On the Irrepressible Conflict

“No aristocracy of any kind, much less an aristocracy of slaveholders, shall ever make the laws of the land in which I shall be content to live.”

Summary Overview

This document is an excerpt from a speech the Republican Senator William H. Seward delivered in Rochester, New York, on October 25, 1858. He portrayed the United States as a nation divided between regions based on free and slave systems of labor, regions he predicted would inevitably clash. In what quickly became known as his “On the Irrepressible Conflict” speech, Seward voiced the fears of Northern Republicans who were wary of the expansion of the Southern Slave Power, articulated the free-labor worldview that had developed in the North by the 1850s, and even posed the opening argument in the later debate among historians over the inevitability of the American Civil War.

Defining Moment

By the 1850s, Seward was more radical on the issue of slavery than most Northerners, who typically only wanted to ban slavery in the territories. For instance, during the debate over the Compromise of 1850, which extended the line of the 1820 Missouri Compromise between slave and free territories all the way to California, Seward delivered an inflammatory speech on the floor of the Senate. He declared that the Constitution opposed slavery, believed Congress should ban slavery in the territories, and portrayed slavery as a threat to democracy. One of his statements, delivered in his March 11, 1850, speech “Freedom in the New Territories,” that “there is a higher law than the Constitution,” especially triggered Southern animosity since, as historian Sean Wilentz notes, a Northerner seemed to be invoking extralegal religious sentiment as justification for a potential end to slavery. Moving through the National Republican, Anti-Masonic, Whig, and Republican parties throughout the antebellum period, Seward consistently sought to combat immorality and aristocracy in politics. Furthermore, in his eyes, the system of slavery corrupted American politics, specifically through the Democratic Party. When deep fissures over the opening of further territories to the expansion of slavery under the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act destroyed the Whig Party, Seward enthusiastically helped the nascent Republican Party establish itself in New York in late 1855. Long before his most famous speech, “On the Irrepressible Conflict,” Seward’s readiness to combat slavery formed from his involvement in the Protestant religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, the subsequent Protestant reform societies, and the political parties that favored stronger government intervention in economic and social matters. As an indication of his consistent and in fact deepening antislavery sentiments, when he learned of the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which in part declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional and opened up the entire West to slavery, Seward delivered a blistering harangue against the decision in the Senate.

Thus, by 1858, Northerners loved Seward for his consistent antislavery stance and his remarkably articulate and passionate speeches. Unsurprisingly, Southerners despised him. Therefore, after winning a new six-year term in the Senate in 1854, he went on the campaign trail in the North in 1858 to bolster support for his fellow Republican candidates. At the front of a packed Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, on October 25, 1858, Seward delivered what would become his most famous speech against what Republicans by then termed the “Slave Power.” As usual, many Northern Republicans embraced the speech and Democrats in both the North and South lambasted Seward as a warmonger, an agitator who would cause slaves to rise in rebellion, and a threat to slavery itself. For instance, the New York Herald-Tribune labeled him an “arch agitator” and said he was one of the “more dangerous” abolitionists. Antislavery abolitionists praised the speech, but moderate papers such as the New York Times suggested his language was dangerous. Southerners viewed Seward’s speech as further evidence that the central objective of the new Republican Party was the elimination of slavery. While Seward had not explicitly mentioned ending slavery where it existed, his portrayal of an inevitable conflict suggested that soon slavery itself would become the target of the Republican Party. In the minds of Southerners, the Republicans would only need to take a small step from objecting to the expansion of slavery into the territories, which they openly did in the late 1850s, to seeking to destroy slavery everywhere in the United States. Indeed, the primary trigger to South Carolinian, and broadly Southern, secession was that in 1860, Republican leader Abraham Lincoln won the presidency without a single Southern electoral vote. With the slaveholding states now a permanent minority in the United States, Southerners believed they could no longer protect themselves from a North dominated by the Republican Party, led by men such as Seward, that would likely, Southerners believed, target their peculiar institution for elimination.

Author Biography

After Abraham Lincoln, William Seward was one of the most important Northern Republicans of the Civil War era. Seward was born in 1801 into a wealthy family in rural Orange County, New York. Although his family initially owned a few slaves, he came to dislike slavery, and the family’s slaves gained their freedom as New York slowly ended the institution during the early 1800s. After graduating from Union College in Schenectady, he became a lawyer and settled in Auburn, New York, where he joined a law practice and married Frances Miller, the daughter of the senior partner in his firm.

