Herbert Darling Foster.

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Produced by Dianne Bean



By Herbert Darling Foster

With foreword by Nathaniel Wright Stephenson

American Historical Review Vol. XXVII., No. 2

January, 1922


It is very curious that much of the history of the United States in the
Forties and Fifties of the last century has vanished from the general
memory. When a skilled historian reopens the study of Webster's "Seventh
of March speech" it is more than likely that nine out of ten Americans
will have to cudgel their wits endeavoring to make quite sure just where
among our political adventures that famous oration fits in. How many
of us could pass a satisfactory examination on the antecedent train of
events - the introduction in Congress of that Wilmot Proviso designed to
make free soil of all the territory to be acquired in the Mexican War;
the instant and bitter reaction of the South; the various demands for
some sort of partition of the conquered area between the sections,
between slave labor and free labor; the unforeseen intrusion of the gold
seekers of California in 1849, and their unauthorized formation of a new
state based on free labor; the flaming up of Southern alarm, due not to
one cause but to many, chiefly to the obvious fact that the free states
were acquiring preponderance in Congress; the southern threats of
secession; the fury of the Abolitionists demanding no concessions to the
South, come what might; and then, just when a rupture seemed inevitable,
when Northern extremists and Southern extremists seemed about to snatch
control of their sections, Webster's bold play to the moderates on both
sides, his scheme of compromise, announced in that famous speech on the
seventh of March, 1850?

Most people are still aware that Webster was harshly criticized for
making that speech. It is dimly remembered that the Abolitionists
called him "Traitor", refusing to attribute to him any motive except the
gaining of Southern support which might land him in the Presidency.
At the time - so bitter was factional suspicion! - this view gained many
adherents. It has not lost them all, even now.

This false interpretation of Webster turns on two questions - was there
a real danger of secession in 1850? Was Webster sincere in deriving his
policy from a sense of national peril, not from self-interest? In the
study which follows Professor Foster makes an adequate case for Webster,
answering the latter question. The former he deals with in a general way
establishing two things, the fact of Southern readiness to secede, the
attendant fact that the South changed its attitude after the Seventh
of March. His limits prevent his going on to weigh and appraise the
sincerity of those fanatics who so furiously maligned Webster, who
created the tradition that he had cynically sold out to the Southerners.
Did they believe their own fiction? The question is a large one and
involves this other, did they know what was going on in the South? Did
they realize that the Union on March 6, 1850, was actually at a parting
of the ways, - that destruction or Civil War formed an imminent issue?

Many of those who condemned compromise may be absolved from the charge
of insincerity on the ground that they did not care whether the Union
was preserved or riot. Your true blue Abolitionist was very little of
a materialist. Nor did he have primarily a crusading interest in
the condition of the blacks. He was introspective. He wanted the
responsibility for slavery taken off his own soul. As later events were
to prove, he was also pretty nearly a pacifist; war for the Union, pure
and simple, made no appeal to him. It was part of Webster's insight that
he divined this, that he saw there was more pacifism than natural ardor
in the North of 1850, saw that the precipitation of a war issue might
spell the end of the United Republic. Therefore, it was to circumvent
the Northern pacifists quite as much as to undermine the Southern
expansionists that he offered compromise and avoided war.

But what of those other detractors of Webster, those who were for the
Union and yet believed he had sold out? Their one slim defense is the
conviction that the South did not mean what it said, that Webster, had
he dared offend the South, could have saved the day - from their point of
view - without making concessions. Professor Foster, always ready to do
scrupulous justice, points out the dense ignorance in each section of
the other, and there lets the matter rest. But what shall we say of a
frame of mind, which in that moment of crisis, either did not read the
Southern newspapers, or reading them and finding that the whole South
was netted over by a systematically organized secession propaganda made
no attempt to gauge its strength, scoffed at it all as buncombe! Even
later historians have done the same thing. In too many cases they have
assumed that because the compromise was followed by an apparent collapse
of the secession propaganda, the propaganda all along was without
reality. We know today that the propaganda did not collapse. For
strategic reasons it changed its policy. But it went on steadily growing
and gaining ground until it triumphed in 1861. Webster, not his foolish
opponents, gauged its strength correctly in 1850.

