Disunion and Civil War
As I have edited and edited my Seward book, trying to compress it to a reasonable length, I have edited down many quotes from his speeches. I worry somewhat that the reader may not get the proper sense of Seward’s speaking style, his long sentences and learned references. So I intend to post here some excerpts from his speeches.
On January 12, 1861, in the midst of the secession winter, Seward gave an eagerly-awaited and closely-read speech. The newspapers had just announced that Seward would be the secretary of state in the Lincoln administration. As such, Seward was viewed as the leading spokesman for the new administration; people hoped that Seward would suggest some compromise that could solve the crisis, or at least cool the increasing heat between the northern states and the seceding southern states. Seward started his speech with a long discussion of disunion, which he predicted would lead to civil war: because of tension between the two confederacies and because those confederacies would form alliances with or be attacked by foreign powers. Much of his speech was based on John Jay’s Second Federalist letter; indeed one paper criticized Seward for merely copying Jay. In a part looking ahead towards the civil war, Seward said:
Indulge me in one or two details under this head. First, it is only sixty days since this disunion movement began; already those who are engaged in it have canvassed with portentous freedom the possible recombinations of the states when dissevered, and the feasible alliances of those recombinations with European nations; alliances as unnatural, and which would ultimately prove as pestilential to society here as that of the Tlascalans with the Spaniard, who promised them revenge upon their ancient enemies, the Aztecs.
[How many Americans, then or now, know of the Tlascalans?]
Secondly, the disunion movement arises partly out of a dispute over the common domain of the United States. Hitherto the Union has confined this controversy within the bounds of political debate by referring it, with all other national ones, to the arbitrament of the ballot-box. Does any suppose that disunion would transfer the whole domain to either party, or that any other umpire than war would, after dissolution, be invoked?
[Seward was right that the Civil War would be fought partly in and for the western territories. To put the point another way, if the South had won the Civil War, surely there would have been further wars between North and South as each side tried to claim the western territories.]
Thirdly, this movement arises, in another view, out of the relation of African slaves to the dynastic [white] population of the country. Freedom is to them [the slaves], as to all mankind, the chief object of desire. Hitherto, under the operation of the Union, they have practically remained ignorant of the controversy, especially of its bearing on themselves. Can we hope that flagrant civil war shall rage among ourselves in their very presence and yet that they will remain stupid and idle spectators? Does history furnish us any satisfactory instruction upon the horrors of civil war among a people so brave, so skilled in arms, so earnest in conviction, and so intent in purpose as we are? Is it a mere chimera which suggests an aggravation of those horrors beyond endurance when, on either side, there shall occur the intervention of an uprising of ferocious African slave population of four, or six, perhaps twenty millions?
[Seward’s prediction that the slaves would rise up in revolt proved by and large incorrect; but he was right that the slaves would not “remain stupid and idle spectators”; they participated in the war in countless ways.]
The opinions of mankind change, and with them the politics of nations. One hundred years ago all the commercial European states were engaged in transferring negro slaves from Africa to this hemisphere. To-day all those states are firmly set in hostility to the extension and even to the practice of slavery. Opposition to it takes two forms: one, European, which is simple, direct abolition, effected, if need be, by compulsion; the other, American, which seeks to arrest the African slave trade, and resist the entrance of domestic slavery into territories where it is yet unknown, while it leaves the disposition of existing slavery to the considerate action of the states by which it is retained. It is the Union which restricts the opposition to slavery in this country within these limits. If dissolution prevail, what guarantee shall there be against the full development here of the fearful and uncompromising hostility to slavery which elsewhere pervades the world, and of which the recent invasion of Virginia was an illustration.”
[Seward’s contrast between European and American antislavery is really a comparison of two types of American antislavery; the more moderate antislavery of Lincoln and Seward, who sought merely to restrict the expansion of slavery and hoped to see a gradual peaceful process of change; and the more radical antislavery of John Brown, the head of the “recent invasion of Virginia.” Seward was absolutely right that the Civil War would lead the North away from gradualism and towards absolutism, in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation and ultimately the Thirteenth Amendment.]
I have designedly dwelt so long on the probable effects of disunion upon the safety of the American people as to leave me little time to consider the evils which must follow in its train. But practically, the loss of safety involves every other form of public calamity. When once the guardian angel has taken flight, everything is lost.
Dissolution would not only arrest but extinguish the greatness of our country. Even if separate confederacies could exist and endure, they could severally preserve no share of the common prestige of the Union. If the constellation is to be broken up, the stars, whether scattered widely apart or grouped in smaller clusters, will thenceforth shed only feeble, glimmering and lurid lights. Nor will great achievements be possible for the new confederacies. Dissolution would signalize its triumph by acts of wantonness which would shock and astound the world. It would provincialize Mount Vernon and give this capitol over to desolation at the very moment when the dome is rising over our heads that was to be crowned with the statue of Liberty.
[The Capitol building was under construction at this time: near the end of the Civil War it was finished, and capped with the magnificent statue of liberty.]
After this there would remain for disunion no act of stupendous infamy to be committed. No petty confederacy that shall follow the United States can prolong, or even renew, the majestic drama of national progress. Perhaps it is to be arrested because its sublimity is incapable of continuance. Let it be so, if we have indeed become degenerate. After Washington, and the inflexible Adams, Henry, and the peerless Hamilton, Jefferson, and the majestic Clay, Webster, and the acute Calhoun, Jackson, the modest Taylor, and Scott who rises in greatness under the burden of years, and Franklin, and Fulton, and Whitney, and Morse, have all performed their parts, let the curtain fall!
[Seward carefully mentioned as many southern as northern heroes in this list: and reminded everyone that these were NATIONAL not merely sectional heroes. One reporter noted that “it was difficult to restrain oneself from tears, when at the allusion of Seward to the great men of the country now dead and gone, and at his vivid portrait of the horrors of dissolution and civil war, we saw the venerable Senator Crittenden, who sat directly in front of Seward, shedding tears, and finally overcome by his feelings, cover his face with his handkerchief.]
Perhaps I should stop my Seward quotation at this point. For those interested in reading more, the speech is in volume 4 of the Works of Seward, edited by George Baker. An easy way to find it online is from the Wikipedia page for Seward, through a link near the end of the page.