Seward soon became involved in the rough-and-tumble politics of antebellum New York, leaving the short-lived National Republican Party for the Anti-Masonic Party when the latter formed in the late 1820s. Despite his wealthy upbringing and comfortable income, Seward was attracted to any movement he deemed moral at its core, as the Anti-Masons seemed to be in their determination to combat what they saw as the corrupt influence of Freemasons in politics and government. By the mid-1830s, however, Seward moved to the Whig Party because, as Wilentz writes, he “envisaged government as a lever for commercial improvement and as a weapon to combat social ills, from crime in the cities to inadequate schooling in the countryside” (482–83). Thus, Seward’s belief in the utility of government both to expand economic opportunity and to reform society placed him firmly on an ideological trajectory that during the antebellum period would find him in the National Republican, Anti-Mason, Whig, and then Republican parties. These political movements generally believed government should aid in the construction of infrastructure such as canals, railroads, and national roads and should also provide funds and legislation to aid the social-reform movements emerging from the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century. The latter included the temperance movement, poor relief, and abolitionism, among others.

Running as a Whig, Seward was elected governor of New York in 1838 and reelected two years later, but he faced opposition from both the Democratic Party and conservatives in his own party who did not like his reform agenda. Next, Seward was elected to the US Senate in the tumultuous year of 1849 when the nation was deciding how to treat the vast new territory acquired from Mexico. He would remain in Congress first as a Whig and then a Republican, until Lincoln appointed him secretary of state in early 1861. In that position, he presided over the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. He also constructed a grand vision for the expansion of American power into the Pacific and the Caribbean that would not be realized until the very end of the nineteenth century. He retired in 1869 and died on October 10, 1872.

Document Analysis

To Seward, two completely divergent societies had come into being in the United States. Opposite sources of labor had created “two radically different political systems,” one free and the other slave. This was quite a drastic portrayal of the increasingly sharp and violent sectional divide that was plaguing the United States. Most American leaders in the 1850s, both in the North and the South, still emphasized the ideals Americans had in common, including belief in the Constitution, liberty, private property, individual rights, and the voting franchise, for white men at least. Of course, some abolitionists argued the Constitution was in fact an evil, proslavery document, but such voices constituted a minority of Northerners even up to the advent of the Civil War. Seward, however, viewed the situation differently. He portrayed the North and the South as two different societies based on two different economic systems, constituted by two different systems of labor, and that would soon clash. His arguments echoed the warnings of other Republicans that the expansion of the Slave Power threatened Northern white rights, but his clear, hard-hitting style and clever phrasing helped his words stick in the minds of his audience. In addition, the inevitability of a coming conflict seemed alarmingly new to both Northerners and Southerners.

Threats to Northern White Rights

While setting up the initial framework for his argument, Seward described Southern slavery in an interesting way. He noted its racial character but also claimed that “this is only accidental.” He argued that the very nature of the slave system required workers, of any race, to be enslaved for the good of society and then hinted this meant that whites could soon find themselves under the yoke of slavery as well. Claiming the white man “cannot, as yet, be reduced to bondage,” indicated his fear that the slave-owning aristocracy of the South might one day place whites in chains to serve their own purposes. Seward saw slavery as fundamentally unconcerned with race. He believed the South had only adopted African slaves because of the particular nature of American history. Therefore, Seward was subtly warning his white audience that the Slave Power and the system of slavery in the South could one day threaten their rights. By claiming this threat to white rights, Seward was contributing to the already well-established Republican argument that the Slave Power threatened the rights of Northern white men. Expansion of slavery into the territories, Republicans argued, would keep whites from the opportunity and freedom they sought. Events such as the gag rule in Congress during the late 1830s and early 1840s, when speaking of slavery was officially prohibited, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required Northerners to help Southern slave catchers or face fines or imprisonment, seemed to threaten Northern whites’ freedom, claimed Republicans throughout the 1850s. Thus, Seward’s speech tapped into the ongoing Republican argument that slavery was not merely an issue contained in the South. The system threatened to expand nationally and trample white rights.

In addition to warning of the threats to white freedom, Seward argued that slavery undermined the economic opportunity of individual whites and slowed the economic growth of the nation as a whole. Seward pointed out that to maintain the system of slavery, whites had “to guard against mutiny and insurrection, and thus [slavery] wastes energies which otherwise might be employed in national development and aggrandizement.” The slave system not only threatened to trample on the rights of whites but also made whites into guardsmen and robbed the entire nation of their potential economic productivity. For Seward, the free-labor system he and the Republican Party advocated was far superior. In such a system, individual farmers and workers gained direct profit from their hard work and simultaneously contributed to national wealth and development. In such a free-labor system, human capacities were unleashed for good purposes and all men, in theory, could receive equal education and be equal in politics. On the contrary, in the slave system, according to Seward, “the masters, directly or indirectly, secure all political power, and constitute a ruling aristocracy.” Seward was not completely correct, because while large landowners often held political office, most white men in the South from any class did have the franchise and therefore could vote for their desired candidate. Returning the Southern elite to office repeatedly indicated that the rest of the Southern white male population often agreed with the goals, arguments, and views of their slaveholding neighbors. For instance, the Southern states would declare secession in 1860 and 1861 through special conventions to which delegates were democratically elected. In some places in the South, property-holding requirements for voting remained in place, and more commonly, owning land was required to hold office; however, compared to the rest of the world in the mid-nineteenth century, the South was a relatively democratic political system, for white men at least. Thus, Seward’s attempt to portray a conflict between a democracy and an aristocracy was not entirely accurate, although it played well to Northern audiences. In addition, while the South was democratic in nature, this simply meant the entire white population, even nonslaveholders, supported the institution of slavery.

