Transcript of William H. Seward's "Higher Law" speech on the Compromise of 1850, delivered on the U.S. Senate floor on March 11, 1850.
I mean to say that Congress can hereafter decide whether any states, slave or free, can be framed out of Texas. If they should never be framed out of Texas, they never could be admitted.
Another objection arises out of the principle on which the demand for compromise rests. That principle assumes a classification of the states as northern and southern states, as it is expressed by the honorable senator from South Carolina, [Mr. CALHOUN] but into slave states and free states, as more directly expressed by the honorable senator from Georgia [Mr. BERRIEN.] The argument is, that the states are severally equal, and that these two classes were equal at the first, and that the Constitution was founded on that equilibrium; that the states being equal, and the classes of the states being equal in rights, they are to be regarded as constituting an association in which each state, and each of these classes of states, respectively, contribute in due proportions; that the new territories are a common acquisition , and the people of these several states and classes of states, have an equal right to participate in them, respectively; that the right of the people of the slave states to emigrate to the territories with their slaves as property is necessary to afford such a participation on their part, inasmuch as the people of the free states emigrate into the same territories with their property. And the argument deduces from this right the principle that, if Congress exclude slavery from any part of this new domain, it would be only just to set off a portion of the domain—some say south 36° 30', others south of 34°—which should be regarded at least as free to slavery, and to be organized into slave states.
Argument ingenious and subtle, declamation earnest and bold, and persuasion as gentle and winning as the voice of the turtle dove when it is heard in the land, all alike and all together have failed to convince me of the soundness of this principle of the proposed compromise, or of any one of the propositions on which it is attempted to be established.
How is the original equality of the states proved? It rests on a syllogism of Vattel, as follows: All men are equal by the law of nature and of nations. But states are only lawful aggregations of individual men, who severally are equal. Therefore, states are equal in natural rights. All this is just and sound. But assuming the same premises, to wit, that all men are equal by the law of nature and of nations, the right of property in slaves falls to the ground; for one who is equal to another cannot be the owner or property of that other. But you answer, that the Constitution recognizes property in slaves. It would be sufficient, then, to reply, that this constitutional recognition must be void, because it is repugnant to the law of nature and of nations. But I deny that the Constitution recognizes property in man. I submit, on the other hand, most respectfully, that the Constitution not merely does not affirm that principle, but, on the contrary, altogether excludes it.
The Constitution does not expressly affirm anything on the subject; all that it contains is two incidental allusions to slaves. These are, first, in the provision establishing a ratio of representation and taxation; and secondly, in the provision relating to fugitives from labor. In both cases, the Constitution designedly mentions slaves, not at slaves, much less as chattels, but as persons. That this recognition of them as persons was designed is historically known, and I think was never denied. I give only two of the manifold proofs. First, JOHN JAY, in the Federalist says:
"Let the case of the slaves be considered, as it is in truth, a peculiar one. Let the compromising expedient of the Constitution be mutually adopted which regards them asinhabitants, but as debased below the level of free inhabitants, which regards the slave as divested of two-fifths of the man."
Yes, sir, of two-fifths, but only of two-fifths; leaving still three-fifths; leaving the slave still an inhabitant, a person, a living, breathing, moving, reasoning, immortal man.
The other proof is from the debates in the convention. It is brief, and I think instructive:
AUGUST 28, 1787.
"Mr. BUTLER and Mr. PINCKNEY moved to require fugitive slaves and servants to be delivered up like convicts.
"Mr. WILSON. This would oblige the executive of the state to do it at public expense.
"Mr. SHERMAN saw no more propriety in the public seizing and surrendering a slave or a servant than a horse.
"Mr. BUTLER withdrew his proposition, in order that some particular provision might be made, apart from this article."
AUGUST 29, 1787
"Mr. BUTLER moved to insert after Article 15: 'If any person bound to service or labor in any of the United States shall escape into another state, he or she shall not be discharged from such service or labor in consequence of any regulation subsisting in the state to which they escape, but shall be delivered up to the person justly claiming their service or labor.'"
"After the engrossment, September 15, page 550, article 4, section 2, the third paragraph, the term 'legally' was struck out, and the words 'under the laws thereof' inserted after the word 'state,' in compliance with the wishes of some who thought the term 'legal' equivocal, and favoring the idea that slavery was legal in a moral view."—Madison Debates, pp. 487, 492.
I deem it established, then, that the Constitution does not recognize property in man, but leaves that question, as between the states, to the law of nature and of nations. That law, as expounded by Vattel, is founded on the reason of things. When God had created the earth, with its wonderful adaptations, He gave dominion over it to man, absolute human dominion. The title of that dominion, thus bestowed, would have been incomplete, if the lord of all terrestrial things could himself have been the property of his fellow-man.
The right to have a slave implies the right in some one to make the slave; that right must be equal and mutual, and this would resolve society into a state of perpetual war. But if we grant the original equality of the states, and grant also the constitutional recognition as slaves as property, still the argument we are considering fails. Because the states are not parties to the Constitution as states; it is the Constitution of the people of the United States.
But even if the states continue under the constitution as states, they nevertheless surrendered their equality as states, and submitted themselves to the sway of the numerical majority, with qualifications or checks; first, of the representation of three-fifths of slaves in the ratio of representation and taxation; and, secondly, of the equal representation of states in the Senate.