The clew to what actually happened in 1850 lies in the course of such an
ardent Southerner as, for example, Langdon Cheeves. Early in the year,
he was a leading secessionist, but at the close of the year a leading
anti-secessionist. His change of front, forced upon him by his own
thinking about the situation was a bitter disappointment to himself.
What animated him was a deep desire to take the whole South out of the
Union. When, at the opening of the year, the North seemed unwilling to
compromise, he, and many another, thought their time had come. At the
first Nashville Convention he advised a general secession, assuming that
Virginia, "our premier state," would lead the movement and when Virginia
later in the year swung over from secession to anti-secession, Cheeves
reluctantly changed his policy. The compromise had not altered his
views - broadly speaking it had not satisfied the Lower South - but it had
done something still more eventful, it had so affected the Upper South
that a united secession became for a while impossible. Therefore,
Cheeves and all like him - and they were the determining factor of the
hour - resolved to bide their time, to wait until their propaganda had
done its work, until the entire South should agree to go out together.
Their argument, all preserved in print, but ignored by historians for
sixty years thereafter, was perfectly frank. As one of them put it, in
the face of the changed attitude of Virginia, "to secede now would be to
secede from the South."

Here is the aspect of Webster's great stroke that was so long ignored.
He did not satisfy the whole South. He did not make friends for himself
of Southerners generally. What he did do was to drive a wedge into the
South, to divide it temporarily against itself. He arrayed the Upper
South against the Lower and thus because of the ultimate purposes of men
like Cheeves, with their ambition to weld the South into a genuine unit,
he forced them all to stand still, and thus to give Northern pacifism a
chance to ebb, Northern nationalism a chance to develop. A comprehensive
brief for the defense on this crucial point in the interpretation of
American history, is Professor Foster's contribution.



The moral earnestness and literary skill of Whittier, Lowell, Garrison,
Phillips, and Parker, have fixed in many minds the antislavery doctrine
that Webster's 7th of March speech was "scandalous, treachery", and
Webster a man of little or no "moral sense", courage, or statesmanship.
That bitter atmosphere, reproduced by Parton and von Holst, was
perpetuated a generation later by Lodge. [1]

Since 1900, over fifty publications throwing light on Webster and the
Secession movement of 1850 have appeared, nearly a score
containing fresh contemporary evidence. These twentieth-century
historians - Garrison of Texas, Smith of Williams, Stephenson of
Charleston and Yale, Van Tyne, Phillips, Fisher in his True Daniel
Webster, or Ames, Hearon, and Cole in their monographs on Southern
conditions - many of them born in one section and educated in
another, brought into broadening relations with Northern and Southern
investigators, trained in the modern historical spirit and freed by the
mere lapse of time from much of the passion of slavery and civil
war, have written with less emotion and more knowledge than the
abolitionists, secessionists, or their disciples who preceded Rhodes.

Under the auspices of the American Historical Association have appeared
the correspondence of Calhoun, of Chase, of Toombs, Stephens, and
Cobb, and of Hunter of Virginia. Van Tyne's Letters of Webster (1902),
including hundreds hitherto unpublished, was further supplemented in
the sixteenth volume of the "National Edition" of Webster's Writings and
Speeches (1903). These two editions contain, for 1850 alone, 57 inedited

Manuscript collections and newspapers, comparatively unknown to earlier
writers, have been utilized in monographs dealing with the situation in
1850 in South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina,
Louisiana, and Tennessee, published by. universities or historical

The cooler and matured judgments of men who knew Webster
personally - Foote, Stephens, Wilson, Seward, and Whittier, in the last
century; Hoar, Hale, Fisher, Hosmer, and Wheeler in recent years-modify
their partizan political judgments of 1850. The new printed evidence
is confirmed by manuscript material: 2,500 letters of the Greenough
Collection available since the publication of the recent editions of
Webster's letters and apparently unused by Webster's biographers;
and Hundreds of still inedited Webster Papers in the New Hampshire
Historical Society, and scattered in minor collections. [2] This mass
of new material makes possible and desirable a re-examination of the
evidence as to (1) the danger from the secession movement in 1850; (2)
Webster's change in attitude toward the disunion danger in February,
1850; (3) the purpose and character of his 7th of March speech; (4) the
effects of his speech and attitude upon the secession movement.


