Senator Seward Denies U.S. Constitution Protects Slavery
Debate in the U.S. Senate over the Compromise of 1850 grew heated, as pro-slavery and abolitionist forces clashed repeatedly. Some senators argued that the U.S. Constitution protected slavery. Massachusetts senator and famed orator Daniel Webster went further, insisting in a speech on March 7, 1850, that the Constitution protected the right of slave owners to hunt down, capture, and bring back into bondage any escaped slave—and that all Northerners had a legal obligation to assist Southerners in the capture.
New York senator and committed abolitionist William Henry Seward would have none of this. Four days after Webster’s speech had caused a sensation, Seward rose on the floor of the Senate on March 11 and gave a powerful rebuttal to Webster that has come to be known as the “Higher Law” speech. Seward believed slavery was an evil no moral person could condone. While he acknowledged slavery was legal, he denied that the Constitution protected the rights of slave owners, nor coerced others to aid slave catchers.
And besides, he argued, there was a “higher law” than even the Constitution that said slavery was a wrong that should be abolished. The Daily Atlas (Boston, Massachusetts) published Seward’s entire speech on the front page of its March 15, 1850, issue, including these passages:
“All this is just and sound. But assuming the same premises, to wit—that all men are equal by the law of nature and nations, the right of property in slaves falls to the ground; for one who is equal to another cannot be the owner or property of that other. But you answer that the Constitution recognizes property in slaves. It would be sufficient then to reply, that this constitutional recognition must be void, because it is repugnant to the law of nature and of nations. But I deny that the Constitution recognizes property in men. I submit, on the other hand, most respectfully, that the Constitution not merely does not affirm that principle, but on the contrary altogether excludes it. The Constitution does not expressly affirm anything on the subject. All that it contains is two incidental allusions to slaves. These are, first, in the provision establishing a ratio of representation and taxation; second, in the provision relating to fugitives from labor. In both cases the Constitution designedly mentions slaves not as slaves, much less as chattels, but as persons. That this recognition of them as persons was designed is historically known, and I think never denied.
“I deem it established then that the Constitution does not recognize property in men, but leaves that question as between the States to the law of nature and of nations. That law, as expounded by Vattel, is founded on the reason of things. When God had created the earth with its wonderful adaptations, he gave dominion over it to Man—absolute human dominion. The title thus bestowed would have been incomplete if the lord of all terrestrial things could himself have been the property of his fellow man. The right to have a slave implies the right in someone to make the slave. That right must be equal and mutual: and that would resolve society into a state of perpetual war.
“…The Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defence, to welfare and liberty. But there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part—no inconsiderable part—of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe. We are his stewards, and must so discharge our trust as to secure, in the highest attainable degree, their happiness.
“…Sir, there is no Christian nation that, free to choose as we are, would establish slavery.”
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