The proposition of an established classification of states as slave states and free states, as insisted on by some, and into northern and southern, as maintained by others, seems to me purely imaginary, and of course the supposed equilibrium of those classes a mere conceit. This must be so, because, when the Constitution was adopted, twelve of the thirteen states were slave states, and so there was no equilibrium. And so as to the classification of states as northern states and southern states. It is the maintenance of slavery by law in a state, not parallels of latitude, that makes its a southern state; and the absence of this, that makes it a northern state. And so all the states, save one, were southern states, and there was no equilibrium. But the Constitution was made not only for southern and northern states, but for states neither northern nor southern, namely, the western states, their coming in being foreseen and provided for.
It needs no argument to show that the idea of a joint stock association, or a copartnership, as applicable even by its analogies to the United States, is erroneous, with all the consequences fancifully deduced from it. The United States are a political state, or organized society, whose end is government, for the security, welfare, and happiness of all who live under its protection. The theory I am combating reduces the objects of government to the mere spoils of conquest. Contrary to a theory so debasing, the preamble of the Constitution not only asserts the sovereignty to be, not in the states, but in the people, but also promulgates the objects of the Constitution:
"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the GENERAL WELFARE, and secure the blessings of liberty, do ordain and establish this Constitution."
Objects sublime and benevolent! They exclude the very idea of conquests, to be either divided among states or even enjoyed by them, for the purpose of securing, not the blessings of liberty, but the evils of slavery. There is a novelty in the principle of the proposed compromise which condemns it. Simultaneously with the establishment of the Constitution, Virginia ceded to the United States her domain, which then extended to the Mississippi, and was even claimed to extend to the Pacific Ocean. Congress accepted it, and unanimously devoted the domain to freedom, in the language from which the ordinance now so severely condemned was borrowed. Five states have already been organized on this domain, from all of which, in pursuance of that ordinance, slavery is excluded. How did it happen that this theory of the equality of states, of the classification of states, of the equilibrium of states, of the title of the states, to common enjoyment of the domain, or to an equitable and just partition between them, was never promulgated, nor even dreamed of, by the slave states, when they unanimously consented to that ordinance?
There is another aspect of the principle of compromise which deserves consideration. It assumes that slavery, if not the only institution in a slave state, is at least a ruling institution, and that this characteristic is recognized by the Constitution. But slavery is only one of many institutions there. Freedom is equally an institution there. Slavery is only a temporary, accidental, partial, and incongruous one. Freedom on the contrary, is a perpetual, organic, universal one, in harmony with the Constitution of the United States. The slaveholder himself stands under the protection of the latter, in common with all the free citizens of the state. But it is , moreover, and indispensable institution. You may separate slavery from South Carolina, and the state will still remain; but if you subvert freedom there, the state will cease to exist. But the principle of this compromise gives complete ascendancy in the slave states, and in the Constitution of the United States, to the subordinate, accidental, and incongruous institution, over its paramount antagonist. To reduce this claim of slavery to an absurdity, it is only necessary to add that there are only two states in which slaves are a majority, and not one in which the slaveholders are not a very disproportionate minority.
But there is yet another aspect in which this principle must be examined. It regards the domain only as a possession, to be enjoyed either in common or by partition by the citizens of the old states. It is true, indeed, that the national domain is ours. It is true it was acquired by the valor and with the wealth of the whole nation. But we hold, nevertheless, no arbitrary power over it. We hold no arbitrary authority over anything, whether acquired lawfully or seized by usurpation. The Congress regulates our stewardship; the Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defence, to welfare, and to liberty.
But there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part, no inconsiderable part, of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator if the universe. We are his stewards, and must so discharge our trust as to secure in the highest attainable degree their happiness. How momentous that trust is, we may learn from the instructions of the founder of modern philosophy:
"No man," says Bacon, "can by care-taking, as the Scripture saith, add a cubit to his stature in this little model of a man's body; but, in the great frame of kingdoms and commonwealths, it is in the power of princes or estates to add amplitude and greatness to their kingdoms. For, by introducing such ordinances, constitutions, and customs, as are wise, they may sow greatness to their posterity and successors. But these things are commonly not observed, but left to take their chance."
This is a state, and we are deliberating for it, just as our fathers deliberated in establishing the institutions we enjoy. Whatever superiority there is in our condition and hopes of those over any other "kingdom" or "estate," is due to the fortunate circumstance that our ancestors did not leave things to "take their chance," but that they "added amplitude and greatness" to our commonwealth "by introducing such ordinances, constitutions, and customs, as were wise." We in our term have succeeded to the same responsibilities, and we cannot approach the duty before us wisely or justly, except we raise ourselves to the great consideration of how we can most certainly "sow greatness to our posterity and successors."
And now the simple, bold, and even awful question which presents itself to us is this: Shall we, who are founding institutions, social and political, for countless millions; shall we, who know by experience the wise and the just, and are free to choose them, and to reject the erroneous and the unjust; shall we establish human bondage, or permit it by our sufferance to be established? Sir, our forefathers would not have hesitated an hour. They found slavery existing here, and they left it only because they could not remove it. There is not only no free state which would now establish it, but there is no slave state, which, if it had had the free alternative as we now have, would have founded slavery. Indeed, our revolutionary predecessors had precisely the same question before them in establishing an organic law under which the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin, have since come into the Union, and they solemnly repudiated and excluded slavery from those states forever. I confess that the most alarming evidence of our degeneracy which has yet been given is found in the fact that we even debate such a question.