The Coming Collision

For Seward, the conflict between two fundamentally divergent social systems had reached a decision point. Because of a growing populace, the economic expansion the United States had experienced in the previous decades, and the internal improvements that Whigs and then Republicans championed (such as national roads, railroads, and canals), “these antagonistic systems are continually coming into closer contact, and collision results.” Although slavery and free labor had existed separately for a while, the two systems were interacting more closely. For Seward, the remarkable growth the United States had experienced during the first half of the nineteenth century in terms of the development of infrastructure, the expansion and integration of regional and national markets, and new achievements in travel and communications, including the train and the telegraph, was creating a crisis situation in which the slave and free-labor societies were beginning to clash and to maneuver for expansion into the newly acquired territories from Mexico and to gain control, at each other’s expense, of states that already existed. The market, communications, and transportation revolutions of the antebellum period, identified and given causal strength by various historians, seemed to Seward to be forcing the American population to make a decision about what type of society the United States would be in the future.

Seward then enlisted the original founders of the United States in support of his arguments. Seward seemed to believe that the Constitution was antislavery in nature. Thus, the Founding Fathers had intended that slavery would wither away and die. He even noted that the deep divisions over slavery Americans witnessed during the 1850s were actually a logical extension of the “conflict which the fathers themselves not only thus regarded with favor, but which they may be said to have instituted.” Did Seward mean the first generation of American statesmen had intended to create such deep sectional strife? On the contrary, Seward believed the Founding Fathers had assumed that by constructing a Constitution and a political system based on equality, slavery would die a natural death. Unfortunately, said Seward, “thus far the course of that contest has not been according to their humane anticipations and wishes.” Without noting the actual crop, cotton, that produced the deepening hold of slavery in the South during the antebellum decades, Seward spoke of the “commercial changes” that had created the cotton empire in the southern United States. Indeed, few Americans in the late eighteenth century had predicted the switch from tobacco to cotton in the South that subsequently produced an agricultural system centered on one of the most profitable raw materials in the world at the time. Seward’s point, however, was that the Founding Fathers’ intention for slavery was for it to end slowly and quietly through the extension of the ideals of freedom and free labor. Economic changes, however, had helped prevent such an extinction of the peculiar institution.

The Threatened Expansion of Slavery

Seward pointed out that those who benefited from the slave system also actively protected it. Seward first mentioned “the rapid and effective political successes which they have already obtained,” which invoked a number of Northern resentments against the South that stemmed from the nation’s antebellum political history. The three-fifths clause of the Constitution, whereby a slave counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of state representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, had long given the Southern states, especially Virginia, a political advantage in national elections. For instance, between 1788 and 1828, only one non-Virginian held the presidency: John Adams of Massachusetts, from 1796 to 1800. Such Southern control of the White House, and often of Congress, had created animosity among Northerners because of the way the South used the people they oppressed to further their own political control.

Seward then voiced the increasing fear held by Republicans and Northerners throughout the 1850s that the Slave Power would extend its sway into all the western territories. In fact, blocking the extension of slavery into the territories was the central organizing principle of the Republican Party in the 1850s. While the Compromise of 1850 had extended westward the line between slave and free states of the original Missouri Compromise of 1820, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act had opened up vast areas in the northern plains and northern Rockies to the possibility of slavery. Seward also condemned “the principle of the Dred Scott case.” In 1857, the Supreme Court had not only declared the former slave Dred Scott to not be a person but also had also ruled that the original Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, thus threatening to, as Seward put it, “carry slavery into all the territories of the United States now existing and hereafter to be organized.” Throughout the 1850s, Northerners came to believe that the Slave Power of the South intended to expand slavery into the entire area of the old Louisiana Purchase and the newly acquired regions from Mexico. Halting such expansion was a core goal of the Republican Party, and Seward warned his constituents that dire consequences would result if they were unsuccessful in that objective.

