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Senator William Seward Warns of an Irrepressible Conflict, 1858
William Seward held multiple political offices — governor of New York (1839 – 1842): U.S. Senator (1849 – 1861) and the U.S. Secretary of State (1861 – 1869). He was a northerner whose career was based on the conviction that all men should be free. In 1858, he made a speech where he warned of an “Irrepressible Conflict.” Please read the following excerpt from Seward’s speech and write an essay – up to two pages long – that answers the questions that follow.
The free labor system educates all alike. and by opening all the fields of industrial employment…at once secures universal contentment, and brings into the highest possible activity all the physical, moral and social energies of the whole state. In states where the slave system prevails. the masters, directly or indirectly secure all political power and constitute a ruling aristocracy…
Hitherto, the two systems have existed in different states, but side by side within the American union. This has happened because the Union is a confederation of states. But in another aspect the United States constitute only one nation. Increase of population. which is filling the states out to their very borders. together with a new and extended network of railroads and other avenues, and an internal commerce which daily becomes more intimate. is rapidly bringing the states into a higher and more perfect social unity or consolidation. Thus, these antagonistic systems are continually coming into closer contact, and collision results….It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.

1. Your essay should include a thesis that answers the following question: Was Seward correct that the United States was heading toward an irrepressible conflict? (in other words, do you agree that it was impossible to avoid the Civil War?)
The body of your essay should address the following:
2. What historical events that were discussed in lecture (those that happened between 1846 and 1860 that led to the Civil War) could provide evidence for your thesis? 3. Why is Seward’s statement significant for understanding the relationship between slavery and westward expansion? 4. Please pose at least one discussion question about this source. What do you think is important to talk about with regard to Seward’s warning of an irrepressible conflict?
Thesis: Senator William Seward was correct that the United States was heading towards an irrepressible conflict, and the Civil War was inevitable due to the growing tensions between the free labor system and the slave system.

The period between 1846 and 1860 was marked by several events that led to the Civil War. The Mexican-American War, which resulted in the acquisition of new territories in the West, intensified the debate over the expansion of slavery. The Compromise of 1850 attempted to resolve this issue by admitting California as a free state and allowing popular sovereignty in other territories. However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise and led to violent clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in Kansas. The Dred Scott decision of 1857, which declared that African Americans could not be considered citizens and had no rights, further inflamed tensions between the North and the South. The election of Abraham Lincoln, who was opposed to the expansion of slavery, in 1860 was the final trigger that led to the secession of Southern states and the outbreak of the Civil War.

Seward’s statement is significant for understanding the relationship between slavery and westward expansion because it highlights the conflict between the free labor system and the slave system. The expansion of the United States and the acquisition of new territories in the West brought the issue of slavery to the forefront of national politics. The North and the South had different economic systems, and the question of whether slavery would be allowed in new territories was a major point of contention. Seward’s warning of an irrepressible conflict acknowledged that these opposing systems could not coexist indefinitely and that one would eventually prevail over the other.

One discussion question that arises from Seward’s warning of an irrepressible conflict is whether there were any other options besides war to resolve the issue of slavery. Seward seems to suggest that the conflict was unavoidable, but could other political solutions have been found? For example, could there have been a compromise that would have allowed slavery in some territories but not others? Could the federal government have taken a stronger stance against the expansion of slavery in the territories? These questions help us to consider the complexity of the issues that led to the Civil War and the different perspectives that people held at the time.

In conclusion, Senator William Seward’s warning of an irrepressible conflict was accurate, as events in the period between 1846 and 1860 demonstrated. The growing tensions between the free labor system and the slave system, exacerbated by westward expansion, made it impossible to avoid the Civil War. Seward’s statement is significant because it highlights the fundamental conflict between the North and the South over the issue of slavery and raises important questions about how this conflict could have been resolved without resorting to war.

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