William Seward: Just enough virtue (part 2)

November 9, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

William Seward might have become president of the United States except for two words he uttered in a speech in 1858. The words were “irrepressible conflict.”

The words don’t sound like much to us today, but in that turbulent decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, they ignited flames that would do great damage to Seward’s presidential ambitions.

Seward had spent that decade navigating through the shifting tides of the issue of slavery and its expansion or containment. As a senator from New York, he had watched the disintegration of his Whig party over the issue and the rise of the Free-Soilers and eventually the formation of the Republican Party. He and his friend and political mentor Thurlow Weed, the publisher of the Albany Evening Journal, had played key roles in the consolidation of the party into a political force strong enough to put forth a candidate for president in 1856 (John C. Fremont).

While the Republicans did not win the presidency in 1856, it was obvious that public opinion in the North was flowing in their direction.

Not so much in the South. Southerners had developed an ultra-sensitivity to anything anyone said that threatened their cherished slavery system. The words that Seward spoke, “irrepressible conflict,” landed on their ears as an acknowledgment that Northerners, particularly Republicans, had decided that they would attempt to get rid of slavery by force.

Part of this sensitivity was political. That is, no Southern politician in that political environment could lose by raising the specter of a Northern invasion of the South. But the words also tapped into a deep-seated fear among Southerners.

Seward was especially vulnerable to Southern hatred. He had made no secret of his opposition to slavery during his political career, and his position in 1858 as a chief spokesman of the Republican Party — the “Black Republicans,” as Southerners referred to them — caused Southerners to dissect and interpret every word that he said.

Had Southerners been generally aware of what was going on inside the Seward house in Auburn, New York, they would have raised even louder alarms. Seward’s wife, Frances, was a fully committed abolitionist, and while he was in Washington, D.C., she had made the house a stop on the Underground Railroad that assisted runaway slaves to their freedom.

But why did Seward’s words hurt his chances at the Republican presidential nomination in 1860s?

Many Republicans still believed that their party could make some in-roads into the South if they chose their words carefully and never implied that the North would try to force a system onto the South that it did not want. Many of them began to look around for another candidate who would not be such a lightning rod for the opposition. A few believed they found one in an obscure Illinois attorney named Abraham Lincoln.

William Seward ultimately did not achieve his dream of becoming president. Instead, he became Lincoln’s Secretary of State and as such rendered enormous service to the Republic and to the goal of the preservation of the Union. Few presidents have achieved more than Seward did in the years 1861-1865.

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