Thursday, September 8, 2016

Admission without Compromise: William H. Seward Stands against Slavery

 Seal of California
Courtesy of Department of Education, Sacramento, California

Tomorrow we celebrate the 166th anniversary of California’s admission to the Union as the 31st state. California was admitted at a time of controversy—when territories and states were either for or against slavery. To many, its admission came with a price—with passage of the Compromise of 1850, a package of legislative bills that designated California a free state while also mollifying an increasingly rebellious South.

Map of Free, Slave, and “Open to Slavery” States and Territories, c. 1856
Courtesy of Library of Congress

In the collections held by CHS is an original copy of the passionate argument made against the Compromise by then-New York Senator William H. Seward. Often called the “Higher Law” speech, it was Seward’s first speech to the U.S. Senate. Senator Robert Byrd has describe it as one of the most “significant ‘maiden’ speeches in the history of the Senate,” and it established Seward as a leading opponent of slavery.

Speech of the Hon. W. H. Seward on the Admission of California,
and the Subject of Slavery, 1850
California Historical Society

William H. Seward (1801–1872)
Courtesy of Library of Congress
Seward, who had been the governor of New York and later became Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, was not an abolitionist, per se. But he was known for seeking legislation establishing rights for African Americans, and he and his wife, Frances, aided escaping slaves via the Underground Railroad at their home in Auburn, New York.

Charles T. Webber, The Underground Railroad, c.1893
Courtesy of Library of Congress

About one of the provisions of the Compromise of 1850, a Fugitive Slave Law, Seward wrote:  “We deem the principle of the law for the recapture of fugitives, as thus expounded, therefore, unjust, unconstitutional and immoral; and thus, while patriotism withholds its approbation, the consciences of our people condemn it.”

Although not an attention-grabber at the outset, within weeks of its writing 100,000 copies of the speech were printed and widely distributed. In it, Seward noted all of California’s advantages to the Union—its rapidly growing population, recent discovery of gold, abandonment of its military government and its new constitution. He strongly encouraged its admission as a state. He said:

“To-day, California is a State, more populous than the least and richer than several of the greatest of our thirty States. This same California, thus rich and populous, is here asking admission into the Union, and finds us debating the dissolution of the Union itself.”

Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law, 1850
Courtesy of Library of Congress

According to Robert Byrd, “Seward acknowledged that the Constitution’s framers had recognized the existence of slavery and protected it where it existed, but the new territory was governed by a ‘higher law than the Constitution’—a moral law established by “the Creator of the universe.” The New York senator, opposing all legislative compromise as ‘radically wrong and essentially vicious,’ demanded the unconditional admission of California as a free state. He warned the South that slavery was doomed and that secession from the Union would be futile.”

Trusting implicitly in the strength of the Union, however, Seward felt that slavery would “gradually give way, to the salutary instructions of economy, and to the ripening influences of humanity.”

Five Generations on Smith's Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, 1862 (printed later)
Courtesy of Library of Congress

“Let, then, those who distrust the Union make compromises to save it,” Seward wrote, “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.”

At the conclusion of his speech, Seward urged his fellow Senators to vote against compromise and to return the American ground to its pre-slavery state: “You found it free, and conquered it to extend a better and surer freedom over it. Whatever choice you have made for yourselves, let us have no partial freedom; let us all be free; let the reversion of your broad domain descend to us unencumbered, and free from the calamities and the sorrows of human bondage.”

Historic Stagville Plantation, Durham, North Carolina 2016
Courtesy of Alison Moore

In the end, the Compromise was enacted, California was admitted to the Union and civil war was forestalled for a decade more. At the same time, continued concessions to the Southern states consigned enslaved Americans to ten more years of government sanctioned hardship, torture, and injustice.

African American Family Portrait, 1870
Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Alison Moore
Strategic Initiatives Liaison


Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994.

The Compromise of 1850;

William H. Seward, Speech of William H. Seward on the Admission of California delivered in the Senate of the United States, March 11, 1850 (Washington: Buell & Blanchard, 1850)

William H. Seward
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