The Destiny of America, Speech at the Dedication of Capitol University

Why is Seward apparently so sanguine about resolving the slavery issue, clearing the way for future expansion? Given his argument, is there any logical geographic limit to expansion and the incorporation of new territories into the Union? How do his arguments about globalization based on a common humanity compare with those of today?
How does Seward’s vision of expansion differ, if at all, from those of John Quincy Adams and John O’Sullivan?

The Whig Party, which emerged during the 1830s in opposition to Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party, had a long-standing view that internal improvement, rather than external expansion, represented the proper path of republicanism. (Internal improvements included federally funded roads and canals, support for education, and a sound national banking system.) Most Whigs viewed America’s world-historic mission as one of democratic example rather than the conquest of foreign territories or the subversion of other regimes. Even those from southern states resisted expansion because it immediately raised the divisive question of slavery: Would the new territories be free or slave, and who would decide their status? For the Whigs, America’s mission had been badly tarnished by what they regarded as the war of aggression against Mexico.

Whigs did not reject entirely the long-term possibility of future territorial expansion if it came about through “masterly inactivity,” in the words of Senator William Seward (1801–1872) of New York, and if it reflected the organic development of the conditions of freedom that would make voluntary accessions to the Union genuinely possible. Older Whigs like Daniel Webster (1782–1852) had been primarily interested in commercial expansion, especially in the Pacific and Asia. Seward agreed, and argued that American-led globalization (to use a modern term) would extend democratic civilization across the continent of America, across the Pacific to Asia, and through Asia to Europe. But in doing so it would naturally create peaceful opportunities for additional territorial acquisition. In this address he sets out his vision for such expansion, which depended on the preservation of America’s private and public virtues. He spoke during the brief period of national optimism following the Compromise of 1850, which avoided civil war over slavery by resolving the status of the territories acquired from Mexico, and which gave men like Seward hope that the march of human progress would eventually render that problem moot.

—David Tucker

Source: William Seward, “The Destiny of America,” speech at the dedication of Capitol University, Columbus, Ohio, September 14, 1853 (Albany: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1853), 3–; available at

This scene is new to me, a stranger in Ohio, and it must be in a degree surprising even to yourselves. On these banks of the Scioto,[1] where the elk, the buffalo, and the hissing serpent haunted not long ago, I see now mills worked by mute mechanical laborers, and warehouses rich in the merchandise of many climes. Steeds of vapor on iron roads, and electrical messengers on pathways which divide the air attest the concentration of many novel forms of industry, while academic groves, spacious courts, and majestic domes exact the reverence always eminently due to the chosen seats of philosophy, religion, and government.

What a change, moreover, has, within the same short period, come over the whole country that we love so justly and so well. High arcs of latitude and longitude have shrunk into their chords, and American language, laws, religion, and authority, once confined to the Atlantic Coast, now prevail from the northern lakes to the southern gulf, and from the stormy eastern sea to the tranquil western ocean.

Nevertheless, it is not in man’s nature to be content with present attainment or enjoyment. You say to me, therefore, with excusable impatience, “Tell us, not what our country is, but what she shall be. Shall her greatness increase? Is she immortal?”

I will answer you according to my poor opinion. But I pray you first, most worthy friends, to define the greatness and immortality you so vehemently desire.

If the future which you seek consists in this: that these thirty-one states shall continue to exist for a period as long as human foresight is allowed to anticipate after-coming events; that they shall be all the while free; that they shall remain distinct and independent in domestic economy, and nevertheless be only one in commerce and foreign affairs; that there shall arise from among them and within their common domain even more than thirty-one other equal states alike free, independent, and united; that the borders of the federal republic, so peculiarly constituted, shall be extended so that it shall greet the sun when he touches the tropic, and when he sends his glancing rays toward the polar circle, and shall include even distant islands in either ocean; that our population, now counted by tens of millions, shall ultimately be reckoned by hundreds of millions; that our wealth shall increase a thousand fold, and our commercial connections shall be multiplied, and our political influence be enhanced in proportion with this wide development, and that mankind shall come to recognize in us a successor of the few great states which have alternately borne commanding sway in the world—if this, and only this, is desired, then I am free to say that if, as you will readily promise, our public and private virtues shall be preserved, nothing seems to me more certain than the attainment of this future, so surpassingly comprehensive and magnificent.

