Can somebody tell me what the hell happened to William H. Seward? After entering the Senate in 1850, he quickly established himself as a radical on the slavery expansion issue. But by the Secession Winter he had turned into a quivering mass of jelly. What's the deal? Was he never really a radical at all? Was the radicalism just for show? Or did he have a profound change of heart when he perceived that threats of secession were more than mere bluster, and later became reality?
Seward's maiden Senate speech, delivered during the Crisis of 1850, established his radical credentials. "But there is a higher law than the Constitution," he declared, "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."
When the Omnibus Bill collapsed at the end of July 1850, a jubilant Seward "danc[ed] about" the Senate chamber in celebration.
Eight years later, Seward burnished his reputation for radicalism with his 1858 irrepressible conflict speech:
Hitherto the two systems [the slave-labor and free-labor systems] have existed in different States, but side by side within the American Union. This has happened because the Union is a confederation of States. But in another aspect the United States constitute only one nation. Increase of population, which is filling the States out to their very borders, together with a new and extended network of railroads and other avenues, and an internal commerce which daily becomes more intimate, is rapidly bringing the States into a higher and more perfect social unity or consolidation. Thus these antagonistic systems are continually coming into closer contact and collision results.
Shall I tell you what this collision means? 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. Either the cotton and rice-fields of South Carolina and the sugar plantations of Louisiana will ultimately be tilled by free labor, and Charleston and New Orleans become marts for legitimate merchandise alone, or else the rye-fields and wheat-fields of Massachusetts and New York must again be surrendered by their farmers to slave culture and to the production of slaves, and Boston and New York become once more markets for trade in the bodies and souls of men.
If you read these paragraphs carefully, however, they are not necessarily as radical as the sound bite "irrepressible conflict" suggests. Seward is not saying that war is inevitable. He is asserting only that the two labor systems are incompatible, and that one system or the other must eventually predominate. In this, he was saying nothing more than Lincoln affirmed at the beginning of the latter's house divided speech, delivered June 16, 1858:
If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. "A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new - North as well as South.
But even if the "Irrepressible Conflict" speech is taken as a "radical" statement, other events and statements suggest a tendency toward conservatism and hesitation. There are, I think, several hints that Seward might have been a more cautious soul all along.
For one thing, Seward was no early adopter of the Republican party. One might have expected that Seward, as a "radical", would have led the charge to form a sectional anti-Nebraska party. In fact that was not the case. As Michael F. Holt explains, Seward and his patron, Thurlow Weed, began to plan their exit from the Whigs only in mid-1855, some time after most others had recognized that the party was moribund, and only when they realized that they had no other option:
Discomfited by their isolation from antislavery men elsewhere and aware after New England's spring  elections that even hostility to slavery expansion could not preserve northern Whiggery, Seward, Weed, and their various lieutenants began to plot in May and June  to merge their forces with New York's Free Soilers and anti-Nebraska Democrats in an anti-Know Nothing Republican party. Seward made no public statement until the fall, but the key decisions came in July.
There were extenuating circumstances, to be sure, that explain why Seward "stubbornly . . . shun[ned]" the Republicans until then: in February 1855, the New York legislature reelected Seward to the United States Senate. Weed and he pretty clearly calculated that retaining the Whig label would bolster Seward's chances. But even so, the fact that Seward made that calculation suggests that he was a politician with an instinct for caution and not simply an ideologue.