Sir, there is no Christian nation, thus free to choose as we are, which would establish slavery. I speak on due consideration because Britain, France, and Mexico, have abolished slavery, and all other European states are preparing to abolish it as speedily as they can. We cannot establish slavery, because there are certain elements of the security, welfare, and greatness of nations, which we all admit, or ought to admit, and recognize as essential; and these are the security of natural rights, the diffusion of knowledge, and the freedom of industry. Slavery is incompatible with all of these; and, just in proportion to the extent that it prevails and controls in any republican state, just to that extent it subverts the principle of democracy, and converts the state into an aristocracy or a despotism. I will not offend sensibilities by drawing my proofs from the slave states existing among ourselves; but I will draw them from the greatest of the European slave states.
The population of Russia in Europe, in 1844, was
Of these were serfs
The residue nobles, clergy, and merchants, &c.
The Imperial government abandons the control over the fifty-three and a half millions to their owners; and these owners, included in the 751,000, are thus a privileged class, or aristocracy. If ever the government interferes at all with the serfs, who are the only laboring population, it is by edicts designed to abridge their opportunities of education, and thus continue their debasement. What was the origin of this system? Conquest, in which the captivity of the conquered was made perpetual and hereditary. This, it seems to me, is identical with American slavery, only at one and the same time exaggerated by the greater disproportion between the privileged classes and their slaves in their respective numbers, and yet relieved of the unhappiest feature of American slavery, the distinction of castes. What but this renders Russia at once the most arbitrary despotism and the most barbarous state in Europe? And what is its effect, but industry comparatively profitless, and sedition, not occasional and partial, but chronic and pervading the empire. I speak of slavery not in the language of fancy, but in the language of philosophy. Montesquieu remarked upon the proposition to introduce slavery into France, that the demand for slavery was the demand for luxury and corruption, and not the demand of patriotism. Of all slavery, African slavery is the worst, for it combines practically the features of what is distinguished as real slavery or serfdom with the personal slavery known in the oriental world. Its domestic features lead to vice, while its political features render it injurious and dangerous to the state.
I cannot stop to debate long with those who maintain that slavery itself is practically economical and humane. I might be content with saying that there are some axioms in political science that a statesman or a founder of states may adopt, especially in the Congress of the United States, and that among those axioms are these: That all men are created equal, and have inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the choice of pursuits of happiness; that knowledge promotes virtue, and righteousness exalteth a nation; that freedom is preferable to slavery, and that democratic governments, where they can be maintained by acquiescence, without force, are preferable to institutions exercising arbitrary and irresponsible power.
It remains only to remark that our own experience has proved the dangerous influence and tendency of slavery. All our apprehensions of dangers, present and future, begin and end with slavery. If slavery, limited as it yet is, now threatens to subvert the Constitution, how can we as wise and prudent statesmen, enlarge its boundaries and increase its influence, and thus increase already impending dangers? Whether, then, I regard merely the welfare of the future inhabitants of the new territories, or the security and welfare of the whole people of the United States, or the welfare of the whole family of mankind, I cannot consent to introduce slavery into any part of this continent which is now exempt from what seems to me so great an evil. These are my reasons for declining to compromise the question relating to slavery as a condition of the admission of California.
In acting upon an occasion so grave as this, a respectful consideration is due to the arguments, founded on extraneous consideration, of senators who commend a course different from that which I have preferred. The first of these arguments is, that Congress has no power to legislate on the subject of slavery within the territories.
Sir, Congress may admit new states; and since Congress may admit, it follows that Congress may reject new states. The discretion of Congress in admitting is absolute, except that, when admitted, the state must be a republican state, and must be a STATE: that is, it shall have the constitutional form and powers of a state. But the greater includes the less, and therefore Congress may impose conditions of admission not inconsistent with those fundamental powers and forms. Boundaries are such. The reservation of the public domain is such. The ordinance excluding slavery is such a condition. The organization of a territory is ancillary or preliminary; it is the inchoate, the initiative act of admission, and is performed under the clause granting the powers necessary to execute the express powers of the Constitution.
This power comes from the treaty-making power also, and I think it well traced to the power to make needful rules and regulations concerning the public domain. But this question is not a material one now; the power is here to be exercised. The question now is, How is it to be exercised? not whether we shall exercise it at all, however derived. And the right to regulate property, to administer justice in regard to property, is assumed in every territorial charter. If we have the power to legislate concerning property, we have the power to legislate concerning personal rights. Freedom is a personal right; and Congress, being the supreme legislature, has the same right in regard to property and personal rights in territories that the states would have if organized.
The next of this class of arguments is, that the inhibition of slavery in the new territories is unnecessary; and when I come to this question, I encounter the loss of many who lead in favor of admitting California. I had hoped, some time ago, that upon the vastly important question of inhibiting slavery in the new territories, we should have had the aid especially of the distinguished senator from Missouri, [Mr. BENTON,] and when he announced his opposition to that measure I was induced to exclaim—
Cur in theatrum, Cato severe, venisti?
An ideo, tantum, veneras ut exires?