Indeed, such a future seems to be only a natural consequence of what has already been secured. Why, then, shall it not be attained? Is not the field as free for the expansion indicated as it was for that which has occurred? Are not the national resources immeasurably augmented and continually increasing? With telegraphs and railroads crossing the Detroit, the Niagara, the St. Johns, and the St. Lawrence Rivers, with steamers on the lakes of Nicaragua, and a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama, and with negotiations in progress for passages over Tehuantepec and Darien,[2] with a fleet in Hudson’s Bay and another at Bering’s Straits,[3] and with yet another exploring the La Plata,[4]and with an armada at the gates of Japan, with Mexico ready to divide on the question of annexation, and with the Sandwich Islands suing to us for our sovereignty,[5] it is quite clear to us that the motives to enlargement are even more active than they ever were heretofore, and that the public energies, instead of being relaxed, are gaining new vigor.

Is the nation to become suddenly weary, and so to waver and fall off from the pursuit of its high purposes? When did any vigorous nation ever become weary even of hazardous and exhausting martial conquests? Our conquests, on the contrary, are chiefly peaceful, and thus far have proved productive of new wealth and strength. Is a paralysis to fall upon the national brain? On the contrary, what political constitution has ever, throughout an equal period, exhibited greater elasticity and capacity for endurance?

Is the union, of the states to fail? Does its strength indeed grow less with the multiplication of its bonds? Or does its value diminish with the increase of the social and political interests which it defends and protects? Far otherwise. For all practical purposes bearing on the great question, the steam engine, the iron road, the electric telegraph, all of which are newer than the Union, and the metropolitan press, which is no less wonderful in its working than they, have already obliterated state boundaries and produced a physical and moral centralism more complete and perfect than monarchical ambition ever has forged or can forge. Do you reply, nevertheless, that the Union rests on the will of the several states, and that, no matter what prudence or reason may dictate, popular passion may become excited and rend it asunder? Then I rejoin, when did the American people ever give way to such impulses? They are, practically, impassive. You remind me that faction has existed, and that only recently it was bold and violent. I answer, that it was emboldened by popular timidity, and yet that even then it succumbed. Loyalty to the Union is not, in one or many states only, but in all the states, the strongest of all public passions. It is stronger, I doubt not, than the love of justice or even the love of equality, which have acquired a strength here never known among mankind before. A nation may well despise threats of sedition that has never known but one traitor[6] and this will be learned fully by those who shall hereafter attempt to arrest any great national movement by invoking from their grave the obsolete terrors of disunion.

But you apprehend foreign resistance. Well, where is our enemy? Whence shall he come? Will he arise on this continent? Canada has great resources, and begins to give signs of a national spirit. But Canada is not yet independent of Great Britain. And she will be quite too weak to be formidable to us when her emancipation shall have taken place. Moreover, her principles, interests, and sympathies assimilate to our own just in the degree that she verges toward separation from the parent country. Canada, although a province of Great Britain, is already half annexed to the United States. She will ultimately become a member of this confederacy, if we will consent, an ally, if we will not allow her to come nearer. At least, she never can be an adversary. Will Mexico, or Nicaragua, or Guatemala, or Ecuador, or Peru all at once become magically cured of the diseases inherited from aboriginal and Spanish parentage, and call up armies from under the earth, and navies from the depths of the sea, and thus become the Rome that shall resist and overthrow this overspreading Carthage of ours?[7] Or are we to receive our death at the hand of Brazil, doubly cursed as she is, above all other American states by her adoption of the two most absurd institutions remaining among men, European monarchy and American slavery? . . .

I do not seek to disguise from myself, nor from you, the existence of a growing passion for territorial aggrandizement, which often exhibits a gross disregard of justice and humanity. Nevertheless, I am not one of those who think that the temper of the nation has become already unsettled. Accidents favoring the indulgence of that passion have been met with a degree of self-denial that no other nation ever practiced. Aggrandizement has been incidental, while society has, nevertheless, bestowed its chief care on developments of natural resources, reforms of political constitutions, melioration of codes, the diffusion of knowledge, and the cultivation of virtue. . . .

Looking through the states which formed the confederacy in its beginning, we find, as general facts, that public order has been effectually maintained, public faith has been preserved, and public tranquility has been undisturbed, that justice has everywhere been regularly administered, and generally with impartiality. . . . Slavery, an institution that was at first quite universal, has now come to be acknowledged as a peculiar one, existing in only a portion of the states. And if, as I doubt not, you, like myself, are impatient of its continuance, then you will nevertheless find ground for much satisfaction in the fact that the foreign slave trade has been already, by unanimous consent of all the states, condemned and repudiated; that manumission has been effected in half of the states; and that, notwithstanding the great political influence which the institution has been able to organize, a healthful, constant, and growing public sentiment, nourished by the suggestions of sound economy and the instincts of justice and humanity, is leading the way with marked advance toward a complete and universal, though just and peaceful emancipation.[8]

It must be borne in mind, now, that all this moral and social improvement has been effected, not by the exercise of any authority over the people, but by the people themselves, acting with freedom from all except self-imposed restraints.