During the session of Congress of 1849-1850, the peace of the Union
was threatened by problems centering around slavery and the territory
acquired as a result of the Mexican War: California's demand for
admission with a constitution prohibiting slavery; the Wilmot Proviso
excluding slavery from the rest of the Mexican acquisitions (Utah and
New Mexico); the boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico; the
abolition of slave trade in the District of Columbia; and an effective
fugitive slave law to replace that of 1793.

The evidence for the steadily growing danger of secession until March,
1850, is no longer to be sought in Congressional speeches, but rather
in the private letters of those men, Northern and Southern, who were the
shrewdest political advisers of the South, and in the official acts of
representative bodies of Southerners in local or state meetings, state
legislatures, and the Nashville Convention. Even after the compromise
was accepted in the South and the secessionists defeated in 1850-1851,
the Southern states generally adopted the Georgia platform or its
equivalent declaring that the Wilmot Proviso or the repeal of the
fugitive-slave law would lead the South to "resist even (as a last
resort) to a disruption of every tie which binds her to the Union".
Southern disunion sentiment was not sporadic or a party matter; it was

The disunion sentiment in the North was not general; but Garrison,
publicly proclaiming "I am an abolitionist and therefore for the
dissolution of the Union", and his followers who pronounced "the
Constitution a covenant with death and an agreement with hell",
exercised a twofold effect far in excess of their numbers. In the North,
abolitionists aroused bitter antagonism to slavery; in the South
they strengthened the conviction of the lawfulness of slavery and the
desirability of secession in preference to abolition. "The abolition
question must soon divide us", a South Carolinian wrote his former
principal in Vermont. "We are beginning to look upon it [disunion] as
a relief from incessant insult. I have been myself surprised at the
unusual prevalence and depth of this feeling." [3] "The abolition
movement", as Houston has pointed out, "prevented any considerable
abatement of feeling, and added volume to the current which was to
sweep the State out of the Union in 1860." [4] South Carolina's ex-governor,
Hammond, wrote Calhoun in December, 1849, "the conduct of the
abolitionists in congress is daily giving it [disunion] powerful aid".
"The sooner we can get rid of it [the union] the better." [5] The
conclusion of both Blair of Kentucky and Winthrop [6] of Massachusetts,
that "Calhoun and his instruments are really solicitous to break up the
Union", was warranted by Calhoun's own statement.

Calhoun, desiring to save the Union if he could, but at all events to
save the South, and convinced that there was "no time to lose", hoped
"a decisive issue will be made with the North". In February, 1850, he
wrote, "Disunion is the only alternative that is left us." [7] At last
supported by some sort of action in thirteen Southern states, and in
nine states by appointment of delegates to his Southern Convention,
he declared in the Senate, March 4, "the South, is united against the
Wilmot proviso, and has committed itself, by solemn resolutions, to
resist should it be adopted". "The South will be forced to choose
between abolition and secession." "The Southern States... cannot remain,
as things now are, consistently with honor and safety, in the Union."

That Beverley Tucker rightly judged that this speech of Calhoun
expressed what was "in the mind of every man in the State" is confirmed
by the approval of Hammond and other observers; by their judgment that
"everyone was ripe for disunion and no one ready to make a speech
in favor of the union"; by the testimony of the governor, that South
Carolina "is ready and anxious for an immediate separation"; and by
the concurrent testimony of even the few "Unionists" like Petigru and
Lieber, who wrote Webster, "almost everyone is for southern separation",
"disunion is the... predominant sentiment". "For arming the state
$350,000 has been put at the disposal of the governor." "Had I convened
the legislature two or three weeks before the regular meeting," adds the
governor, "such was the excited state of the public mind at that time,
I am convinced South Carolina would not now have been a member of the
Union. The people are very far ahead of their leaders." Ample first-hand
evidence of South Carolina's determination to secede in 1850 may be
found in the Correspondence of Calhoun, in Claiborne's Quitman, in the
acts of the assembly, in the newspapers, in the legislature's vote "to
resist at any and all hazards", and in the choice of resistance-men
to the Nashville Convention and the state convention. This has been so
convincingly set forth in Ames's Calhoun and the Secession Movement of
1850, and in Hamer's Secession Movement in South Carolina, 1847-1852,
that there is need of very few further illustrations. [9]