But, sir, I have no right to complain. The senator is crowning a life of eminent public service by a heroic and magnanimous act in bringing California into the Union. Grateful to him for this, I leave it to himself to determine how far considerations of human freedom shall govern the course which he thinks proper to pursue.
The argument is, that the Proviso is unnecessary. I answer, then there can be no error in insisting upon it. But why is it unnecessary? It is said, first, by reason of climate. I answer, if this be so, why do not the representatives of the slave states concede the Proviso? They deny that the climate prevents the introduction of slavery. Then I will leave nothing to a contingency. But, in truth, I think the weight of the argument is against the proposition. Is there any climate where slavery has not existed? It has prevailed all over Europe, from sunny Italy to bleak England, and is existing now, stronger than in any other land, in ice-bound Russia. But it will be replied, that this is not African slavery. I rejoin, that only makes the case stronger. If this vigorous Saxon race of ours was reduced to slavery while it retained the courage of semi-barbarism in its own high northern latitude, what security does climate afford against the transplantation of the more gentle, more docile, and already enslaved and debased African to the genial climate of New Mexico and Eastern California?
Sir, there is no climate uncongenial to slavery. It is true it is less productive than free labor in many northern countries. But so it is less productive than free white labor in even tropical climates. Labor is in quick demand in all new countries. Slave labor is cheaper than free labor, and it would go first into new regions; and wherever it goes it brings labor into dishonor, and therefore free white labor avoids competition with it. Sir, I might rely on climate if I had not been born in a land where slavery existed—and this land was all of it north of the fortieth parallel of latitude; and if I did not know the struggle it has cost, and which is yet going on, to get complete relief from the institution and its baleful consequences. I desire to propound this question to those who are now in favor of dispensing with the Wilmot Proviso: Was the ordinance of 1787 necessary or not? Necessary, we all agree. It has received too many elaborate eulogiums to be now decried as an idle and superfluous thing. And yet that ordinance extended the inhibition of slavery from the thirty-seventh to the fortieth parallel of north latitude. And now we are told that the inhibition named is unnecessary anywhere north of 36° 30'! We are told that we may rely upon the laws of God, which prohibit slave labor north of that line, and that it is absurd to re-enact the laws of God. Sir, there is no human enactment which is just that is not a re-enactment of the law of God. The Constitution of the United States and the constitutions of all the states are full of such re-enactments. Wherever I find a law of God or a law of nature disregarded, or in danger of being disregarded, there I shall vote to re-affirm it, with all the sanction of the civil authority. But I find no authority for the position that climate prevents slavery anywhere. It is the indolence of mankind in any climate, and not any natural necessity, that introduces slavery in any climate.
I shall dwell only very briefly on the argument derived from the Mexican laws. The proposition, that those laws must remain in force until altered by laws of our own, is satisfactory; and so is the proposition that those laws abolished and continue to prohibit slavery. And still I deem an enactment by ourselves wise, and even necessary. Both of the propositions I have stated are denied with just as much confidence by southern statesmen and jurists as they are affirmed by those of the free states. The population of the new territories is rapidly becoming an American one, to whom the Mexican code will seem a foreign one, entitled to little deference or obedience.
Slavery has never obtained anywhere by express legislative authority, but always by trampling down laws higher than any mere municipal laws—the laws of nature and of nations. There can be no oppression in superadding the sanction of Congress to the authority which is so weak and so vehemently questioned. And there is some possibility, if not probability, that the institution may obtain a foothold surreptitiously, if it shall not be absolutely forbidden by our own authority.
What is insisted upon, therefore, is not a mere abstraction or a mere sentiment, as is contended by those who waive the proviso. And what is conclusive on the subject is, that it is conceded on all hands that the effect of insisting on it is to prevent the intrusion of slavery into the region to which it is proposed to apply it.
It is insisted that the diffusion of slavery will not increase its evils. The argument seems to me merely specious, and quite unsound. I desire to propose one or two questions in reply to it. Is slavery stronger or weaker in these United States, from its diffusion into Missouri? Is slavery weaker or stronger in these United States, from the exclusion of it from the northwest territory? The answers to these questions will settle the whole controversy.
And this brings me to the great and all-absorbing argument that the Union is in danger of being dissolved, and that it can only be saved by compromise. I do not know what I would not do to save the Union; and therefore I shall bestow upon this subject a very deliberate consideration.
I do not overlook the fact that the entire delegation from the slave states, although they differ in regard to the details of the compromise proposed, and perhaps in regard to the exact circumstances of the crisis, seem to concur in this momentous warning. Nor do I doubt at all the patriotic devotion to the Union which is expressed by those from whom this warning proceeds. And yet, sir, although such warnings have been uttered with impassioned solemnity in my hearing every day for near three months, my confidence in the Union remains unshaken. I think they are to be received with no inconsiderable distrust, because they are uttered under the influence of a controlling interest to be secured, a paramount object to be gained; and that is an equilibrium of power in the republic. I think they are to be received with even more distrust, because, with the most profound respect, they are uttered under an obviously high excitement. Nor is that excitement an unnatural one. It is a law of our nature that the passions disturb the reason and judgment just in proportion to the importance of the occasion, and the consequent necessity for calmness and candor. I think they are to be distrusted, because there is a diversity of opinion in regard to the nature and operation of this excitement. The senators in some states say that it has brought all parties in their own region into unanimity. The honorable senator form Kentucky [Mr. CLAY] says that the danger lies in violence of party spirit, and refers us for proof to the difficulties which attended the organization of the house of representatives.
