Page images
PDF
EPUB

Our glance shows him again as a lawyer turning aside from the affairs of state to those of the humblest client, with a fidelity and integrity of service only equaled by his conscientious devotion to the law and equity of each particular case.

Finally it shows him a senator in congress, asserting with eloquence and courage the supremacy of immutable right in national affairs over the arts of compromise and expediency; standing there, almost alone, setting in motion the tide of freedom, which, rolling from the Aroostook to the Rio del Norte, thunders its warnings in the ears of the million voters who have too long dallied in subserviency to the influence of slavery.

The memoir which follows shows Mr. Seward still in the senate, yearly saluting new associates who displace those who have grown false to freedom and worthless to their constituents-himself, in the judgment of all calm and candid observers, the foremost statesman of American Progress.

THE SUCCESS of the whig party in 1848 was promoted by the expectation that it would prevent the introduction of slavery into the new territories where it was already prohibited by the Mexican laws. The representatives from the free states were understood to be pledged to that wise and beneficent policy. It was assumed that the new president (Gen. Taylor) would not interpose the executive veto should that policy be adopted. Mr. Seward was committed in its favor, both by the circumstances of his election and the well known tenor of his political life. On the meeting of congress in 1849 several whig members from the south apprehended the adoption of that policy and refused to unite with their northern brethren in the election of a speaker. After delaying the organization of the house for a number of weeks they finally joined with their political opponents and elected a democratic speaker from one of the slaveholding states.' As soon as the house was organized, the southern party demanded the establishment of the new territories, without any condition as to the introduction of slavery.

1 Howell Cobb of Georgia. He received 102 votes; Mr. Winthrop of Massachusetts, 99; David Wilmot, 8; Scattering, 12.

The representatives from the free states earnestly protested against this course. Mr. Seward took an active part in the opposition. Faithful to their convictions they insisted on the insertion of the Wilmot proviso (which was identical in its spirit with Mr. Jefferson's proviso in the ordinance of 1787) in any act ordaining the government of the territories. President Taylor took a middle ground in his message to congress. He recommended that the territories. should be left without any preliminary organization, under the existing Mexican laws, which forbade African bondage, until they should have obtained the requisite population to form voluntary constitutions and apply for admission as states of the Union. California and New Mexico were already taking steps for this purpose. The recommendation of the president was condemned by the slave states while it met the approval of the friends of freedom. At an early period it was opposed by Mr. Clay. After great reserve and deliberation Mr. Webster subsequently declared his hostility to the proposed measure. Mr. Seward, who upheld the recommendation, thus became the leader of the administration party in both houses of congress. The antagonists of slavery with whom he coöperated, a minority in the senate, had a decided majority in the house of representatives. Each branch of congress became the scene of vehement debate. The slaveholding party indulged in such violent and inflammatory language as to threaten the derangement of publie business and even the disorganization of congress. This party was sustained by the Nashville convention-a body of southern delegates assembled for the purpose of adopting measures for the secession of the slave states from the Union. But neither President Taylor, nor Mr. Seward was intimidated by these proceedings. They both persisted in the course which was sanctioned alike by justice and conscience. Mr. Clay, on the other hand, believed the existence of the Union was at stake. Sustained by Mr. Webster he consented to adopt the non-intervention policy, the avowal of which by Gen. Cass had made him the candidate of the democratic party, in the recent presidential election. Mr. Clay now brought forward his famous compromise scheme and urged its adoption with all the force of his glowing and persuasive eloquence. Appealing to the sentiment of patriotism, to the prevailing attachment to the Union, and to the love of peace, he represented the acceptance of his measures as essential to the final settlement of the issues which had grown out

of the existence of slavery, in the United States. Mr. Clay's views were sustained by the leading advocates of slavery in congress. For the most part these belonged to the democratic party. They were pledged to insist on a congressional declaration of the right of slaveholders to carry their slaves into any of the territories of the United States. But the compromise was opposed by most of the representatives of the free states, who were determined to make no further concessions than those involved in the position taken by President Taylor. The whigs of the slave states on the other hand gave the compromise their hearty support. It was defended also by the more especial or personal friends of Mr. Clay and Mr. Webster among the whigs of the north, as well as by a large portion of the democratic party in the free states. The more conservative classes in the great northern cities were induced to give it their support through fear of the loss of southern trade and patronage, and a growing discontent with the policy of the new administration. The friends of the compromise moreover endeavored to arouse the fears of the people by showing the danger of a dissolution of the Union which was threatened as they alleged by the policy of the president.