That South Carolina postponed secession for ten years was due to the
Compromise. Alabama and Virginia adopted resolutions accepting the
compromise in 1850-1851; and the Virginia legislature tactfully urged
South Carolina to abandon secession. The 1851 elections in Alabama,
Georgia, and Mississippi showed the South ready to accept the
Compromise, the crucial test being in Mississippi, where the voters
followed Webster's supporter, Foote. [10] That Petigru was right in
maintaining that South, Carolina merely abandoned immediate and separate
secession is shown by the almost unanimous vote of the South Carolina
State Convention of 1852, [11] that the state was amply justified "in
dissolving at once all political connection with her co-States",
but refrained from this "manifest right of self-government from
considerations of expediency only". [12]

In Mississippi, a preliminary convention, instigated by Calhoun,
recommended the holding of a Southern convention at Nashville in June,
1850, to "adopt some mode of resistance". The "Resolutions" declared the
Wilmot Proviso "such a breach of the federal compact as... will make it
the duty... of the slave-holding states to treat the non-slave-holding
states as enemies". The "Address" recommended "all the assailed
states to provide in the last resort for their separate welfare by the
formation of a compact and a Union". "The object of this [Nashville
Convention] is to familiarize the public mind with the idea of
dissolution", rightly judged the Richmond Whig and the Lynchburg

Radical resistance men controlled the legislature and "cordially
approved" the disunion resolution and address, chose delegates to
the Nashville Convention, appropriated $20,000 for their expenses and
$200,000 for "necessary measures for protecting the state.. . in the
event of the passage of the Wilmot Proviso", etc. [13] These actions of
Mississippi's legislature one day before Webster's 7th of March speech
mark approximately the peak of the secession movement.

Governor Quitman, in response to public demand, called the legislature
and proposed "to recommend the calling of a regular convention...
with full power to annul the federal compact". "Having no hope of an
effectual remedy... but in separation from the Northern States, my views
of state action will look to secession." [14] The legislature supported
Quitman's and Jefferson Davis's plans for resistance, censured Foote's
support of the Compromise, and provided for a state convention of
delegates. [15]

Even the Mississippi "Unionists" adopted the six standard points
generally accepted in the South which would justify resistance. "And
this is the Union party", was the significant comment of the New York
Tribune. This Union Convention, however, believed that Quitman's message
was treasonable and that there was ample evidence of a plot to dissolve
the Union and form a Southern confederacy. Their programme was
adopted by the State Convention the following year. [16] The radical
Mississippians reiterated Calhoun's constitutional guarantees of
sectional equality and non-interference with slavery, and declared for
a Southern convention with power to recommend "secession from the Union
and the formation of a Southern confederacy". [17]

"The people of Mississippi seemed... determined to defend their equality
in the Union, or to retire from it by peaceful secession. Had the issue
been pressed at the moment when the excitement was at its highest point,
an isolated and very serious movement might have occurred, which South
Carolina, without doubt, would have promptly responded to." [18]

In Georgia, evidence as to "which way the wind blows" was received
by the Congressional trio, Alexander Stephens, Toombs, and Cobb, from
trusted observers at home. "The only safety of the South from abolition
universal is to be found in an early dissolution of the Union." Only
one democrat was found justifying Cobb's opposition to Calhoun and the
Southern Convention. [19]

Stephens himself, anxious to "stick to the Constitutional Union" reveals
in confidential letters to Southern Unionists the rapidly growing danger
of disunion. "The feeling among the Southern members for a dissolution
of the Union... is becoming much more general." "Men are now [December,
1849] beginning to talk of it seriously who twelve months ago hardly
permitted themselves to think of it." "Civil war in this country better
be prevented if it can be." After a month's "farther and broader view",
he concluded, "the crisis is not far ahead... a dismemberment of this
Republic I now consider inevitable." [20]

