Tag Archives: Slavery

The Doctrine of the Irrepressible Conflict

Irrepressible Conflict, as a term, originated with William H. Seward in an 1858 speech predicting the collision of the socioeconomic institutions of the North and the South.

Seward maintained this collision would determine whether the nation would be dominated by a system of free labor or slave labor. In 1858 Abraham Lincoln proposed the same idea in his “House Divided” speech. At the time, the use of the phrase did not include the assumption that the “irrepressible conflict” would necessarily find expression in violence or armed conflict.

While the term “Irrepressible Conflict” is most connected to Seward, the actual ideas behind it can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson in 1821. The Vincennes Gazette included this article in the December 17, 1859 issue.

The Freeman’ s Catechism Concerning the Irrepressible Conflict

Question: Who first promulgated the doctrine of the irrepressible conflict?
Answer: Thomas Jefferson.

Q: When and how did he promulgate it?
A: In a letter written to a friend in 1821.

Q: What did he say?
A:Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people (negro slaves) are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two forms of society cannot be perpetuated under the same government.

Q: Who next promulgated it?
A: Henry Clay.

Q: When and how did he promulgate it?
A: In a speech delivered before the American Colonization Society in 1827.

Q: What did he say?
A:Until universal darkness and despair shall prevail it will be impossible to repress the sympathies and the efforts of the freemen in behalf of the unhappy portion of our race who are doomed to bondage.

Q: Who endorsed Mr. Clays remarks?
A: Daniel Webster.

Q: Who says so?
A: Edward Everett.

Q: Who next promulgated it?
A: The Richmond Enquirer, a Democratic newspaper.

Q: When did it promulgate it?
A: In the Presidential campaign of 1856.

Q: What did it say?
A:Two opposite and conflicting forms of society cannot, among civilized men, coexist and endure. The one must give way and cease to exist – the other become universal. If free society be unnatural immoral and unchristian, it must fall and give way to slave society—a social system as old as the world, as universal as man.

Q: Who next re-stated the fact?
A: William H. Seward.

Q: When, where, and how?
A: In a speech delivered in Rochester in 1858.

Q: What did he say?
A: Whilst referring to the collision which had occurred between the two systems of labor in the United States, he said: “It (the collision) 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.

Q: Did he intimate the process by which they will ultimately become so?
A: He did; he said: “Whilst I confidently believe and hope my country will yet become a land of universal Freedom, I do not expect that it will be made so otherwise than through the action of the several States co-operating with the Federal Government, and all acting in strict conformity with their respective Constitutions.

Q: Is there any treason in this?
A: Not unless Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and the editor of the Richmond Enquirer were traitors.

Part I of our Civil War collection, A Newspaper Perspective, contains articles gleaned from over 2,500 issues of The New York Herald, The Charleston Mercury and the Richmond Enquirer, published between November 1, 1860 and April 15, 1865.


Collection: The Civil War
Publication: Vincennes Gazette
Date: December 17, 1859
Title: The Freeman’ s Catechism Concerning the Irrepressible Conflict.
Location: Vincennes, Ind.

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The Story of William Houston

This article from the London Times in 1852 was reprinted in America in Frederick Douglass Paper on April 15, 1852.  It relates the long and complicated path from freedom – through slavery – and back to freedom for William Houston.  Houston was a British seaman who was sold into slavery by his employer when the ship was in New Orleans.  There are references to the case in footnotes of some later editions of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave.

The Horrible Adventures of a British Subject Sold into American Slavery

At the Thames police office one day last week, William Houston complained to the magistrate that he, a free born British subject, had been sold into slavery by a sea captain, with whom he had engaged as a steward for wages. He exhibited his register ticket as a “seaman,” No. 548,818, and stated that he was born in Gibraltar in the year 1810, his father a native of San Domingo, and his mother a London woman. About thirteen years ago, when settled in Liverpool, as steward, for $25 per month. The captain’s name was Joseph M’Coy.

On the arrival of the ship at New Orleans, the vessel was sold, and the captain took him on shore and sold him to an American, by whom he was taken to a place called Tricupo, in St. Matthew county, where he remained in bondage for five years.


