Seward, the South, and the Constitution
This is roughly what I said on September 17, at Mississippi State, about Seward and the South and the Constitution:.
I have two topics today: Seward’s relations with the South and his views on and role in the Constitution. The two topics are closely related, so it is appropriate that I should be here, in Mississippi, on Constitution Day, to discuss them.
William Henry Seward was born in rural upstate New York in 1801, only a few years after the ratification of the Constitution. We tend to think that slavery ended in the North more or less at the time of the American Revolution, but that was not true in New York. Seward grew up with slaves. He wrote, in his memoir, that he spent much time with the family slaves, for they “had a fund of knowledge about the ways and habits of the devil, of witches, of ghosts, and of men who had been hanged, and, what was more, they were vivacious and loquacious, as well as affectionate toward me.” Seward’s father continued to own slaves, as he was allowed to do by New York law, into the early 1820s. Surely this is one key to Seward’s attitudes towards slavery and the South.
Seward attended Union College, in Schenectady, New York, where his classmates included many boys from the South. In early 1819, after a quarrel with his father, Seward and a friend headed for the South. Seward reached Eatonton, Georgia, on the cotton frontier, and found a position as the headmaster of a new school there. In his letters home, Seward reported that he was enjoying his work and his life, that his host, the planter and slaveowner Major William Alexander, “contributes everything in his power to my ease and happiness.” Seward’s parents, however, were not at all happy, and after a few months he yielded to their pleas and returned to New York. This is another key to the man: unlike almost every other northern politician of his era, Seward had lived in the South.
While Seward was in Georgia, a New York member of Congress, James Tallmadge, proposed that Missouri should only be admitted into the Union if its state constitution prohibited slavery. Southerners were outraged: they saw Tallmadge’s proposal as the first step towards limiting and prohibiting slavery. Northerners were equally outraged by what they saw as southern blackmail. The crisis was resolved by what we know as the Missouri Compromise: Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine as a free state. But many believed the Union would not survive the increasing North-South tension.
Not Seward. In his graduation speech, Seward declared that the Union would be perpetual. In part this was because the Constitution was a solid structure, capable of lasting through decades and centuries. And in part this was because the Union, in his view, would be bound by movement among the regions, so that people would come to “worship the same God and revere the same laws whether on the banks of the Hudson or the Mobile and the Missouri.”
After graduation, Seward studied law and then settled in Auburn, New York. In 1824, he married Frances Miller, daughter of his law partner. Frances had attended the nation’s most advanced school for women, Emma Willard’s school, and she had advanced ideas on women and slavery. Frances counted, among her close friends, national leaders of the nascent anti-slavery and women’s movements. Here is another key to Seward: he had ties with the South, but he also had ties with the most aggressive abolitionists. A curious contradiction.
Seward generally opposed Andrew Jackson and his policies during the late 1820s and early 1830s. But in 1832, when South Carolina threatened to secede over the federal tariff laws, Seward crossed party lines to support President Jackson. He insisted, in a strong speech in the state senate, that the Union was one, that secession was utterly inconsistent with the Constitution.
During the next summer, Seward accompanied his father on a long tour of Europe, which only strengthened his views on the Union. He wrote home that he now realized “the fearful responsibility of the American people to the nations of the whole earth, to carry successfully through the experiment which . . . is to prove that men are capable of self-government.” No American should ever imagine that “a northern or a southern, an eastern or a western confederacy, or the independence of Massachusetts, or New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Carolina, or Georgia would still be enough to accomplish this great purpose of proving the capability of man for self-government.” No: “dissolve the Union, how or where we may, the experiment, so far as the rest of the world, if not ourselves, is ended; the members of it sink below the level of the South American states; the cherished hopes of universal restoration of power to the governed are lost forever.”
In 1835, Seward was in the South again: he and his wife took a long carriage tour, south from New York to Virginia then back home via Washington. Both Seward and his wife wrote home about slavery: Frances wrote that slavery was wrong, Seward that it was failing in economic terms. While they were in Washington, a mutual friend suggested they meet Jackson, and Seward was forced to admit that the president received them in “the most obliging and gentlemanly manner.”