Seward went on to warn that the slaveholders would reopen the international slave trade and abuse the power of the federal and state courts to allow slavery wherever they wanted. He even claimed that one day “when the free States shall be sufficiently demoralized to tolerate these designs, they reasonably conclude that slavery will be accepted by those States themselves.” Thus, Seward went even farther than most Republican leaders and tried to convince his listeners that even their very freedom in their own home states was at stake in blocking the Democrats and the Slave Power. Seward then passionately declared that he would never live in a place controlled by an “aristocracy of any kind, much less an aristocracy of slaveholders” and claimed he would travel the world in search of such a free place. He was hinting that there actually was no such place in the world at the time other than the United States and was thus portraying the liberty found in the United States, at least in the North, according to him, as an experiment of historical importance for humanity. Indeed, in the mid-nineteenth century, few places in the world valued individual and property rights as highly as the United States, and most Americans, while they continued to be wary of direct involvement in the affairs of nations across the oceans, wanted the world to see the country as a beacon of liberty and freedom. Seward was suggesting that slavery undermined the historical importance of the United States.

Republicans Must Resist

Much of what Seward said during his speech seemed alarmist. He had accused the slaveholders of subverting the Constitution, of wanting to reopen the Atlantic slave trade, of oppressing their fellow white citizens, and of threatening to extend slavery even into the free states. When he addressed the charge that “these fears are extravagant and chimerical,” he openly admitted “they are so.” He did not hide the fact he was trying to scare his audience, but he was doing so, he claimed, “because the designs of the slaveholders must and can be defeated.” In order to combat such a powerful enemy, Seward believed, he had to warn of the potentially dire consequences that could result from further electoral victories by the Democrats. He claimed “inactivity” and “non-resistance” were not options, since such courses of action would only aid in the Slave Power’s oppression of Northern whites. The solution for Seward was Republican electoral victory. He mentioned that many Democratic officeholders and the population who supported the Democrats were not at fault, although this seemed to contradict much of what he had already said in his speech. He claimed the elite slaveholders had hijacked the Democratic Party for their own evil designs. He argued the Democrats were a “sectional and local party” and needed to be confined to the South and not permitted to expand elsewhere. If slavery expanded into the western territories, new slave states would be added to the nation, which would augment the power of the slave states in Congress. To Seward, the Democrats had “renounced the principle” of “equal and exact justice to all men” that had been the original central idea of the party. According to Seward, the Republicans should carry the banner of “the idea of equality—the equality of all men before human tribunals and human laws, as they are all equal before the divine tribunal and divine laws.” Seward declared this idea a “revolution” and claimed the Republicans would emerge victorious because “revolutions never go backward.” The above excerpt ended with heated words against the Democrats. Seward believed the clash between the slave states and free states, between the Republicans and Democrats, indeed between freedom and equality on one hand and aristocracy and oppression on the other, was now an inevitable “irrepressible conflict.”

Essential Themes

One of the central debates in the study of the Civil War focuses on whether or not the United States could have avoided such a bloody showdown. Seward issued the opening salvo in that debate even before the Civil War occurred. Historian Kenneth M. Stampp, in The Imperiled Union (1980), has noted, “After the Civil War Seward’s concept of an irrepressible conflict involving issues of fundamental importance became, in various forms, the predominant view among historians of the sectional crisis” (193). While some historians and politicians argued the tragedy could have been averted, many more adopted Seward’s view that, because of the central moral issues involved in slavery, the war had been unavoidable. While modern historians hold mixed views on the inevitability of the war, Seward’s conception of the sectional struggle cast a long shadow over the work of historians into the early part of the twentieth century. Although Stampp, in And the War Came (1964), notes that Seward “himself vigorously denied the inevitability of the war when the final crisis came” (2–3), his 1858 speech has remained a classic statement of the position that the Civil War would one day arrive, and was always going to happen, as long as slavery remained in the United States.

Thus, Seward’s speech not only contributed to Republican electoral victories in 1858 but also helped frame one of the debates about the coming of the Civil War. In addition, the excerpt above provides a window into the minds of many Northern Republicans during the 1850s, as they feared the expansion of the Slave Power into the territories and worried what the expansion of slavery meant for Northern white rights. While Seward was a bit more radical than the average Northerner, he nevertheless addressed many of their concerns when he rose to speak in Rochester in October 1858. Therefore, his speech was either widely praised or condemned in his contemporary context because he clearly spelled out the Northern Republican worldview. His speech remains an important part of the discussion of the onset of the Civil War, because of his clear stance on the “irrepressible” and inevitable nature of a coming conflict between economic, social, and political systems based on either slave labor or free labor. Thus, he was a part of the events surrounding the Civil War, and his views and speech have contributed to the ongoing discussion of those events up to the present.


  • Bancroft, Frederic. The Life of William Henry Seward. Vol. 1. New York: Harper, 1900. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon, 2005. Print.
  • Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  • Stampp, Kenneth M. And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860–61. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1964. Print.
  • —. The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 1980. Print.
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.

Additional Reading

  • Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.
  • Rozwenc, Edwin C. The Causes of the American Civil War. 2nd ed. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1972. Print.
  • Sellers, Charles S. The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.
  • Stampp, Kenneth M., ed. The Causes of the Civil War. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1965. Print.