January 11, 1861: Seward speaks in Congress

William H. Seward
William H. Seward

So far as the abstract question whether, by the Constitution of the United States, the bondsman, who is made such by the laws of a State, is still a man or only property, I answer that, within that State, its laws on that subject are supreme; that when he has escaped from that State into another, the Constitution regards him as a bondsman who may not, by any law or regulation of that State, be discharged from his service, but shall be delivered up on claim, to the party to whom his service is due.

While prudence and justice would combine in persuading you to modify the acts of Congress on that subject, so as not to oblige private persons to assist in their execution, and to protect freemen from being, by abuse of the laws, carried into slavery, I agree that all laws of the States, which relate to this class of persons, or any others recently coming from or resident in other States, and which laws contravene the Constitution of the United States, or any law of Congress passed in conformity thereto, ought to be repealed.

Secondly. Experience in public affairs has confirmed my opinion, that domestic slavery, existing in any State, is wisely left by the Constitution of the United States exclusively to the care, management and disposition of that State; and if it were in my power, I would not alter the Constitution in that respect. If misapprehension of my position needs so strong a remedy, I am willing to vote for an amendment of the Constitution, declaring that it shall not, by any future amendment, be so altered as to confer on Congress a power to abolish or interfere with slavery in any State.

Thirdly. While I think that Congress has exclusive and sovereign authority to legislate on all subjects whatever, in the common Territories of the United States; and while I certainly shall never, directly or indirectly, give my vote to establish or sanction slavery in such Territories, or anywhere else in the world yet the question what constitutional laws shall at any time be passed in regard to the Territories, is, like every other question, to be determined on practical grounds. I voted for enabling acts in the cases of Oregon, Minnesota and Kansas, without being able to secure in them such provisions as I would have preferred; and yet I voted wisely.

So now, I am well satisfied that, under existing circumstances, a happy and satisfactory solution of the difficulties in the remaining territories would be obtained by similar laws, providing for their organization, if such organization were otherwise practicable. If, therefore, Kansas was admitted as a State, under the Wyandotte Constitution, as I think she ought to be, and if the organic laws of all the other territories could be repealed, I could vote to authorize the organization and admission of two new States which should include them, reserving the right to effect subdivisions of them whenever necessary into several convenient States; but I do not find that such reservations could be constitutionally made.

Without them, the ulterior embarrassments which would result from the hasty incorporation of States of such vast extent and various interests and character, would out weigh all the immediate advantages of such a measure. But if the measure were practicable, I should prefer a different course, namely: when the eccentric movements of secession and disunion shall have ended, in whatever form that end may come, and the angry excitements of the hour shall have subsided, and calmness once more shall have resumed its accustomed away over the public mind, then, and hot until then–one, two, or three years hence — I should cheerfully advise a Convention of the people, to be assembled in pursuance of the Constitution, to consider and decide whether any and what amendments of the organic national law ought to be made.

Republican now — as I have heretofore been a member of other parties existing in my day — I nevertheless hold and cherish, as I have always done, the principle that this Government exists in its present form only by the consent of the governed, and that it is as necessary as it is wise, to resort to the people for revisions of the organic law when the troubles and dangers of the State certainly transcend the powers delegated by it to the public authorities. Nor ought the suggestion to excite surprise. Government in any form is a machine; this is the most complex one that the mind of man has ever invented, or the hand of man has ever framed. Perfect as it is, it ought to be expected that it will, at least as often as once in a century, require some modification to adapt it to the changes of society and alterations of empire.

Fourthly, I hold myself ready now, as always heretofore, to vote for any properly guarded laws which shall be deemed necessary to prevent mutual invasions of States by citizens of other States, and punish those who shall aid and abet them.

Fifthly, Notwithstanding the arguments of the gallant Senator from Oregon, (Gen. Lane,) I remain of the opinion that physical bonds, such as high ways, railroads, rivers and canals, are vastly more powerful for holding civil communities together than any mere covenants, though written on parchment or engraved upon iron. I remain, therefore, constant to my purpose to secure, if possible, the construction of two Pacific railways, one of which shall connect the ports around the mouth of the Mississippi, and the other the towns on the Missouri and the lakes, with the harbors on our Western coast.

If, on the expression of these views, I have not proposed what is desired or expected by many others, they will do me the justice to believe that I am as far from having suggested what in many respects would have been in harmony with cherished convictions of my own. I learned early from Jefferson, that in political affairs we cannot always do what seems to us absolutely best. Those with whom we must necessarily act, entertaining different views, have the power and right of carrying them into practice. We must be content to lead when we can, and to follow when we cannot lead; and if we cannot at any time do for our country all the good that we would wish, we must be satisfied with doing for her all the good that we can.

Having submitted my own opinions on this great crisis, it remains only to say that I shall cheerfully lend to the government my best support in whatever prudent yet energetic efforts it shall make to preserve the Union, advising, only, that it practice as far as possible, the utmost moderation, forbearance and conciliation.

And, now, Mr. President, what are the auspices of the country? I know that we are in the midst of alarms, and somewhat exposed to accidents unavoidable in seasons of tempestuous passions. We already have disorder, and violence has begun. I know not to what extent it may go. Still my faith in the Constitution and in the Union abides, because my faith in the wisdom and virtue of the American people remains unshaken. Coolness, calmness, and resolution, are elements of their character. They have been temporarily displaced; but they are reappearing.

Soon enough, I trust, for safety, it will be seen that sedition and violence are only local and temporary, and that loyalty and affection to the Union are the natural sentiments of the whole country. Whatever dangers there shall be, there will be the determination to meet them; whatever sacrifices, private or public, shall be needful for the Union, they will be made. I feel sure that the hour has not come for this great nation to fall. This people, which has been studying to become wiser and better as it has grown older, is not perverse or wicked enough to deserve so dreadful and severe a punishment as dissolution.

This Union has not yet accomplished what good or mankind was manifestly designed by Him who appoints the seasons and prescribes the duties of States and empires. No, sir; if it were cast down by factions to-day, it would rise again and reappear in all its majestic proportions to morrow. It is the only government that can stand here. Woe! Woe! to the man that madly lifts his hand against it. It shall continue and endure; and men, in after times, shall declare that this generation, which saved the Union from such sudden and unlooked for dangers, surpassed in magnanimity even that one which laid its foundations in the eternal principles of liberty, justice and humanity.

Reported in the Richmond Daily Dispatch, Jan. 14, 1861.

Seward is working hard here to cast himself as a moderate; he acknowledges that states with slavery have a right to it, defends the fugitive slave law, and generally acceding to most of the stuff in the Crittenden Compromise. Just not the extension of slavery into the territories. I don’t think this did him any good — it appears that to most Southerners he was the symbol of radical “Black Republicanism”.

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