Seward became governor of New York in early 1839, and soon thereafter was involved in controversy with the South. Governor Seward received a request from his counterpart in Virginia to extradite three free black seamen who had helped a slave escape from Virginia. Seward refused, saying that “there is no law of this state which recognizes slavery, no statute which admits that one man can be the property of another, or that one man can be stolen from another.” The governor of Virginia argued that, under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution, New York was required to honor Virginia’s request. Seward responded that the Constitution allowed what we would today call a “public policy exception.”
Seward’s correspondence with the governors of Virginia and South Carolina (which supported Virginia in the quarrel) was widely published. Southerners started to view him as an “abolitionist.” He was not. He hoped to see slavery end gradually in the South, as it had ended gradually in the North, but he did not favor immediate abolition, and he did not believe the federal government had any right, under the Constitution, to abolish slavery in the South.
A few years later, Seward was involved in a dramatic and controversial trial. William Freeman, a young black man recently released from the prison in Seawrd’s home town of Auburn, was accused of the brutal murder of a local family. Seward defended Freeman by arguing that he was insane; he brought mental experts to testify that Freeman was not in his right mind. In his closing argument, widely reprinted, Seward argued that the jurors should look past Freeman’s race, to see that he was a child of God just like them, and judge him as they would one of themselves.
Seward made two long trips in the South in the the 1840s. In 1846, he traveled west to Cincinnati to handle some patent cases, and then returned by heading down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, overland east to visit his friends in Eatonton, Georgia, and then back north along the eastern seaboard.
Seward’s letters home were detailed and perceptive. Observing the bustling commerce at Pittsburgh, he “could not but smile at the miserable fears of the disunion of the Republic. No political ties bring it together, and no political convulsion can shake it to pieces. The Union is the handiwork of Nature.” Describing the state of Mississippi from the deck of his steamboat, he noted that the fields were filled with “corn, cotton, and tobacco.” The typical planter’s house was a “low, neat, white, wooden edifice, spacious, with outer kitchens and other offices detached and, at a distance, small buildings of framed timber, or logs, neatly constructed for the slaves.”
Seward’s second southern trip in this period, in the spring of 1849, was to Charleston, South Carolina, where he spent several weeks trying a patent case. Again, Seward’s letters home were interesting; in one he noted that many viewed him as an abolitionist and received him coolly, “excepting the people who stand behind the chairs at dinner.” It is worth pausing a moment to consider that image: Governor Seward dining in the fine Charleston house of a local leader, served by slaves. Could any of the men we commonly think of as abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison or Charles Sumner, have dined in such circumstances? No: but Seward did.
By the time of this second trip, in 1849, Seward was a member of the United States Senate, a colleague of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster. Seward arrived in the Senate with a national reputation as an opponent of the expansion of slavery. Indeed, the New York Tribune, edited by Seward’s friend Horace Greeley, said that “probably no man ever yet appeared for the first time in Congress so widely known and warmly appreciated as William H. Seward.” On the other hand, the Washington correspondent for the Mississippi Free Trader & Natchez Gazette wrote that “if there be one man in the whole Empire State more obnoxious to the people of the South than ex-Gov. Seward, I have yet to hear of his name and whereabouts. An abolitionist of the deepest dye, a notorious intriguer, and an avowed enemy to everything Southern, his appearance in the United States Senate at this particular juncture is much to be deplored by all lovers of our glorious Union.”
Seward gave the most famous speech of his life during the debate on what we know as the Compromise of 1850. He was speaking a few days after Calhoun, and he disagreed fundamentally with Calhoun’s view that the Constitution was some kind of compact among the states. “The states are not parties to the Constitution as states; it is the Constitution of the people of the United States.” The people adopted the Constitution “in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”
These were, in Seward’s words, “objects sublime and benevolent,” utterly contrary to the extension of slavery in the territories. He continued: “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 Constitution regulates our stewardship; the Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defense, 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 of the universe. We are his stewards, and must so discharge our trust as to secure in the highest attainable degree their happiness.”
Seward turned at the end of his speech 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.” Seward argued that the current threats of disunion were just threats, that the Union itself was natural and perpetual. The Union was stronger than when it was created: “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 in steam navigation, in steam locomotion on the land, and in telegraph communications, unknown when the Constitution was adopted . . . and stronger than all in the now habits of veneration and affection for institutions so stupendous and so useful.”