Next, consider this passage from a Senate speech delivered March 3, 1858, during the debates over the Lecompton Constitution. In it, Seward made the remarkable concession that, for Kansas at least, he would abandon the bedrock Republican doctrine of no slavery in the territories - essentially the Wilmot Proviso - for Popular Sovereignty - the monstrous doctrine embodied in the Kansas-Nebraska Act that created the Republican coalition:
But I shall not insist, now, on so radical a measure as the restoration of the Missouri prohibition. I know how difficult it is for power to relinquish even a pernicious and suicidal policy all at once. We may obtain the same result, in this particular case of Kansas, without going back so far. Go back only to the ground assumed in 1854 [in the Kansas-Nebraska Act], the ground of popular sovereignty. Happily for the authors of that measure, the zealous and energetic resistance of abuses practiced under it has so far been effective that popular sovereignty in Kansas may now be made a fact, and liberty there may be rescued from danger through its free exercise. Popular sovereignty is an epic of two parts. Part the first presents freedom in Kansas lost. Part the second, if you will so consent to write it, shall be freedom in Kansas regained. It is on this ground that I hail the eminent Senator from Illinois [Mr. DOUGLAS] and his associates . . .. The late Mr. Clay told us that Providence has many ways for saving nations. God forbid that I should consent to see freedom wounded, because my own lead, or even my own agency in saving it, should be rejected. I will cheerfully cooperate with these new defenders of this sacred cause in Kansas, and I will award them all due praise, when we shall have been successful, for their large share of merit in its deliverance.
Again, there were extenuating circumstances. In the speech, Seward maintained that the Wilmot Proviso approach was preferable. The context clearly supports James L. Huston's assertion that "Seward was obviously trying to tempt [Stephen A.] Douglas and his followers into the Republican coalition. After all, the slavery extension issue had cracked the Democratic Party twice before, in 1846-48 and in 1854, and one more time would seal the antislavery victory." But isn't that precisely the approach of a cautious and moderate politician - attempting to build a coalition with more "conservative" (for want of a better term) elements, rather than throwing down the gauntlet and taking a doctrinaire approach?
Two years later, on February 29, 1860, Seward delivered a major speech in the Senate on the admission of Kansas. Although Seward did not back down from his core conviction that slavery was wrong, the bulk of the speech was remarkably conciliatory to the South. At the outset, the discussion of slavery took on an abstract, almost academic tone, combining history, economics and sociology. The division over slavery, for example, was not between the North and the South, but between "capital States" and "labor States":
An economical question early arises out of the subject of slavery - labor either of freemen or of slaves is the cardinal necessity of society. . . . In the one case capital invested in slaves becomes a great political force, while in the other labor thus elevated and enfranchised, becomes the dominating political power. It thus happens that we may, for convenience sake, and not inaccurately, call slave States capital States, and free States labor States.
Seward also addressed the fact that, even then, people were hearing "menaces of disunion. louder, more distinct, more emphatic than ever, with the condition annexed, that they shall be executed the moment that a Republican Administration, though constitutionally elected, shall assume the Government." Again, his response was the soul of conciliation. Although secession was plainly "unconstitutional" "mad work", Seward pledged to listen to southern complaints:
Hitherto the Republic party has been content with one self-interrogatory - how many votes it can cast? These threats enforce another - has it determination enough to cast them? This latter question touches its spirit and pride. I am quite sure, however, that as it has hitherto practiced self-denial in so many other forms, it will in this emergency lay aside all impatience of temper, together with all ambition, and will consider these extraordinary declamations seriously and with a just moderation.
Even more surprising was Seward’s clumsy attempt to persuade southerners that Republicans shared their values. Denying the southern accusation that Republicans intended “to introduce negro equality among you,” Seward asserted that the free labor system promoted the very “equality of white men” that southerners held out as their ideal:
Suppose we had the power to change your social system; what warrant have you for supposing that we should carry negro equality among you? We know, and we will show you, if you will only give heed, that what our system of labor works out, wherever it works out anything, is the equality of white men. The laborer in the free States, no matter how humble his occupation, is a white man, and he is politically the equal of his employer. . . . Is it then in any . . . [of the free States] that negro equality offends the white man’s pride? . . . Did Washington, Jefferson, and Henry, when they implored you to relinquish your system and accept the one we have adopted, propose to sink you down to the level of the African, or was it their desire to exalt all white men to a common political elevation?
Seward attempted to blunt southern suspicions by going out of his way to vigorously condemn John Brown and his associates for their “unlawful” attempt “to subvert slavery in Virginia by conspiracy, ambush, invasion, and force.”