Sir, in my humble judgment, it is not the fierce conflict of parties that we are seeing and hearing; but, on the contrary, it is the agony of distracted parties—a convulsion resulting from the too narrow foundations of both the great parties, and of all parties—foundations laid in compromises of natural justice and of human liberty. A question, a moral question, transcending the too narrow creeds of parties, has arisen; the public conscience expands with it, and the green withes of party associations give way and break, and fall off from it. No, sir; it is not the state that is dying of the fever of party spirit. It is merely a paralysis of parties, premonitory however of their restoration, with new elements of health and vigor to be imbibed from that spirit of the age which is so justly called Progress.
Nor is the evil that of unlicensed, irregular, and turbulent faction. We are told that twenty legislatures are in session, burning like furnaces, heating and inflaming the popular passions. But these twenty legislatures are constitutional furnaces. They are performing their customary functions, imparting healthful heat and vitality while within their constitutional jurisdiction. If they rage beyond its limits, the popular passions of this country are not at all, I think, in danger of being inflamed to excess. No, sir; let none of these fires be extinguished. Forever let them burn and blaze. They are neither ominous meteors nor baleful comets, but planets; and bright and intense as their heat may be, it is their native temperature, and they must still obey the law which, by attraction to this solar centre, holds them in their spheres.
I see nothing of that conflict between the southern and northern states, or between their representative bodies, which seems to be on all sides of me assumed. Not a word of menace, not a word of anger, not an intemperate word, has been uttered in the northern legislatures. They firmly but calmly assert their convictions; but at the same time they assert their unqualified consent to submit to the common arbiter, and for weal or wo abide the fortunes of the Union.
What if there be less of moderation in the legislatures of the south? It only indicates on which side the balance is inclining, and that the decision of the momentous question is near at hand. I agree with those who say there can be no peaceful dissolution—no dissolution of the Union by the secession of states; but that disunion, dissolution, happen when it may, will and must be revolution. I discover no omens of revolution. The predictions of the political astrologers do not agree as to the time or manner in which it is to occur. According to the authority of the honorable senator from Alabama, [Mr. CLEMENS,] the event has already happened, and the Union is now in ruins. According to the honorable and distinguished senator from South Carolina, [Mr. CALHOUN,] it is not to be immediate, but to be developed by time.
What are the omens to which our attention is directed? I see nothing but a broad difference of opinion here, and the excitement consequent upon it.
I have observed that revolutions which begin in the palace seldom go beyond the palace walls, and they affect only the dynasty which reigns there. This revolution, if I understand it, began in this Senate chamber a year ago, when the representatives from the southern states assembled here and addressed their constituents on what were called the aggressions of the northern states. No revolution was designed at that time, and all that has happened since is the return to Congress of legislative resolutions, which seem to me to be only conventional responses to the address which emanated from the capitol.
Sir, in any condition of society there can be no revolution without a cause, an adequate cause. What cause exists here? We are admitting a new state; but there is nothing new in that: we have already admitted seventeen before. But it is said that the slave states are in danger of losing political power by the admission of the new state. Well, sir, is there anything new in that? The slave states have always been losing political power, and they always will be while they have any to lose. At first, twelve of the thirteen states were slave states; now only fifteen out of thirty are slaves states. Moreover, the change is constitutionally made, and the government was constructed so as to permit changes of the balance of power, in obedience to changes of the forces of the body politic. Danton used to say, "It's all well while the people cry Danton and Robespierre; but wo for me if ever the people learn to say, Robespierre and Danton!" That is all of it, sir. The people have been accustomed to say, "the South and the North;" they are only beginning now to say, "the North and the South."
Sir, those who would alarm us with the terrors of revolution have not well considered the structure of this government, and the organization of its forces. It is a democracy of property and persons, with a fair approximation towards universal education, and operating by means of universal suffrage. The constituent members of this democracy are the only persons who could subvert it; and they are not the citizens of a metropolis like Paris, or of a region subjected to the influences of a metropolis like France; but they are husbandmen, dispersed over this broad land, on the mountain and on the plain, and on the prairie, from the ocean to the Rocky Mountains, and from the great lakes to the gulf; and this people are now, while we are discussing their imaginary danger, at peace and in their happy homes, as unconcerned and uninformed of their peril as they are of events occurring in the moon. Nor have the alarmists made due allowance in their calculations for the influence of conservative reaction, strong in any government, and irresistible in a rural republic, operating by universal suffrage. That principle of reaction is due to the force of the habits of acquiescence and loyalty among the people. No man better understood this principle than MACHIAVELLI, who has told us, in regard to factions, that "no safe reliance can be placed in the force of nature and the bravery of words, except it be corroborated by custom." Do the alarmists remember that this government has stood sixty years already without exacting one drop of blood?—that this government has stood sixty years, and yet treason is an obsolete crime? That day, I trust, is far off when the fountains of popular contentment shall be broken up; but whenever it shall come, it will bring forth a higher illustration than has ever yet been given of the excellence of the democratic system; for then it will be seen how calmly, how firmly, how nobly, a great people can act in preserving their Constitution; whom "love of country moveth, example teacheth, company comforteth, emulation quickeneth, and glory exalteth."