As to slavery, which some argued would split the Union in two, Seward disagreed with the extremists. The abolitionists were “absurd” to think that “any power, except the people of the slave states, could abolish” slavery, or that the southern people “could be moved to abolish it by merely sounding the trumpet loudly and proclaiming emancipation.” It was equally absurd for slavery’s most ardent defenders to argue that it was ordained by God. Seward believed “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 it was the duty of the Congress to hasten this “steady, peaceful” process.
Seward’s two-hour speech was soon boiled down to just two words: “higher law.” Seward was attacked, and not just in the South, for setting some other law above the Constitution. The New Orleans Picayune charged that the Senator “now proclaims himself ready to set [the] Constitution at naught, merely for the sake of developing a great principle.” One senator moved to expel Seward from the Senate, because it was clear Seward would not follow the Constitution but some “higher law.” Seward defended himself by quoting his speech, but declined to explain or amplify.
As we look back on the 1850s, we focus on the tension between North and South and we forget all the other divisions: between Whigs and Democrats, between cities and countryside, between immigrants and anti-immigrants, to name just a few. Because we forget these other fault lines, we forget the alliances and friendships that crossed the north-south line. Southern senators may have disagreed with Seward on slavery, but they agreed with him on many other issues, and they liked him as a person.
One Seward’s best friends in the Senate was Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. At one point, when Davis was confined to his room for weeks by his eyes, Seward visited him daily, and cheered the invalid with stories. A few weeks later, when Davis quarreled with Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, and it appeared that a duel might be imminent, it was to Seward that the two senators turned as mediator.
By early 1860, Senator Seward was the odds-on favorite to receive the Republican presidential nomination. When the Republican delegates gathered in May for their convention, however, they selected the almost unknown former member of Congress, Abraham Lincoln. Somehow, Seward mastered his disappointment and campaigned for Lincoln; he gave dozens of speeches: in New England, in New York, in the Midwest, and even as far west as Kansas, not yet a state. Lincoln did not receive any votes from the southern states, and very few from the border states, but he carried almost all the northern states, and was thus elected president in November 1860.
Almost immediately, as southerners started to debate secession, northerners started to debate how to respond to secession. Some, including Seward’s friend Greeley, said the North should make no concessions whatever; it should let the southern states “depart in peace” if that is what they wanted. Others, led by Seward, advocated compromise.
In January 1861, in a packed Senate chamber, Seward gave the most important speech of the winter. In a long passage closely based on Jay’s second Federalist letter, Seward described the dangers of separating the United States into two or more nations. Seward also outlined the concessions he was prepared to make. First, all state laws contrary to the Constitution, including the state personal liberty laws designed to frustrate the federal fugitive slave law, should be repealed. Second, the Constitution should be amended to confirm that Congress could not “abolish or interfere with slavery in any state.” Third, Congress should admit Kansas under its free state constitution, and divide the remaining western lands into two territories. Fourth, Congress should pass a stiff law to “prevent mutual invasions of states by citizens of other states.” And fifth, since physical bonds were more important than written words, Congress should start work on two rail lines west to the Pacific, one northern and one southern.
Seward continued, up to and after the inauguration of Lincoln, to advocate compromise with the South. Indeed, the second proposal in his speech, limiting congressional authority with respect to slavery in the states, was passed by Congress as a constitutional amendment and sent to the states for ratification. Seward believed that if war could just be avoided for a few months, a strong “Union party” would emerge in the South, and the southern states one by one would come back into the Union from the nascent Confederacy. He therefore opposed the mission to reinforce Fort Sumter, which he predicted, rightly, would lead to Civil War.
Seward’s efforts at compromise failed. It is interesting to compare the historical view of Clay and Seward on this point. Clay is praised for his work in crafting the Compromise of 1850; Seward is faulted for pursuing compromise in the winter of 1861. Indeed Allan Nevins compared Seward with Neville Chamberlain, an “appeaser” who did not realize that he was facing “men in deadly earnest.” But as Henry Adams observed, even if Seward’s effort now seems quixotic, “it [was] right to make the effort.”
Once the Civil War started, Seward’s role was not limited to foreign affairs. Of especial interest to us today, on Constitution Day, is his role in arresting suspects and suppressing dissent. More than eight hundred men and a handful of women were arrested and imprisoned during the year in which Seward was responsible for internal security. Seward generally did not make the initial decisions to arrest, although it was Seward who decided to arrest several members of the Maryland legislature, to prevent it from meeting and resolving upon secession. Once arrests were made, Seward had more or less complete power over the prisoners: he refused in many cases to allow them counsel.