While generous and charitable natures will probably concede that John Brown and his associates acted on earnest though fatally erroneous convictions, yet all good citizens will nevertheless agree, that this attempt to execute an unlawful purpose in Virginia by invasion, involving servile war, was an act of sedition and treason, and criminal in just the extent that it affected the public peace and was destructive of human happiness and human life.
Finally, noting the shared heritage of (white) Americans, north and south (“We are of one race, language, liberty, and faith”), Seward laid out an oddly mechanical vision of the Constitution, which at least had the virtue of emphasizing its perpetuity:
Mr. President, we are perpetually forgetting this subtle and complex, yet obvious and natural, mechanism of our Constitution; and because we do forget it, we are continually wondering how it is that a Confederacy of thirty and more States, covering regions so vast, and regulating interests so various of so many millions of men, constituted and conditioned so diversely, works right on. We are continually looking to see it stop and stand still, or fall suddenly into pieces. But, in truth, it will not stop; it cannot stop; it was made not to stop, but to keep in motion – in motion always, and without force. For my own part . . . I expect that it will stand and work right on until men shall fear its failure no more than we now apprehend that the sun will cease to hold his eternal place in the heavens.
In the end, Seward maintained, the present “winds of controversy” would subside and the Union would stand more firm than ever:
The earth seems to be heaving beneath our feet, and the pillars of the noble fabric that protects us [seem] to be trembling before our eyes. But the appointed end of all this agitation comes at last, and always seasonably; the tumults of the people subside; the country becomes calm once more; and then we find that only our senses have been disturbed, and that they have betrayed us. The earth is firm as always before, and the wounded structure, for whose safety we have feared so anxiously, now more firmly fixed than ever, still stands unmoved, enduring, and immovable.
David M. Potter writes off Seward's February 29, 1860 speech as simply an attempt to shed his radical image and "convert himself into a moderate" in order to bolster his chances of being nominated for the presidency at the Republican convention that summer:
By 1860, it began to appear that these phrases ["a law higher than the Constitution" and "irrepressible conflict between freedom and slavery"] had succeeded too well [in establishing Seward as an antislavery leader], and on February 29, Seward delivered a major speech in the Senate appealing for "mutual toleration" and "fraternal spirit." Even the dualism of "free states" and "slave states" disappeared, and "labor states" and "capital states" replaced them. But Seward's conciliatory gestures were too patently opportunistic to win the confidence of the moderates. For more than a decade he had been building an image of himself as the antislavery leader. Southern fire-eaters, who had accepted the image literally, were not going to let him escape from it now. Almost the only people influenced by the speech were some of the radical antislavery men, who were antagonized.
Even so, I cannot help but wonder whether Seward's speech, however politically convenient, did not reflect a fundamental moderation underlying a radical veneer. Salmon P. Chase, for example, would never have delivered such a speech, no matter how advantageous it might have been. Certainly with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of Seward's subsequent trajectory it is fair to see in the speech both political positioning and a tendency to draw back from the brink.
Now it is pretty well known that, shortly before and after he became President Lincoln's Secretary of State (basically from late February 1861 through Sumpter), Seward struggled desperately to hold Lincoln to a course that would keep the middle and upper South in the Union. But to end this post I'd like to focus on a less well known incident that demonstrates just how early in the Secession Crisis Seward displayed an extremely pacific stance.
On November 24, 1860 - fewer than three weeks after Lincoln's election, and well before even the most conservative Republicans began wondering whether they shouldn't propose some sort of conciliatory gesture to the South - Thurlow Weed, Seward's "alter ego", publicly advocated gutting the core tenet of the Republican party: no slavery in the territories. Russell McClintock tells the story in his fine book Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession:
But the earthquake that truly shook [Republican] party confidence came from an entirely unexpected quarter: Thurlow Weed, the undisputed ruler of the New York State organization and alter ego of Senator William H. Seward. On November 24 [,1860], Weed's Albany Evening Journal flouted Republican dogma by proposing not just a strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Law but also a re-extension of the old Missouri Compromise line . . .. Although it had been the Kansas-Nebraska Act's repeal of that line six years earlier that had led to the founding of the Republican coalition, from early on the party had rejected its reinstitution, insisting on nothing less than barring slavery from all federal territories. But now, Weed explained, the Republicans' accession to the White House marked the end of the controversy over slavery in the territories. There was no need to legislate against slavery in federal territories because the lands remaining would not support a slave-based economy anyway.