Of the new states, it is happily true that they have, almost without exception, voluntarily organized their governments according to the most perfect models furnished by the elder members of the confederacy,[9] and that they have uniformly maintained law, order, and faith, while they have, with wonderful forecast, been even more munificent than the elder states in laying broad foundations of liberty and virtue. On the whole, we think that we may claim that, under the republican system established here, the people have governed themselves safely and wisely, and have enjoyed a greater amount of prosperity and happiness than, under any form of constitution, was ever before or elsewhere vouchsafed to any portion of mankind.

Nevertheless, this review proves only that the measure of knowledge and virtue we possess is equal to the exigency of the republic under the circumstances in which it was organized. Those circumstances are passing away, and we are entering a career of wealth, power, and expansion. In that career, it is manifest that we shall need higher intellectual attainments and greater virtue as a nation than we have hitherto possessed, or else there is no adaptation of means to ends in the scheme of the Divine government. Nay, we shall need, in this new emergency, intellect and virtue surpassing those of the honored founders of the republic. . . .

And now I am sure that your hearts will sink into some depth of despondency when I ask whether American society now exhibits these higher but necessary aspirations? I think that everywhere there is confessed a decline from the bold and stern virtue which, at some previous time, was inculcated and practiced in executive councils and in representative chambers. I think that we all are conscious that recently we have met questions of momentous responsibility, in the organization of governments over our newly acquired territories, and appeals to our sympathy and aid for oppressed nations abroad, in a spirit of timidity and of compromise. I think that we all are conscious of having abandoned something of our high morality, in suffering important posts of public service, at home and abroad, to fall sometimes into the hands of mercenary men, destitute of true republican spirit, and of generous aspirations to promote the welfare of our country and of mankind:

Souls that no hope of future praise inflame,

Cold and insensible to glorious fame.[10]

I think that we are accustomed to excuse the national demoralization which has produced these results, on the ground that the practice of a sterner virtue might have disturbed the harmony of society, and endangered the safety of that fabric of union on which all our hopes depend. In this, we forget that a nation must always recede if it be not actually advancing; that, as hope is the element of progress, so fear, admitted into public counsels, betrays like treason.

But there is, nevertheless, no sufficient reason for the distrust of the national virtue. Moral forces are, like material forces, subject to conflict and reaction. It is only through successive reactions that knowledge and virtue advance. The great conservative and restorative forces of society still remain, and are acquiring, all the while even greater vigor than they have ever heretofore exercised. Whether I am right or not in this opinion, all will agree that an increase of popular intelligence and a renewal of public virtue are necessary. This is saying nothing new, for it is a maxim of political science that all nations must continually advance in knowledge and renew their constitutional virtues, or must perish. I am sure that we shall do this, because I am sure that our great capacity for advancing the welfare of mankind has not yet been exhausted, and that the promises we have given to the cause of humanity will not be suffered to fail by Him who overrules all human events to the promotion of that cause. . . .

  1. 1. The Scioto River is a major river in central and southern Ohio. It flows through Columbus, the capital city.
  2. 2. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Mexico, represents the shortest distance between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. The Darién Gap in Central America is a break between North America and South America.
  3. 3. Hudson Bay is an inland sea indenting east-central Canada. The Bering Strait separates Russia and the United States slightly south of the Arctic Circle in the Pacific Ocean.
  4. 4. The area around present-day northern Argentina and Uruguay
  5. 5. The Hawaiian Islands.
  6. 6. Presumably referring to Benedict Arnold (1741–1801), a general in the Continental Army who defected to the British during the Revolutionary War.
  7. 7. The republics of Rome and Carthage (a city in North Africa) fought three wars between 264 BC and 146 BC for control of the Mediterranean Sea. Carthage was utterly destroyed in the third war.
  8. 8. Manumission is the act of an owner freeing his or her slaves. It was legal only in some of the southern states at this time. Emancipation refers to the action of the government to free a slave or slaves.
  9. 9. “Confederacy” is used here in the sense of the union of individual states that make up the United States. It should not be confused with the Confederate States of America, which sought to achieve independence during the Civil War.
  10. 10. Unidentified verse.
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