A while ago, I puzzled over What the Hell Happened to William Seward? How was it, I wondered, that the north's leading radical anti-slavery Whig during the 1850s - the guy whom the Republicans failed to nominate in 1860 because they perceived him as too radical, versus the more "moderate" Lincoln - became such a wimp during the secession crisis, frantically seeking to appease the south to the point that he had to mislead the president in the process?
What I discovered, to my surprise, was that Seward displayed many signs of moderation during the 1850s. In fact, it seemed that his "radical" reputation was based largely, and perhaps exclusively, on two speeches - one might say on two phrases: his "higher law than the Constitution" speech of 1850, and his "irrepressible conflict" speech of 1858.
In her wonderful (thus far) A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, Amanda Foreman reaches a similar, but more pointed conclusion about Seward: he was a moderate with a radical veneer who, during the late 1850s, spent years positioning himself "as the moderate alternative to Charles Sumner."
Ironically, she maintains, Seward inadvertently sabotaged those efforts, and his bid for the presidency in 1860, with his October 1858 "irrepressible conflict" speech. Although the phrase was not all that different from Lincoln's "house divided" language, Seward's speech was perceived as more divisive. "Whereas Lincoln sounded as though he were giving a warning, Seward seemed to be laying down a challenge." The damage to Seward's image was immediate and lasting:
Seward later claimed that "irrepressible" was not the same as "unavoidable," but the damage could not be undone. The press dubbed him "Irrepressible Conflict Seward," fostering the sense that he was a divisive rather than a unifying figure and voiding three years of careful positioning by Seward to be perceived as the moderate alternative to Charles Sumner.
On the advice of his friend and manager, Thurlow Weed, Seward traveled to Britain in the Spring of 1859 "in the hope that the public would forget the unfortunate phrase" before the 1860 election season.
Alas, it was not to be. When Seward returned to the United States on December 28, 1859, southern hysteria following the John Brown raid was at its peak, and southerners repeatedly pilloried Seward as an instigator. In the Senate, James Murray Mason of Virginia, whose seat was next to Seward's,
harangued [Seward] for being the moral, though not actual, instigator of the action. Again and again, Seward's unfortunate phrase "irrepressible conflict" was hurled back in his face. Democratic newspapers denounced his as the "arch agitator who is responsible for this insurrection." One Virginia newspaper even went so far as to put a price of $100,000 on his head; the governor of Virginia urged the South to demand Seward's exclusion from the presidency.
About the illustration, entitled "The Irrepressible Conflict" or the Republican Barge in Danger (1860):
The cartoon reflects the considerable bitterness among New York Republicans at the party's surprising failure to nominate New York senator William H. Seward for president at its May 1860 national convention. The print was probably issued soon after the convention's nomination of Abraham Lincoln. The "Republican Barge" tosses on a stormy sea, precariously close to a rocky shore, with Lincoln (far left) at the rudder. "I'll take the helm. I've steered a "flat" boat before," says Lincoln. Also in the barge are (left to right) "Tribune" editor and powerful Lincoln supporter Horace Greeley, Missourian Edward Bates, an unidentified man, and former Washington "Globe" editor and influential Jacksonian Democrat Francis Preston Blair. The three men together heave Seward overboard. Greeley says, "Over you go Billy! Between you and I there is an "Irrepressible Conflict." Bates encourages him, "Over with him Horace never mind his kicking!" while Blair says, "He can't withstand my muscle for I once moved the Globe." The idea of an "irrepressible conflict" between slaveholding and free interests in the Union was taken from Seward's famous 1858 Rochester speech against slavery. The term became a catchphrase for radical antislavery factions in the North. Seward protests, "Dont throw "me" overboard, I built this boat, and I alone can save it." Further right are three unidentified men, two of whom are speaking. One cries, "I'm afraid this boat will sink." The other remarks, "If it had only been built in two sections instead of one we might be saved." A black wearing "Discord's Patent Life Preserver" notes, "If de boat and all hands sink, dis Nigger sure to swim, Yah! Yah!" In the bow sits New York "Courier" editor James Watson Webb, who warns, "Breakers ahead!!" Watching anxiously from the shore is Brother Jonathan, clad in striped trousers, coat with tails, and a tall hat. He admonishes the boat's crew, "You wont save your crazy old craft by throwing your pilot overboard; better heave that tarnal Nigger out."