William H. Seward
Freedom in the New Territories
(Appeal to a "Higher Law")
March 11, 1850
William Henry Seward's so-called "Higher Law" speech remains one of the most significant "maiden" speeches in the history of the Senate. Not only was it his first address to the Senate, it was also one of his two most influential orations during a twelve-year legislative career; it immediately established Seward as a major national antislavery leader.
Seward rose to political prominence in New York state in the I830's, serving in the state Senate early in the decade and as governor from 1838 to 1842. Characterized as generous, spirited, convivial, vigorously partisan, and impulsive, Seward was attracted to the Whig party from its origins in the early 1830's and advocated internal improvements, government spending to stimulate the economy, public education, and compensated voluntary emancipation of slaves. In 1848 a split in the state Democratic party and the popularity of his antislavery views enabled him to win a seat in the United States Senate. Seward was reelected in 1855 and served until March 1861 when President Abraham Lincoln appointed him secretary of state. He performed the duties of that key office with great effectiveness until the conclusion of the Andrew Johnson administration in 1869.
The dominating issue of whether to permit extension of slavery into the newly acquired western territories threatened to engulf the Senate when Congress convened in December 1849. Various legislative compromise packages, such as those of President Zachary Taylor and Whig Senator Henry Clay, competed for members' attention. Henry Clay led off the debate on February 5 and 6, 1850, followed in early March by John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster. Four days after Webster's celebrated "Constitution and the Union" address, Seward rose on the Senate floor to deliver a speech that he called "Freedom in the New Territories." The freshman senator spent several intense weeks on the preparation of his statement, realizing that it could be taken as the North's answer to Calhoun.
Southern extremists argued that the Constitution alone provided sufficient authority for the extension of slavery to the territories; the Senate need not waste its time debating new laws on the subject. 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.
Seward's lack of natural oratorical talent was apparent to those who witnessed the delivery of his "Higher Law" speech. Biographer Glyndon Van Deusen notes that he had "no well-calculated gestures, his voice was husky, and he often gave the impression of communing with himself rather than addressing an audience." On March 11 he began by reading his remarks in a quiet monotone, absent-mindedly twirling his eyeglasses in his left hand while mechanically gesturing with the other. Thomas Hart Benton read a book; Webster attended to other business; Clay appeared restless. Within twenty minutes, the previously packed galleries had emptied.
The speech had a greater impact outside Congress. Seward's clear and compelling arguments, supported by such authorities as Edmund Burke, Montesquieu, and Machiavelli, made this an oration to be taken very seriously. Those favoring compromise proposals rushed to attack Seward as a reckless enemy of the Constitution, willing to subvert it for some nebulous "higher law" in the interest of political expediency. Supporters among Seward's northern Whig allies rallied to his defense. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, observed that rather than subverting the Constitution, the "higher law" doctrine reenforced the charter with the authority of divine sanction. Greeley predicted that "Seward's speech will live longer, be read with a more hearty admiration, and exert a more potential and pervading influence on the national mind and character than any other speech of the session." Within three weeks, more than 100,000 pamphlet copies were distributed, with roughly an equal number reprinted in newspapers throughout the country. The speech hastened the Whig party's division into proslavery and antislavery factions and alienated many of Seward's natural allies. A decade later, in 1860 and 1861, as southern states began to secede, Seward became more conciliatory in his attitude toward the South, seeking peaceful methods of resolving the conflict and avoiding war.
Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994.