Contra Calhoun and Compromise (Part One)

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

I do not plan to dissect William H. Seward’s Higher Law speech (full text) as I did Calhoun’s farewell, but it deserves some consideration. Seward wrote in direct response to Calhoun, and others, explaining his disagreements on the Constitution, slavery and the Clay Measures:

I would not rashly provoke the trial; but I will not suffer a fear, which I have not, to make me compromise one sentiment, one principle of truth or justice, to avert a danger that all experience teaches me is purely chimerical. Let, then, those who distrust the Union make compromises to save it. I shall not impeach their wisdom, as I certainly cannot their patriotism; but, indulging no such apprehensions myself, I shall vote for the admission of California directly, without conditions, without qualifications, and without compromise.

Radical stuff, especially for a confidant and adviser of the president who could veto the Clay Measures when they reached his desk. But Seward did not simply state his opposition to slavery and the compromise, he began with a direct attack of Calhoun’s theory of government.

On sectional balance:

The proposition of an established classification of states as slave states and free states, as insisted on by some, and into northern and southern, as maintained by others, seems to me purely imaginary, and of course the supposed equilibrium of those classes a mere conceit. This must be so, because, when the Constitution was adopted, twelve of the thirteen states were slave states, and so there was no equilibrium. And so as to the classification of states as northern states and southern states. It is the maintenance of slavery by law in a state, not parallels of latitude, that makes its a southern state; and the absence of this, that makes it a northern state.

Seward know that from more than studying history. New York voted to free all slaves born after July 4, 1799, but not until they reached the age of 25 (for women) or 28 (for men). Full abolition did not come until 1827, two months after his twenty-sixth birthday. Seward grew up in a slaveholding home.

But even if Calhoun had facts on his side:

But even if the states continue under the constitution as states, they nevertheless surrendered their equality as states, and submitted themselves to the sway of the numerical majority, with qualifications or checks; first, of the representation of three-fifths of slaves in the ratio of representation and taxation; and, secondly, of the equal representation of states in the Senate.

The slave states submitted willingly to a framework that could in time put them in the minority. They gained no Constitutional promise that slavery and freedom would always rest exactly balanced. Instead they got the Senate, the Three-Fifths compromise, and those alone. They signed on to the system then with open eyes but now, to preserve slavery, Calhoun invented additional provisions. Who could take seriously the South Carolinian’s stand on hallowed history when he got that history wrong?


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