In October 1861, seven men, including a former member of Congress, were arrested by a Union general in Kentucky, accused of being “secession leaders.” Some prominent friends and relatives of the men, including another former member of Congress, came to Washington to plead for their release. One of them asked Seward for the charges against the men; Seward said there were no charges yet. He continued: “I don’t give a damn whether they are guilty or innocent. I saved Maryland by similar arrests, and so I mean to hold Kentucky.” When one of the group suggested that such arbitrary arrests would anger the residents of Kentucky, Seward continued: “I don’t give a damn for the opinions of Kentucky.” What he wanted was to keep Kentucky in the Union and keep the Union as a whole alive.
This Kentucky incident is only one of many in which Seward, in his zeal to save the Union, was prepared to disregard the details of the Constitution. If Seward were here to defend himself, he would say that I am making a false distinction: that to save the Constitution he had to save the Union.
Southerners hated Seward before the Civil War, and their hatred intensified as they read reports in their papers about “Seward’s arbitrary arrests.” And yet, in another sense, Seward remained a friend of the South. Seward, more so than any other northern leader, was alive to the possibility that southerners would give up on the war, one by one or state by state. “I am always willing that the prodigal son shall return,” he said in one speech in late 1863. Seward’s willingness to welcome the South back into the Union worried more radical northerners. In a letter to a British friend, Senator Charles Sumner worried that “if the Rebellion should suddenly collapse, Democrats, copperheads, and Seward would insist upon amnesty and the Union and ‘no questions asked about slavery.’ God save us,” Sumner said, “from any such calamity.”
Seward’s most direct impact on the Constitution was in the passage of the thirteenth amendment, the amendment banning slavery. The amendment was approved by the Senate in April 1864, but Lincoln and Seward remained noncommittal for many months thereafter. In late 1864, however, they decided to support the proposal, and in January 1865 Seward mounted an all-out lobbying effort to secure the necessary votes in the House of Representatives.
Seward employed, for this purpose, a set of shady lobbyists, and there is some suggestion that they purchased a few of the critical Democratic votes. Even if no cash changed hands, it is pretty clear that Seward promised reluctant members of Congress that, if they would just vote for this amendment, they or their friends would receive choice appointments. By a narrow vote the amendment cleared the House on January 31, 1865, and was sent (by Seward) to the states for ratification.
On the next day Seward departed Washington early, sent by Lincoln to Hampton Roads, Virginia, to meet there with three senior southerners and explore the possibility of peace. On his way Seward stopped in Annapolis to urge the Maryland legislature to ratify the pending constitutional amendment. Lincoln joined Seward at Hampton Roads, and on February 3, the five men met and talked for three or four hours. There is some disagreement among the sources as to what was said, but two southern sources state that Seward pressed the southerners to join the Union so they could vote against the pending constitutional amendment. Alexander Stephens recalled that Seward said that “if the Confederate States would then abandon the war, they could of themselves defeat this amendment.”
I believe Stephens is right on this point, that Seward indeed said this. Why? Why would a man who had devoted much of his life to ending slavery, and the past month to securing passage by Congress of the anti-slavery amendment, turn around and suggest that the southern states should defeat that very amendment? I have considered various possibilities, none of them perfect. My sense is that Seward believed that slavery was dying at this time, because of the Union advances, because of the Confederate chaos, because blacks were refusing to serve any longer. Seward had a long-term perspective on slavery: he did not care much whether slavery died in one year or ten years. And he also had a short-term perspective on the war: he wanted if at all possible to avoid another spring and summer of fighting and dying.
At the end of 1865, after much fighting and dying, Secretary of State Seward certified that a sufficient number of states had ratified the thirteenth amendment so that it was now part of the federal constitution. Twenty-seven out of 36 states had approved, he noted, counting for this purpose even southern states not yet represented in Congress. Some questioned Seward’s method of counting, arguing that until Congress readmitted a state’s representatives it was not a “state” for constitutional purposes. Seward disagreed; in his view Mississippi and the other southern states were always states.