When the founders of the new republic of the south come to draw over the face of this empire, along or between its parallels of latitude or longitude, their ominous lines of dismemberment, soon to be broadly and deeply shaded with fraternal blood, they may come to the discovery then, if not before, that the natural and even political connections of the region embraced forbid such a partition; that its possible divisions are not northern and southern at all, but eastern and western, Atlantic and Pacific; and that nature and commerce have allied indissolubly for weal and wo the seceders and those from whom they are to be separated; that while they would rush into a civil war to restore and imaginary equilibrium between the northern states and the southern states, a new equilibrium has taken its place, in which all those states are on one side, and the boundless west is on the other.
Sir, when the founders of the republic of the south come to draw those fearful lines, they will indicate what portions of the continent are to be broken off with their connection from the Atlantic, through the St. Lawrence, the Hudson, the Delaware, the Potomac, and the Mississippi; what portion of this people are to be denied the use of the lakes, the railroads, and the canals, now constituting common and customary avenues of travel, trade, and social intercourse; what families and kindred are to be separated, and converted into enemies; and what states are to be the scenes of perpetual border warfare, aggravated by interminable horrors of servile insurrection? When those portentous lines shall be drawn, they will disclose what portion of this people is to retain the army and the navy, and the flag of so many victories; and on the other hand, what portion of the people is to be subjected to new and onerous imposts, direct taxes, and forced loans, and conscriptions, to maintain an opposing army, an opposing navy, and the new and hateful banner of sedition. Then the projectors of the new republic of the south will meet the question—and they may well prepare now to answer it—What is all this for? What intolerable wrong, what unfraternal injustice, have rendered these calamities unavoidable? What gain will this unnatural revolution bring to us? The answer will be: All this is done to secure the institution of African slavery.
And then, if not before, the question will be discussed, What is this institution of slavery, that it should cause these unparalleled sacrifices and these disastrous afflictions? And this will be the answer: When the Spaniards, few in number, discovered the western Indies and adjacent continental America, they needed labor to draw forth from its virgin stores some speedy return to the cupidity of the court and the bankers of Madrid. They enslaved the indolent, inoffensive, and confiding natives, who perished by thousands, and even by millions, under that new and unnatural bondage. A humane ecclesiastic advised the substitution of Africans reduced to captivity in their native wars, and a pious princess adopted the suggestion, with a dispensation from the head of the church, granted on the ground of the prescriptive right of the christian to enslave the heathen, to effect his conversion. The colonists of North America, innocent in their unconsciousness of wrong, encouraged the slave traffic, and thus the labor of subduing their territory devolved chiefly upon the African race. A happy conjuncture brought on an awakening of the conscience of mankind to the injustice of slavery, simultaneously with the independence of the colonies. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, welcomed and embraced the spirit of universal emancipation. Renouncing luxury, they secured influence and empire. But the states of the south, misled by a new and profitable culture, elected to maintain and perpetuate slavery; and thus, choosing luxury, they lost power and empire.
When this answer shall be given, it will appear that the question of dissolving the Union is a complex question; that it embraces the fearful issue whether the Union shall stand, and slavery, under the steady, peaceful action of moral, social, and political causes, be removed by gradual voluntary effort, and with compensation, or whether the Union shall be dissolved, and civil wars ensue, bringing on violent but complete and immediate emancipation. We are now arrived at that stage of our national progress when that crisis can be foreseen, when we must foresee it. It is directly before us. Its shadow is upon us. It darkens the legislative halls, the temples of worship, and the home and the hearth. Every question, political, civil, or ecclesiastical, however foreign to the subject of slavery, brings up slavery as an incident, and the incident supplants the principle question. We hear of nothing but slavery, and we can talk of nothing but slavery. And now, it seems to me that all our difficulties, embarrassments, and dangers, arise, not out of unlawful perversions of the question of slavery, as some suppose, but from the want of moral courage to meet this question of emancipation as we ought. Consequently, we hear on one side demands—absurd, indeed, but yet unceasing—for an immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery—as if any power, except the people of the slave states, could abolish it, and as if they could be moved to abolish it by merely sounding the trumpet loudly and proclaiming emancipation, while the institution is interwoven with all their social and political interests, constitutions, and customs.
On the other hand, our statesmen say that "slavery has always existed, and, for aught they know or can do, it always must exist. God permitted it, and he alone can indicate the way to remove it." As if the Supreme Creator, after giving us the instructions of his providence and revelation for the illumination of our minds and consciences, did not leave us in all human transactions, with due invocations of his Holy Spirit, to seek out his will and execute it for ourselves.
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 humanity; that emancipation is inevitable, and is near; that it may be hastened or hindered; and that 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 be 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, constitutional, and peaceful means, to secure even that end; and none such can I or will I forego. Nor do I know any important or responsible political body that proposes to do more than this. No free state claims to extend its legislation into a slave state. None claims that Congress shall usurp power to abolish slavery in the slave states. None claims that any violent, unconstitutional, or unlawful measure shall be embraced. And, on the other hand, if we offer no scheme or plan for the adoption of the slave states, with the assent and co-operation of Congress, it is only because the slave states are unwilling as yet to receive such suggestions, or even to entertain the question of emancipation in any form.