Mr. Seward, of course, was denounced as a desperate and dangerous agitator. His resistance to the compromise was represented as contumacy. He was accused of wishing to obtain personal aggrandizement, even upon the ruins of the Constitution and the wreck of the Union. These reproaches were not without effect. They produced a partial division of the whig party in the free states, and awakened a prejudice in many quarters against the name of Mr. Seward. But he was not shaken from his steadfastness. With admirable firmness and self-possession he nobly resisted the current of popular agitation and congressional excitement. The dignity of his bearing and the wisdom of his counsels during the stormy period receive ample illustration from his speeches, as recorded in previous volumes of these works.

The first applicant for admission into the Union was California, which had adopted a free constitution in a general convention. The friends of the compromise refused to grant her demand, except on certain stringent conditions. They insisted that congress should waive a prohibition of slavery in organizing the territories of Utah VOL. IV.

3

and New Mexico, and at the same time enact a new and offensive law for the capture of fugitive slaves in the free states.

Mr. Seward demanded the admission of California without condition, without qualification and without compromise, leaving other subjects to distinct and independent legislation. No fair man, it would seem, could doubt the wisdom or justice of such a course. The partisans of the compromise contended that Utah and New Mexico should be organized without a prohibition of slavery, at the very moment when the latter was known to have adopted a free constitution and to have chosen representatives to ask an admission into the Union. On this question, Mr. Seward maintained that New Mexico should be admitted into the Union as a free state, or left to enjoy the protection from slavery afforded by existing Mexican laws.

The fugitive slave law, which was proposed as a condition of the admission of California, met with a determined opponent in Mr. Seward, from the first. He clearly foresaw the impolicy as well as the cruelty of the contemplated measure. He argued with no less humanity than good faith, that no public exigency required a new law on the subject, that the bill in question was as unconstitutional as it was repugnant to every just sentiment, and that the principles and habits of the northern people would inevitably place insurmountable obstacles in the way of its execution.' Admitting the justice of these views, the compromisers demanded that they should be set aside lest the determination of slaveholders should lead to a dissolution of the Union. Mr. Seward was incapable of yielding to such unworthy terrors. He constantly passed them by, as too trivial for serious notice. At the same time he urgently pointed out the danger of quailing before the threats of the South. Knowing the disposition engendered by slavery, he insisted that any craven truckling on the part of the free states would lead to unbounded aggressions by the slave power in the future. With prophetic sagacity he was enabled to cast the horoscope of coming ills which have since been realized in the legislation concerning Nebraska and Kansas.

The compromisers regarded their measures as essential to the suppression of slavery agitation in the national councils, and to the permanent tranquillity of the Union. Mr. Seward maintained pre

1 See Vol. I, pp. 65 and 348; also Vol. III, p. 445.

cisely the opposite views. He insisted that the extension of slavery was too great a price to pay even for the attainment of peace; that a peace purchased on such terms would be only a hollow truce; that it would be disturbed by new and deeper agitations; that freedom and slavery were essentially antagonistic in their nature; and that no reconciliation could be effectual until the latter should abandon its pretensions to new territories and new conquests. The soundness of Mr. Seward's opinions have been confirmed by subsequent events. The exciting congressional discussion of the subject continued for several months. Its effect was favorable to the policy of President Taylor and Mr. Seward. It promised to guaranty the establishment of free institutions, unvitiated by the presence of slavery, to the vast possessions between the organized states and the Pacific ocean.

An unforeseen casualty changed the fortunes of the conflict. President Taylor died in the month of July, 1850, and by the terms of the constitution Millard Fillmore, the vice-president, was advanced to the executive chair of the United States. A citizen of New York, he had already exhibited symptoms of jealousy in regard to the influence of Mr. Seward-a feeling which was shared by many of his friends. At the same time he was understood to concur with Mr. Seward in the general principles of policy which had guided the course of the latter on the slavery question. Mr. Seward advised the new president to retain the cabinet of President Taylor and endeavor to carry out his views. But this course was in direct opposition to the views of the compromisers. They urged the importance of abandoning the policy hitherto pursued and of appointing a cabinet committed to their own. Mr. Fillmore accepted their advice. His administration was in reality founded on the principles of the party which his election had defeated. Of course, it relied for support on a coalition between members of that party and so many of his own as could be gained to his views. Soon after this change in the executive, many of the opponents of the compromise fell off from the side of Mr. Seward, while others attempted to steer a middle course, expressing themselves in language of moderation, or preserving a total silence.

Although the compromise bill itself, as introduced by Mr. Clay, was defeated, the measures which it embodied were submitted to a separate discussion, and successively passed. The whigs of the free

« PreviousContinue »