Shades of Stephen A. Douglas! Both Dr. McClintock and Kenneth M. Stampp emphasize how outraged mainstream Republicans were at this apostasy, deriding "Granny Weed" for his weakness. Kenneth M. Stampp describes the reaction as follows:
Most sensational was the "backing down" of Thurlow Weed, who began to advocate concessions, especially the restoration of the Missouri Compromise line, in his Albany Evening Journal. "Poor Weed," mocked a critic [identified in a footnote as the New York Herald]. "His glory has departed - his metal is broken - his pride is humbled - his self reliance is gone . . ." And the "knowing ones" had no trouble in finding the cause. "They easily traced the wonder to Wall Street. They found in the condition of the stock market a perfect means of explanation."
And here is Dr. McClintock surveying the Republican response:
The abandonment of the [Republican] party's central plank by the boss of its most important state organization and political manager of the party's most powerful national leader, came as a shock to Republicans across the country. It sparked a vehement reaction against the idea of concessions - especially concessions like Weed's, which struck at the very heart of Republicanism. "We dont take the Evening Journal or Times for our guide," a local party activist from western New York insisted. "We are here utterly opposed to have the principles of the Republican Party compromised away." Junior New York senator Preston King protested to Weed, "It cannot be done. You must abandon your position. . . . You and Seward should be among the foremost to brandish the lance and shout for war."
Senator King assumed that Seward was complicit in Weed's shocking retreat - and correctly so. Dr. McClintock reports that Seward was convinced that concessions were necessary but knew that they "would challenge party orthodoxy." Weed and Seward therefore decided jointly "that Weed would publish a compromise proposal as a sort of trial balloon." When "Republicans reacted harshly to Weed's editorials," Seward was able to "den[y] that he had any part in them."
So where does this leave me? I'm not sure. As this post suggests, I guess I'm inclined to see more continuity than disjunction - more conservatism and caution underlying a radical image from fairly early on. Most people become more conservative as they grow older, but the change tends to be moderate and evolutionary. The evidence, however, is fairly thin and ambiguous, and there's always the concern that I'm reading more in earlier events because I know what will come later. Your thoughts are welcome.
About the first illustration, entitled A Big Blue Bottle Fly in the Web:
Another swipe at Whig candidate Winfield Scott's manipulation by antislavery Whigs Seward and Greeley. Here, Scott is a fly caught in a large web, spun by spiders Greeley (left) and Seward (right). Scott exclaims, "I think I've got myself into a hobble!" Greeley, hanging from a thread, decides, "I must hurry up & cover him with our slime as fast as possible!" Seward adds, "I hope he won't break through before I get him secured!" At lower left, Massachusetts Whig Daniel Webster and New York editor James Watson Webb look on. Webster remarks, "What an extraordinary web, Webb!" Webb replies, "Yes it's one of that crafty old spider Seward's and he has caught a large fly who wont get out Scot free--Can't you stir it up a little, Webster!"
About the second illustration, entitled A Magnificent Offer to a Magnificent Officer:
A cartoon ridiculing Whig nominee Winfield Scott as the pawn of New York antislavery senator William Seward. A member of the "Whig Committee" kneels before Scott and offers him a crown and a bag of money marked "50,000,000." The man says, "Behold us at your feet great General, tired of the insolence of our democratic rabble, we, the Whig Party, have made a Coup d'etat, proclaimed an Empire and herewith offer you the Crown, and with the Crown $50,000,000 per annum!! Long live the Emperor!!! Huzza!!" Scott, holding his plumed hat and sword, leans against Seward. He asks his supporter, "Why thats a magnificent offer Seward, shall I accept it?" Sharpening his quill, Seward replies, "Certainly! by all means, you take the Crown and I'll take the $50,000,000 and the Pickings and the Stealings." In the right background stand other members of the "Whig Committee." On the left is Seward's writing table.