In early 1866, Congress (still without southern representatives) passed two bills, one to strengthen the Freedmen’s Bureau, and a second to protect the civil rights of southern blacks. If Seward had been president, he might well have signed these bills, or reached a compromise with Congress on some minor technical changes. But Seward was not president; the president was Andrew Johnson, who was not a statesman of a compromising kind. Johnson vetoed both bills, not in the mild technical terms Seward suggested, but with hostile harsh veto messages. Johnson’s vetoes marked the start of the war between himself and Congress, a war which would not end until after the first, almost successful, effort to impeach a president.
Seward sided with Johnson in this war. Seward sometimes disagreed with Johnson on tactics, but he agreed with him on what he saw as the major issue: restoring the southern people and southern states to their proper places in the Union. Moreover, the nation faced major foreign policy issues, and Seward believed that he was the person best able to handle them. And there were personal considerations: after the death of his wife in 1865 and his daughter a year later in 1866, there was not much to draw Seward “home” to upstate New York. So Seward remained in Washington and remained at Johnson’s side.
Seward not only defended Johnson against the impeachment charges; he was at the center of the efforts to raise money for Johnson’s defense. Since only a small part of the “defense fund” was spent on defense lawyers, and much of it handed to shady lobbyists under Seward, it seems that Seward may have secured Johnson’s acquittal through bribery. If he were here to defend himself, I think Seward would say that the issue was not just Johnson; the issue was the Constitution. If Congress could impeach and remove a president on flimsy charges—and most scholars today would agree that the charges against Johnson were not strong—then the United States would become like one of the South American republics—there would be coups and revolutions every few years. So Seward believed he was not just defending Johnson; he was defending the Constitution against the hasty and dangerous attack of the Radical Republicans.
It was during Johnson’s tenure that Seward purchased Alaska, the accomplishment for which he is generally remembered, and of which he was rightly proud. He also pursued various other acquisitions which, although they did not come to pass in his lifetime, ultimately did: Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and the Panama Canal zone. Seward believed that all of North America would likely one day be part of the United States; that there would be members of Congress from Alaska and Hawaii and British Columbia and Baja California. Who knows: perhaps time will prove him right.
Seward played only a modest role in the other constitutional amendment proposed and passed at this time, the Fourteenth Amendment. Johnson was utterly opposed to this amendment, so Seward could not visibly support it, although there is evidence among his papers that he reviewed at least one or two of the drafts. In June 1866, after the amendment cleared Congress, Seward transmitted it to the states for their consideration, as the secretary of state was required to do by federal law. Johnson was annoyed with Seward for taking even this modest step, so the president issued his own message, describing Seward’s action as ministerial.
Two years later, in July 1868, it fell to Seward to certify that the fourteenth amendment was part of the Constitution. He did so with a footnote: New Jersey and Ohio had attempted to withdraw their ratifications, in protest against the continued refusal of Congress to seat southern delegations, unless and until they ratified the amendment. Seward said that it seemed that the actions of the two states were “irregular, invalid, and therefore ineffectual for withdrawing the consent of the said two states,” and he would therefore count their votes. He also counted the votes of several southern states which initially rejected the amendment and then (in order to secure representation in Congress) ratified the amendment.
As Seward, after the Civil War, became less popular in the North, he regained some popularity in the South. In the summer of 1867, Seward accompanied Johnson on a trip to North Carolina, where both men were warmly received. A reporter for a South Carolina paper noted that it was hard to believe that this “careless looking old man” with his “clothes hanging so loosely around a hundred and forty pounds of flesh that they fit nowhere” was the great secretary of state. A closer acquaintance, however, revealed to the reporter that Seward was “kind, genial, approachable, and humorous.”
Seward retired with the change of administration, in March 1869, and died not long thereafter in October 1872. He devoted much of his time to travel: visiting Alaska and Mexico and then going around the world.
“Heaven cannot grant,” Seward once declared, “nor man desire, a more favorable occasion to acquire fame, than he enjoys who is engaged in laying the foundations of a great empire.” That is a good summary of Seward’s own life: he helped lay the foundations of a great empire. He knew that the South was an essential part of that empire: that a merely northern nation would be less prestigious, less powerful, and less stable; that such a nation would not achieve half of what the United States has achieved. The Constitution was also essential to Seward’s vision of the American empire: the foundation laid by thirteen states that (Seward believed) would some day accommodate a hundred or more.