Sunday, May 16, 2021

This Day in New York History (Seward Senate Speech Marks Him as Prime Anti-Slavery Foe)

March 11, 1850—In his maiden speech as U.S. Senator, the New York Whig William H. Seward denounced the Compromise of 1850, an omnibus legislative package that eased secessionist sentiment in the decade before the Civil War. 

The phrase he coined—“a higher law than the Constitution”—thrust him to the forefront of opposition to slavery, proved a stumbling block to his Presidential ambitions, and posed an enduring question about the relevance of faith- and morality-driven action in American politics.

I doubt if one out of a thousand people who pass the statue accompanying this entry have stopped for more than a couple of seconds to think about its subject. Now in the midst of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s collective biography of Abraham Lincoln’s wartime cabinet,
Team of Rivals, I’ve come to appreciate, maybe for the first time, the opponent-turned-friend of the President, and how much he contributed to the politics of his time, and even of what he means to ours.

As governor of New York in the early 1840s, Seward promoted economic and educational policies meant to open greater opportunities to African-, German- and Irish-Americans who were already forming part of the Democratic coalition. Like John McCain today, he excited a horde of noisome nativists to insane frenzies—in Seward’s case, through a proposal to divert a part of public school funds to parochial schools where Catholic immigrants would not have to worry about Protestant proselytizing. 

(Take note, today’s Republicans: the path to success lies away from fear-mongering about immigrants and the dispossessed. Take note, today’s Democrats: at least some of your “wall of separation” rhetoric about church and state derives from very poisonous roots.)

After a brief hiatus out of office, Seward came back to win a Senate seat, just in time to face the most divisive question of his time: the suddenly real possibility that divisions over slavery could spell the end of the Union.

The Compromise of 1850 was meant to forestall these questions by not giving either North or South entirely what each wanted. The North would get admission of California, almost certain to be a free state, and an end to the slave trade within Washington, D.C. Two other provisions favored the South: the creation of two territories in the Southwest, New Mexico and Utah, with no restrictions on slavery; and strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.

The squall over the Compromise of 1850 is usually remembered as the last hurrah of the Senate’s “
Great Triumvirate” of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, all of whom would be out of the chamber they dominated, even dead, within three years. Webster’s three-hour March 7 oration in support of the package—an action that revolted his anti-slavery base and doomed his flickering Presidential chances but which also turned the tide toward enactment—was celebrated in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, and was long memorized by generations of American schoolchildren.

However, the extensive legislative debate, I would argue, also brought to the fore a new generation of political leaders who dominated the antebellum and Civil War eras.
Jefferson Davis assumed the role of Calhoun (so ill that he could not read aloud his fiery speech opposing the bills) as spokesman for the South. Stephen A. Douglas, the “Little Giant” best remembered now for his debates later in the decade with Abraham Lincoln, acted, like Clay, as legislative magician by crafting the legislation and rounding up enough votes to ensure passage.

And Seward took on the part that Webster, in his zeal to preserve the Union, had relinquished: champion of “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” Beginning in a low voice decidedly removed from the great tolling bell that was Webster’s, he soon transfixed the Massachusetts Senator and his colleagues.

He could not support the proposals, he said. Strengthening the Fugitive Slave Law was unworthy of “true Christians or real freemen”; not just the slave trade, but slavery itself should not be permitted in the District of Columbia; and he could not abide the introduction of slavery anywhere in the new territories.

Not only the spirit of the Constitution was incompatible with slavery, Seward claimed, but “there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same purposes. The territory is a part…of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe.”

Even though he lost this legislative battle, Seward became the foremost spokesman for free-soil forces in the Senate. But he had provoked so much fierce opposition in the South that his enemies began to approach his friends in number and vehemence.

Political mentor
Thurlow Weed’s confession that Seward’s speech “sent me to bed with a heavy heart” proved all too prescient in 1860. With the Whig Party dead by then, Seward sought the Republican Party nomination for President. But his long public anti-slavery record left such a long public trail that it opened the door to a relative dark-horse candidate: Abraham Lincoln.

Seward’s loyal and able service as Lincoln’s Secretary of State is how posterity fundamentally recalls him, and it’s certainly not a bad claim on our attention. But the “higher law” that this usually affable, conciliatory statesman invoked has, in one fashion or another, convulsed American politics throughout the republic.

In one sense, Seward’s appeal derives from the concept of
natural law that has found advocates from Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Jefferson. It also meshes with the theory of civil disobedience formulated by Henry David Thoreau only a year before the Seward speech and perfected as a political tool by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 20th century.

But a “higher law” also has the potential of angering people who might not share one’s religious faith or even notions of morality. Applied to certain issues—Prohibition, abortion—it has polarized the American electorate for decades.

And yet, it would be a mistake to call, as some have done in this election year, for the marginalizing of moral calls to action in the political arena. Refusal to appeal to morality produces consequences in the populace that necessarily reflect the Darwinian atmosphere of politics. Does anyone think that the United States would have been a better nation without the backing that the civil rights movement received from African-American ministers or that the unionists gained from the Roman Catholic Church?

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