William Henry Seward Declares War

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

What would happen to Kansas? Would it go free, as Stephen Douglas predicted? Would it go slave, as the Missouri slaveholders just over the river hoped? Douglas imagined that climate and geography would solve this problem and keep it free. He might have even believed it, as slavery qua slavery never meant much to him and thus he never had much occasion to think in detail about it. But William Seward, who cared quite a bit more about slavery, allowed that Kansas might go slave but expected the same thing to happen with Nebraska. I mention the two men on the way to returning to Kansas for the notorious and violent festivities.

Back at the end of May, 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act came back before the Senate because the House had stripped from it an amendment banning immigrants from the land. The Senate could live with that and the act passed again but returning it to the floor occasioned another round of speeches where both sides fixed their eyes on the future of that now troublesome land adjacent to Missouri. Seward took the occasion to remark on what the Senate did:

We are on the even of the consummation of a great national transaction -a transaction which will close a cycle in the history of our country- and it is impossible not to desire to pause a moment and survey the scene around us and the prospect before us.

Seward saw that

what has occurred here and in the country during this contest, has compelled a conviction that slavery will gain something, and freedom will endure a severe, though I hope not an irretrievable loss.


this contest involves a moral question. The slave States so present it. They maintain that African slavery is not erroneous, not unjust, not inconsistent with the advancing cause of human nature. Since they so regard it, I do not expect to see statesmen representing those States indifferent about a vindication of this system by the Congress of the United States. On the other hand, we of the free States regard slavery as erroneous, unjust, oppressive, and therefore absolutely inconsistent with the principles of the American Constitution and Government. Who will expect us to be indifferent to the decisions of the American people and of mankind on such an issue?

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Though he claimed otherwise, Seward clearly saw himself as a spokesman for the North when he issued his challenge. If popular sovereignty would decide the fate of Kansas, and thus the nation, then

Come on, then, gentlemen of the slave States. Since there is no escaping your challenge, I accept it on behalf of the cause of freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give victory to the side which is stronger in numbers as it is in right.

If freedom must fight for Kansas, fight it would. If Douglas opened the door to a brawl over the future of the Great Plains, and thus the nation as a whole, then the burgeoning antislavery movement would walk through and fight it out. Replacing the Missouri Compromise’s settled line with an open-ended future for slavery invited it. The North would come for the fight.

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