arrived when the
wisdom of his course came to be fully recognized,
and the disputed points of his policy firmly estab-

I very much fear lest in this analysis I may have
much too seriously fatigued your attention. Yet,
without it, I am convinced that I cannot illustrate
the various phenomena of Mr. Seward's public life,
or point out the difficulties through which he was
perpetually working his way.

Now begins to be felt beneath our feet the first
tremulous motion of what ultimately proved the
great earthquake that shook the party organizations
to pieces. I have already alluded to the first hidden
overture made by General Jackson to the Govern-
ment of Mexico, through the agency of Anthony
Butler. Failing in this intrigue to get the territory
desired by purchase, the next stroke was to endeavor
to steal it by the indirect process of colonizing
emigration. I have no time to dwell on the details
of that nefarious transaction, which, partially checked
by the prudent timidity of Martin Van Buren,
revived with vigor under the pseudo*-presidency of

*This word is intended to signif)' a doubt whether the decision hastily
made in this case by irresponsible persons was a just one. It is much
to be regretted that the precise position of the Vice-President, in such
an emergency^ had not been determined by the Supreme Court. In at


John Tyler, and was ultimately consummated with
the sanction of James K. Polk.

But this daring policy, however well covered at
its outset, did not fail gradually to fix upon it the
attention of numbers of the calmest and most
moderate thinkers of the country least bound by the
fetters of either political school. Taken in connec-
tion with the arbitrary spirit manifested by the efforts
to suppress by popular violence the proceedings of
a handful of enthusiasts, who only claimed their
unquestionable right to express in public their objec-
tions to the whole system of slavery, whether at
home or abroad, their eyes began to open to the
realization of how far the action of the Government
and people had drifted from the original principles
with which it started. Very slowly at first, but
steadily afterward, the public sentiment went on
gathering sufficient force to make itself an object of
attention to the leading men of the two parties. For
some years, the ordinary discipline, so thoroughly
established amonor our habits, continued to resist
even the heaviest strain which the slave-holding
alliance thought proper to place upon it. But the
moment came when the assumption of the right
absolutely to control the expression of the sense of

least one of the three contingencies provided by the Constitution, he
could be only ii temporary agent. It seems to me he should have been
so regarded in all.

The Address.

the people, in the form of respectful petition to their
own representatives, proved a burden too heavy to
bear. The cord then snapped, and from that date
the disintegration of the old organization may be
observed steadily hastening to its close.

The sentiment of Mr. Seward on the subject of
slavery had been early expressed. Previously to
graduating at college, he had passed six months in
the State of Georgia, but he seems not to have been
converted by his experience to any fLiith in the sys-
tem. His first public demonstration was made in a
Fourth-of-July oration, delivered at Auburn, when
he was twenty-four years old. The passage is suffi-
ciently striking, in view of our later history, to merit
quotation here. Speaking of the Union : " Those,
too," he says, " misapprehend either the true interest
of the people of these States, or their intelligence,
who believe or profess to believe that a separation
will ever take place between the North and the
South. The people of the North have been seldom
suspected of a want of attachment to the Union,
and those of the South have been much misrepre-
sented by a few politicians of a stormy character,
who have ever been unsupported by the people there.
The North will not willingly give up the power they
now have in the national councils, of gradually com-
pleting a work of which, whether united or separate,
from proximity of territory, we shall ever be inter-

The Address.

ested — the emancipation of slaves. And the South
will never, in a moment of resentment, expose them-
selves to a war with the North while they have such
a great domestic population of slaves ready to em-
brace any opportunity to assert their freedom, and
inflict their revenge." In this passage, the deliberate
claim of a power in the Federal Government to
emancipate slaves by legislation is not less remarkable
than the miscalculation of the force of the passions
which led the South, in the end, to the very step
that brought on the predicted consequences. Yet
in his conclusion he proved a prophet. But he then
could little have foreseen the share he was to have
in controlling the final convulsion,

Mr. Seward terminated his career as a State poli-
tician with a very elaborate exposition of his views
of policy, presented with great ability. It was wise
in him to retreat, leaving such a legacy, for he thus
escaped complications with local interests and rival
jealousies, which render perseverance in purely local
struggles such a thankless labor. It was this error
which for a long time impaired the usefulness of
another great statesman of New York, De Witt
Clinton. From this date, Mr. Seward remained
several years in private life, steadily pursuing his
profession. The course of public affairs had not
proved propitious to his party. The gleam of light
shed by the success of General Harrison, in the


The Address.