But, sir, I will take this occasion to say that, while I cannot agree with the honorable senator from Massachusetts in proposing to devote eighty millions of dollars to remove the free colored population from the slave states, and thus , as it appears to me, fortify slavery, there is no reasonable limit to which I am not willing to go in applying the national treasures to effect the peaceful, voluntary removal of slavery itself.
I have thus endeavored to show that there is not now, and there is not likely to occur any adequate cause for revolution in regard to slavery. But you reply that, nevertheless, you must have guaranties; and the first one is for the surrender of fugitives from labor. That guaranty you cannot have, as I have already shown, because you cannot roll back the tide of social progress. You must be content with what you have. If you wage war against us, you can, at most, only conquer us, and then all you can get will be a treaty, and that you have already.
But you insist on a guaranty against the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or war. Well, when you shall have declared war against us, what shall hinder us from immediately decreeing that slavery shall cease within the national capital?
You say that you will not submit to the exclusion of slaves from the new territories. What will you gain by resistance? Liberty follows the sword, although her sway is one of peace and beneficence. Can you propagate slavery then by the sword?
You insist that you cannot submit to the freedom with which slavery is discussed in the free states. Will war—a war for slavery—arrest or even moderate that discussion? No, sir; that discussion will not cease; war will only inflame it in to a greater height. It is part of the eternal conflict between truth and error—between mind and physical force—the conflict of man against the obstacles which oppose his way to an ultimate and glorious destiny. It will go on until you shall terminate it in the only way in which any state or nation has ever terminated it—by yielding to it—yielding in your own time, and in your own manner, indeed, but nevertheless yielding to the progress of emancipation. You will do this, sooner or later, whatever may be your opinion now; because nations which were prudent and humane, and wise as you are, have done so already.
Sir, the slave states have no reason to fear that this inevitable change will go too far or too fast for their safety or welfare. It cannot well go too fast or too far, if the only alternative is a war of races.
But it cannot go too fast. Slavery has a reliable and accommodating ally in a party in the free states, which, though it claims to be, and doubtless is in many respects, a party of progress, finds its sole security for its political power in the support and aid of slavery in the slave states. Of course, I do not include in that party those who are now co-operating in maintaining the cause of freedom against slavery. I am not of that party of progress which in the north thus lends its support to slavery. But it is only just and candid that I should bear witness to its fidelity to the interests of slavery.
Slavery has, moreover, a more natural alliance with the aristocracy of the north and with the aristocracy of Europe. So long as slavery shall possess the cotton-fields, the sugar-fields, and the rice-fields of the world, so long will commerce and capital yield it toleration and sympathy. Emancipation is a democratic revolution. It is capital that arrests all democratic revolutions. It was capital that, so recently, in single year, rolled back the tide of revolution from the base of the Carpathian mountains, across the Danube and the Rhine, into the streets of Paris. It is capital that is rapidly rolling back the throne of Napoleon into the chambers of the Tuilleries.
Slavery has a guaranty still stronger than these in the prejudices of caste and color, which induce even large majorities in all the free states to regard sympathy with the slave as an act of unmanly humiliation and self-abasement, although philosophy meekly expresses her distrust of the asserted natural superiority of the white race, and confidently denies that such a superiority, if justly claimed, could give a title to oppression.
There remains one more guaranty—one that has seldom failed you, and will seldom fail you hereafter. New states cling in closer alliance than older ones to the federal power. The concentration of the slave power enables you for long periods to control the federal government with the aid of new states. I do not know the sentiments of the representatives of California; but, my word for it, if they should be admitted on this floor to-day, against your most obstinate opposition, they would, on all questions really affecting your interests, be found at your side.
With these alliances to break the force of emancipation, there will be no disunion and no secession. I do not say that there may not be disturbance, though I do not apprehend even that. Absolute regularity and order in administration have not yet been established in any government, and unbroken popular tranquillity has not yet been attained in even the most advanced condition of human society. The machinery of our system is necessarily complex. A pivot may drop out here, a lever may be displaced there, a wheel may fall out of gearing elsewhere, but the machinery will soon recover its regularity, and move on just as before, with even better adaptation and adjustment to overcome new obstructions.
There are many well-disposed persons who are alarmed at the occurrence of any such disturbance. The failure of a legislative body to organize is to their apprehension a fearful omen, and an extra-constitutional assemblage to consult upon public affairs is with them cause for desperation. Even senators speak of the Union as if it existed only by consent, and, as it seems to be implied, by the assent of the legislatures of the states. On the contrary, the union was not founded in voluntary choice, nor does it exist by voluntary consent.
A union was proposed to the colonies by Franklin and others, in 1754; but such was their aversion to an abridgment of their own importance, respectively, that it was rejected even under the pressure of a disastrous invasion by France.
A union of choice was proposed to the colonies in 1775; but so strong was their opposition, that they went through the war of independence without having established more than a mere council of consultation.
But with independence came enlarged interests of agriculture—absolutely new interests of manufactures—interests of commerce, of fisheries, of navigation, of a common domain, of common debts, of common revenues and taxation, of the administration of justice, of public defence, of public honor; in short, interests of common nationality and sovereignty—interests which at last compelled the adoption of a more perfect union—a National Government.