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Lewis C. Gunn’s 1838 Address to Abolitionists

We are not about to tell you of the existence of slavery in our “land of the free,” or to inform you that nearly three millions of your countrymen are the victims of systematic and legalized robbery and oppression. This you know full well, and the knowledge has awakened your strong sympathy with the sufferers, and your soul-deep abhorrence of the system which crushes them.

We mean not to prove that this system is condemned by every principle of justice, every precept of the Divine law, and every attribute of the Divine character, — or that no man can innocently sustain to his fellow man the relation it has established. You already believe this proposition, and build upon it, as a fundamental doctrine, the whole superstructure of your anti-slavery creed and plan of operations. It is not our purpose to convince you that the slave, as your brother man, has a right to your compassion and assistance. You acknowledge his claim, and profess to be his fast and faithful friends. But we would propose to you a question of weight and serious import. Having settled your principles, in the clear light of truth, by fair and thorough investigation, do you practically carry them out in your daily life and conduct? To one point we would direct your attention. Do you, into whose hands this address has fallen, faithfully abstain from using the products of the slave’s extorted and unpaid labor ? If not, having read thus far, do not immediately throw aside this address with an exclamation of contempt or indifference, but read it through with candor.

Before entering upon a discussion of the question, whether our use of the products of slave-labor does not involve us in the guilt of slave-holding, we ask your attention to the two following propositions, viz.: The love of money is the root of the evil of slavery — and the products of slave-labor are stolen goods.

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Kidnappers of Solomon Northup Caught!

The Northup kidnappers are likely “to do the State some services.” The evidence against them appears to be conclusive; and they are likely to end their base career by TEN YEARS OF SLAVERY in the penitentiary.

Solomon in his Plantation Suit

Solomon in his Plantation Suit

The case presents many remarkable features. A worthy , intelligent, and industrious citizen of this State who is “Guilty of a skin not colored like our own,” is decoyed to the capital of the nation, is there drugged, and while insensibly is dragged to a slave pen, sold, cruelly beaten, and ultimately consigned to the obscurest section of the Red River region.

Twelve years he is subjected to the severe rigors of the slave system; when by a concurrence of the most singular events, he is found out and rescued by an agent acting under commission from the Government of the state.

He returns, published a most interesting narrative of the scenes and sufferings thro’ which he had passed entitled, SOLOMON NORTHUP ; or, “TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE.” Which is read by hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens and which enlists their warmest sympathies in his behalf.

No one, however, expects to find the guilty perpetrators of the base outrage. But they are found, and a host of the most creditable witnesses rise up, as if by magic to prove there identity and their guilt. The whole case is certainly the most remarkable upon record, and it can only be appreciated by reading the “narrative” in connection with the incidents of the arrest and detention of the kidnappers.

Auburn Daily Advertiser


Collection: African American Newspapers
Publication: Frederick Douglass Paper
Date: August 4, 1854
Title: The Northup Kidnappers
Location: Rochester, New York

Solomon Northup’s Narrative

You can read the book online below, or download it as a PDF. EPUB, or MOBI (Kindle users should get the MOBI edition).

Top image is Northup’s Arrival Home, and First Meeting with his Wife and Children from the illustrated edition of his book.

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Practical illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law

Aryannah Pendleton: A Fugitive Slave Case

This article about Miss Pendleton’s case was published in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on October 15, 1840.

A trial which excited much interest, was held in this town on Thursday last, before Hon. Joseph Eaton, Judge of the County Court, for the purpose of recovering a colored girl, by the name of Aryannah Pendleton, claimed to be a fugitive slave belonging to a Mrs. Price, of Richmond, Virginia.

The girl, it seems, came to New-York with Mrs. Price, and although strictly guarded, found means, prompted by the love of Liberty, of escaping to Hartford, and from there to Hampton, where she has resided for about three years past, and until arrested at the instigation of Doctor Price, son of the above named Mrs. Price, on a writ of Habeas Corpus and brought before Judge Eaton for trial.

The residence of this girl, it appears from what information we can collect, was made known to Doctor Price, by a contemptible fellow named Fuller, formerly a resident of Hampton, but now of the South, to whom, it is said, Doctor Price is indebted, and that the girl was, if found a slave, to be sold to satisfy such demand.


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