presidential election, had turned to darkness by his
death, and the consequent succession of John Tyler.
Then followed the sharply-disputed election of 1844,
when, for the first time, was taught to the manipula-
tors of nominations a new precedent by which to
regulate their policy. The lesson was this : That
between a man of proved abilities, marked character,
and long services, like Henry Clay, on the one side,
and one comparatively unknown, with a brief, insig-
nificant career, like James K. Polk, as candidates for
the presidency, the majority of the people will prefer
the one against whom the least can be said, I shall
have to recur to this matter by-and-by in another form.
But there was another and still more significant
lesson taught to politicians on this occasion : This
was, that the party organizations founded upon a
compromise, excluding the vital issue affecting the
country, were about to meet with another shock.
The final accomplishment of the scheme of enlarging
the slave-holding region, by the acquisition of Texas,
was well understood to be certain, in the event of
the election of Mr. James K. Polk. On the other
hand, the course likely to be taken, should Mr. Clay
prove the victor, was left uncertain. A demand to
know his sentiments was made so imperative that it
was not deemed by him prudent to evade it. Yet,
a rent in the party was almost sure to follow, what-
ever might be his conclusion. The result was a weak


The Address.

attempt, in a letter, to reconcile opinions which had
become too discordant to permit of such treatment.
Mr. Seward, though he faithfully adhered to the party,
was too sagacious not to foresee the effect upon that
portion of it with which he most sympathised at
home. A defection of sixteen thousand voters in
New York turned the scale, and Mr. Polk was
elevated to power. This was the first considerable
fissure made in the existing parties, and it inured
to the benefit of the so-called Democracy. But
their turn came around next time, when they were
wrecked on the same rock. Such was the inevitable
consequence of persevering in the maintenance of
a division wholly superficial and evasive of the real
and true issue — the permanence of the slave-holding

The consequences of the election of Mr. Polk
were very serious. Not only was the State of Texas
mtroduced, but a war with Mexico followed, and a
much larger acquisition of territory at the peace than
had been originally contemplated. The engineer
had been " hoist with his own petard." The success
of the war had naturally brought into notice the
military leaders who most contributed to it. The
election of 1829 established another precedent for
the guidance of parties, which had been confirmed
by the experience of 1840. This was in effect that,
as between a civilian and a soldier, both of them of

The Address.

marked character, and of abilities proved by suf-
ficient service, the people prefer the soldier. General
Taylor had very much distinguished himself by his
Mexican campaign, and the Whig party seized the
earliest opportunity of enlisting him in its ranks.
All the old statesmen were set aside, to press him
into the arena, and, under a military banner, once
more to overcome the Democrats, as had been done
with Harrison. But, unluckily for the harmony of
the movement, it came out that Taylor was a planter
holding many slaves, in one of the richest cotton-
producing States. The notion of setting up such a
candidate in connection with an anti-slavery policy
advocated by numbers of the party, seemed at first
blush too preposterous to be countenanced for a
moment. Yet it must be conceded that Mr. Seward
undertook the difficult task of advocating the incon-
sistency. I will frankly confess that I was one
among many of his friends in New England who
could not become reconciled to the contradiction
apparent in this proceeding. We had reluctantly
acquiesced in the ambiguous pohcy of Mr. Clay four
years before ; but when it came to this, that we were
called to give even a tacit ratification of the series
of revolting; measures that followed, including the
Mexican war, and still more to elevate to the highest
post of the country, as a reward for his services, a
slave-holder having every possible inducement to


The Address.

perpetuate the evil of which we complained, it
proved a heavier load than we could bear. The
consequence was a very considerable secession from
the party, and an effort to bring before the public an
independent nomination. This was carried out in
what has ever since been remembered as the Buffalo
Convention. Simultaneously with this movement,
a similar one had been made in the Democratic
party, a section of which of considerable force in
New York, dissatisfied with the nomination of Lewis
Cass, ultimately consented to make a part of the
same assembly. The end was the nomination of Mr.
Van Buren, and a declaration, for the first time, of a
system of policy distinctly founded upon the true
issues agitating the country.

But, however the fact may be in the details of
ordinary life, it is quite certain that, in the conflicts
of politics, the persons who try the hardest to press
straight forward to their object not unfrequently find
themselves landed at the end of the opposite road.
The effect of the nomination of Mr. Van Buren was
to make us, his opponents, contribute to the triumph
of General Taylor, more decisively than if we had
voted for him directly. This it was that proved the
wisdom of Mr. Seward in holding back from our

Yet, w^ith the success of General Taylor, the posi-
tion in which Mr. Seward found himself seems to


The Address.

