Are We the People in an irreconcilable struggle? The kind where the political and cultural tectonics are stuck and there’s no room for compromise between those who want to live peacefully in liberty and the aggressive ones who are determined to enslave. Where the issue – duly clarified – comes down to a fight between liberty and tyranny, with no way out.
It’s not the first time in our history it’s happened – and it always seems to come down to liberty and tyranny. Take the Civil War, for instance.
On October 25, 1858, Sen. William Henry Seward of New York delivered a speech in Rochester called, “On the Irrepressible Conflict”. Seward, you will recall, was a former Whig who had joined the new Republican Party and was widely considered to be a shoo-in for the party nomination for president in 1860. He lost out to Lincoln at the Chicago convention and became one of Lincoln’s “team of rivals”, serving as Secretary of State. Although he initially tried to assume a role as ‘premier’ over Lincoln, Lincoln bested him politically and thereafter the two became exceptionally close friends and colleagues.
But back to the speech. While Seward had a reputation as a radical, the rep was really based on two speeches: his “higher law than the Constitution” speech in 1850 and “irrepressible conflict” in 1858. Amanda Foreman figures he was just trying to position himself as the more reasonable version of Charles Sumner, but in Rochester that fall, he let loose.
Seward delivered a thorough philippic against the slave power that had hijacked the Democrat party and ended the speech with this peroration, noting that a ‘revolution’ had already begun:
I know, and you know, that a revolution has begun. I know, and all the world knows, that revolutions never go backward. Twenty, senators and a hundred representatives proclaim boldly in Congress to-day sentiments and opinions and principles of freedom which hardly so many men, even in this free State, dared to utter in their own homes twenty years ago. While the government of the United States, under the conduct of the Democratic party, has been all that time surrendering one plain and castle after another to slavery, the people of the United States have been no less steadily and perseveringly gathering together the forces with which to recover back again all the fields and all the castles which have been lost, and to confound and overthrow, by one decisive blow, the betrayers of the constitution and freedom forever.
Although Seward hadn’t really said anything different than Lincoln in his “House Divided” speech, the response – especially in the South – was immediate, negative and vociferous. Seward and the Republicans were ridiculed and Seward decamped to England, hoping the furor would die down.
But when he came back, Southerners blamed Seward’s rhetoric for John Brown’s raid. And the tensions escalated to the 1860 election – and secession.
Today we don’t have sectional struggle but liberty and tyranny are still eternally at issue. Some of us want to live free and others want to enslave. One group of men enslaving another is not a peaceful process.
Food for thought.