The genius, talents, and learning of Hamilton, of Jay, and of Madison, surpassing perhaps the intellectual power ever exerted before for the establishment of a government, combined with the serene but mighty influence of Washington, were only sufficient to secure the reluctant adoption of the Constitution that is now the object of all our affections and of the hopes of mankind. No wonder that the conflicts in which that Constitution was born, and the almost desponding solemnity of Washington, in his farewell address, impressed his countrymen and mankind with a profound distrust of its perpetuity! No wonder that while the murmurs of that day are yet ringing in our ears, we cherish that distrust, with pious reverence, as a national and patriotic sentiment!
But it is time to prevent the abuses of that sentiment. It is time to shake off that fear, for fear is always weakness. It is time to remember that government, even when it arises by chance or accident, and is administered capriciously or oppressively, is ever the strongest of all human institutions, surviving many social and ecclesiastical changes and convulsions; and that this Constitution of ours has all the inherent strength common to governments in general, and added to them has also the solidity and firmness derived from broader and deeper foundations in national justice, and a better civil adaptation to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind.
The Union, the creature of necessities, physical, moral, social, and political, endures by virtue of the same necessities; and these necessities are stronger than when it was produced—stronger by the greater amplitude of territory now covered by it—stronger by the sixfold increase of the society living under its beneficent protection—stronger by the augmentation ten thousand times of the fields, the workshops, the mines, and the ships, of that society; of its productions of the sea, of the plow, of the loom, and of the anvil, in their constant circle of internal and international exchange—stronger in the long rivers penetrating regions before unknown—stronger in all the artificial roads, canals, and other channels and avenues essential not only to trade but to defence—stronger in steam navigation, in steam locomotion on the land, and in telegraph communications, unknown when the Constitution was adopted—stronger in the freedom and in the growing empire of the seas—stronger in the element of national honor in all lands, and stronger than all in the now habits of veneration and affection for institutions so stupendous and so useful.
The Union, then, is, not because merely that men choose that it shall be, but because some government must exist here, and no other government than this can. If it could be dashed to atoms by the whirlwind, the lightning, or the earthquake, to-day, it would rise again in all its just and magnificent proportions to-morrow. This nation is a globe, still accumulating upon accumulation, not a dissolving sphere.
I have heard somewhat here, and almost for the first time in my life, of divided allegiance—of allegiance to the south and to the Union—of allegiance to states severally and to the Union. Sir, if sympathies with state emulation and pride of achievement could be allowed to raise up another sovereign to divide the allegiance of a citizen of the United States, I might recognize the claims of the state to which, by birth and gratitude, I belong—to the state of Hamilton and Jay, of Schuyler, of the Clintons, and of Fulton—the state which, with less than two hundred miles of natural navigation connected with the ocean, has, by her own enterprise, secured to herself the commerce of the continent, and is steadily advancing to the command the commerce of the world. But for all this I know only one country and one sovereign—the United States of America and the American People. And such as my allegiance is, is the loyalty of every other citizen of the United States. As I speak, he will speak when his time arrives. He knows no other country and no other sovereign. He has life, liberty, property, and precious affections, and hopes for himself and for his posterity, treasured up in the ark of the Union. He knows as well and feels as strongly as I do, that this government is his own government; that he is a part of it; that it was established for him; and that it was maintained by him; that it is the only truly wise, just, free, and equal government, that has ever existed; that no other government could be so wise, just, free and equal; and that it is safer and more beneficent than any which time or change could bring into its place.
You may tell me, sir, that although all this may be true, yet the trial of faction has not yet been made. Sir, if the trial of faction has not been made, it has not been because faction has not always existed, and has not always menaced a trial, but because faction could find no fulcrum on which to place the lever to subvert the Union, as it can find no fulcrum now; and in this is my confidence. I would not rashly provoke the trial; but I will not suffer a fear, which I have not, to make me compromise one sentiment, one principle of truth or justice, to avert a danger that all experience teaches me is purely chimerical. Let, then, those who distrust the Union make compromises to save it. I shall not impeach their wisdom, as I certainly cannot their patriotism; but, indulging no such apprehensions myself, I shall vote for the admission of California directly, without conditions, without qualifications, and without compromise.
For the vindication of that vote, I look not to the verdict of the passing hour, disturbed as the public mind now is by conflicting interests and passions, but to that period, happily not far distant, when the vast regions over which we are now legislating shall have received their destined inhabitants.
While looking forward to that day, its countless generations seem to me to be rising up and passing in dim and shadowy review before us; and a voice comes forth from their serried ranks, saying: "Waste your treasures and your armies, if you will; raze your fortifications to the ground; sink your navies into the sea; transmit to us even a dishonored name, if you must; but the soil you hold in trust for us—give it to us free. You found it free, and conquered it to extend a better and surer freedom over it. Whatever choice you have made for yourselves, let us have no partial freedom; let us all be free; let the reversion of your broad domain descend to us unencumbered, and free from the calamities and from the sorrows of human bondage."
Cite this Entry
"William H. Seward - Senate "Higher Law" Speech on the Compromise of 1850 (Transcript)," Ohio Civil War Central, 2022, Ohio Civil War Central. 28 May 2022 <http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=901>
"William H. Seward - Senate "Higher Law" Speech on the Compromise of 1850 (Transcript)." (2022) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved May 28, 2022, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=901
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