me, even now, to have been the most critical one in
his Hfe. He had in the canvass allowed himself to
be freely used as an instrument to conciliate num-
bers of his friends, strongly ternpted to secede. In
order to retain them he had to hold fast to his own
ground, and even to give assurance of his confidence
that it would be ultimately sustained in case of vic-
tory. I have lately read with care such reports of
his speeches during that canvass as I could find ; and
from that perusal I am constrained to admit that,
much as I doubted his good faith at the time, I can-
not perceive any failure in consistency or in com-
mitting himself to any policy which might follow,
adverse to the expectations he held out. In other
words, he kept himself free to influence it favorably
if he could, or to disavow it if it should prove to be
adverse. It was an honest, though not altogether a
safe, position in case of success. General Taylor was
made President, and simultaneously Mr. Seward was,
for the first time, transferred from the field of State
to that of National affairs. He came into the Sen-
ate of the United States, not to leave it for twelve
years. He came under circumstances of no trifling
embarrassment. The new President was at the time
utterly unknown to the public men, and especially
to him. He had been elected by a party still greatly
divided in sentiment upon the grave questions about
to come up for a decision. The chance of the pre-


The y^


ponderance of a policy favorable to freedom was by
no means flattering. An inexperienced President is
obliged to consume much of his early days in office
in correcting tlie mistakes he commits, before he
gets to an understanding with his advisers. I am
very sure that Mr. Seward felt for some time quite
uncertain what the issue would be. Every thing
depended upon the natural powers of General Taylor
to distinguish the true from the false path. Happily
for Mr. Seward, he determined to be guided by his

A tract of territory had been acquired by the war
far more spacious than had been contemplated by
the originators of the policy, and now the question
came up whether all of the excess should be dedi-
cated to the use of freemen, or of masters and serv-
ants, as Texas had been. In other words, should
slavery be tolerated and extended indefinitely }
Early measures had been taken to pave the way for
it, by abrogating such portions of the existing Mex-
ican law as might seem in conflict with it. But the
President determined to give no countenance to that
policy, and Mr. Seward was left at liberty to come
forward at once as an independent champion of

It was a critical moment in the great struggle,
out of which the Government was to issue either as
an oligarchy, controlling all things in the interest of



a class, or else in a fuller development in harmony
with the declared objects of its first construction.
A remarkable number of men of superior abilities
had been collected in the Senate just at this
moment, all of whom had grown gray under the
existing organization of parties, and were little dis-
posed to favor innovations. Mr. Calhoun and Mr.
Clay, though widely differing on other points, equally
relucted at the agitation of slavery. Mr. Webster,
on his part, never could make up his mind to meet
it fully in the face. All manifested a desire to resort
once more to some form of compromise, synony-
mous with a practical concession to the slave-holding
pretensions. The immediate question was upon the
admission of the newly-acquired Territory of Califor-
nia into the Union as a free State. The advocates
of slavery insisted upon tacking to it conditions
inuring to the support of their system in other
respects, as a consideration proper to be granted for
their acquiescence. In other words, it was another
bargain to uphold slavery. And now, for the first
time, Mr. Seward came forth on the great national
arena to try his strength against his formidable com-
petitors. Three successive speeches — one on the
nth of March, the next on the 2d of July, and the
last on the nth of September, of the year 1850 —
displayed in the clearest light his whole policy on
this vital subject. At the very outset he declared

[5] 88

The Address

himself opposed to a compromise in any and all the
forms in which it had been proposed; and he followed
up the words with a close argument against each of
those forms. He then went on boldly to grapple
with the oft-repeated threats of disunion, as a con-
sequence of emancipation, in a manner rarely heard
before in that hall. Casting off the shackles of party
discipline, he used these memorable words : " Here,
then, is the point of my separation from both of
these parties. I feel assured that slavery must give
way, and will give way, to the salutary instructions
of economy and to the ripening influences of human-
ity; that emancipation is inevitable, and is near;
that it may be hastened or hindered ; and, whether
it shall be peaceful or violent, depends upon the
question whether it be hastened or hindered : that
all measures which fortify slavery or extend it tend
to the consummation of violence ; all that check its
extension and abate its strength tend to its peaceful
extirpation. But I will adopt none but lawful, con-
stitutional, and peaceful means to secure even that
end ; and none such can I or will I foi^egol' Pro-
phetic words, indeed, which it would have been well
had they been properly heeded at the time by the
besotted men who, ten years later, rushed upon their
own ruin.

It was in this speech, also, that he enunciated the
doctrine of a higher law than the Constitution,



The Address.

which gave rise to an infinite amount of outcry from
even a very respectable class of people, who were
shocked at the license thought to be implied by such
an appeal. But it seems to me that no truth is more
obvious than this, that all powers of government
and legislation are closely restricted within a limita-
tion beyond which they cannot pass without being
stripped of their force. This limitation may be
purely material, or it may be moral, but in either
case its power is similar, if not the same.

It is a familiar story, which is told in the books,
of Canute, the great Danish conqueror of Great
Britain, that once, when his courtiers were vying
with each other in magnifying their sense of his
omnipotence, he simply ordered his chair to be
approached to the advancing tide of the ocean, and

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsAn address on the life, character and services of William Henry Seward (Volume 1) → online text (page 2 of 5)