On February 8, 1850, the Georgia legislature appropriated $30,000 for a
state convention to consider measures of redress, and gave warning that
anti-slavery aggressions would "induce us to contemplate the possibility
of a dissolution". [21] "I see no prospect of a continuance of this
Union long", wrote Stephens two days later. [22]

Speaker Cobb's advisers warned him that "the predominant feeling of
Georgia" was "equality or disunion", and that "the destructives" were
trying to drive the South into disunion. "But for your influence,
Georgia would have been more rampant for dissolution than South Carolina
ever was." "S. Carolina will secede, but we can and must put a stop to
it in Georgia." [23]

Public opinion in Georgia, which had been "almost ready for immediate
secession", was reversed only after the passage of the Compromise and by
means of a strenuous campaign against the Secessionists which Stephens,
Toombs, and Cobb were obliged to return to Georgia to conduct to a
Successful issue. [24] Yet even the Unionist Convention of Georgia,
elected by this campaign, voted almost unanimously "the Georgia
platform" already described, of resistance, even to disruption, against
the Wilmot Proviso, the repeal of the fugitive slave law, and the other
measures generally selected for reprobation in the South. [25] "Even
the existence of the Union depended upon the settlement"; "we would
have resisted by our arms if the wrong [Wilmot Proviso] had been
perpetuated", were Stephens's later judgments. [26] It is to be
remembered that the Union victory in Georgia was based upon the
Compromise and that Webster's share in "strengthening the friends of the
Union" was recognized by Stephens.

The disunion movement manifested also dangerous strength in Virginia and
Alabama, and showed possibilities of great danger in Tennessee, North
Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas.
The majority of the people may not have favored secession in 1850 any
more than in 1860; but the leaders could and did carry most of the
Southern legislatures in favor of uniting for resistance.

The "ultras" in Virginia, under the lead of Tucker, and in Alabama under
Yancey, frankly avowed their desire to stimulate impossible demands
so that disunion would be inevitable. Tucker at Nashville "ridiculed
Webster's assertion that the Union could not be dissolved without
bloodshed". On the eve of Webster's speech, Garnett of Virginia
published a frank advocacy of a Southern Confederacy, repeatedly
reprinted, which Clay declared "the most dangerous pamphlet he had
ever read". [27] Virginia, in providing for delegates to the Nashville
Convention, announced her readiness to join her "sister slave states"
for "mutual defence". She later acquiesced in the Compromise, but
reasserted that anti-slavery aggressions would "defeat restoration of
peaceful sentiments". [28]

In Texas there was acute danger of collision over the New Mexico
boundary with Federal troops which President Taylor was preparing to
send. Stephens frankly repeated Quitman's threats of Southern armed
support of Texas. [29] Cobb, Henderson of Texas, Duval of Kentucky,
Anderson of Tennessee, and Goode of Virginia expressed similar views as
to the "imminent cause of danger to the Union from Texas". The collision
was avoided because the more statesmanlike attitude of Webster prevailed
rather than the "soldier's" policy of Taylor.

The border states held a critical position in 1850, as they did in
1860. "If they go for the Southern movement we shall have disunion."
"Everything is to depend from this day on the course of Kentucky,
Tennessee and Missouri." [30] Webster's conciliatory Union policy,
in harmony with that of border state leaders, like Bell of Tennessee,
Benton of Missouri, Clay and Crittenden of Kentucky, enabled Maryland,
Kentucky, and Missouri to stand by the Union and refuse to send
delegates to the Nashville Convention.

The attitude of the Southern states toward disunion may be followed
closely in their action as to the Nashville Convention. Nine Southern
states approved the Convention and appointed delegates before June,
1850, six during the critical month preceding Webster's speech: Georgia,
February 6, 8; Texas and Tennessee, February 11; Virginia, February 12;
Alabama, just before the adjournment of the legislature, February
13; Mississippi, March 5, 6. [31] Every one of the nine seceded in

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Online LibraryHerbert Darling FosterWebster's March 7th Speech/Secession → online text (page 1 of 4)