Herbert Darling Foster.

Webster's March 7th Speech/Secession online

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1860-1861; the border states (Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri) which kept
out of the Convention in 1850 likewise kept out of secession in 1861;
and only two states which seceded in 1861 failed to join the Southern
movement in 1850 (North Carolina and Louisiana). This significant
parallel between the action of the Southern states in 1850 and in 1860
suggests the permanent strength of the secession movement of 1850.
Moreover, the alignment of leaders was strikingly the same in 1850
and 1860. Those who headed the secession movement in 1850 in their
respective states were among the leaders of secession in 1860 and 1861:
Rhett in South Carolina; Yancey in Alabama; Jefferson Davis and Brown
in Mississippi Garnett, Goode, and Hunter in Virginia; Johnston in
Arkansas; Clingman in North Carolina. On the other hand, nearly all the
men who in 1850 favored the Compromise, in 1860 either remained Union
men, like Crittenden, Houston of Texas, Sharkey, Lieber, Petigru, and
Provost Kennedy of Baltimore, or, like Stephens, Morehead, and Foote,
vainly tried to restrain secession.

In the states unrepresented at the Nashville Convention-Missouri,
Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, and Louisiana - there was much
sympathy with the Southern movement. In Louisiana, the governor's
proposal to send delegates was blocked by the Whigs. [32] "Missouri", in
case of the Wilmot Proviso, "will be found in hearty co-operation with
the slave-holding states for mutual protection against... Northern
fanaticism", her legislature resolved. [33] Missouri's instructions to
her senators were denounced as "disunion in their object" by her
own Senator Benton. The Maryland legislature resolved, February 26:
"Maryland will take her position with her Southern sister states in
the maintenance of the constitution with all its compromises." The Whig
senate, however, prevented sanctioning of the convention and sending of
delegates. Florida's governor wrote the governor of South Carolina
that Florida would co-operate with Virginia and South Carolina "in any
measure in defense of our common Constitution and sovereign dignity".
"Florida has resolved to resist to the extent of revolution", declared
her representative in Congress, March 5. Though the Whigs did not
support the movement, five delegates came from Florida to the Nashville
Convention. [34]

In Kentucky, Crittenden's repeated messages against "disunion" and
"entangling engagements" reveal the danger seen by a Southern Union
governor. [35] Crittenden's changing attitude reveals the growing
peril, and the growing reliance on Webster's and Clay's plans. By April,
Crittenden recognized that "the Union is endangered", "the case...
rises above ordinary rules", "circumstances have rather changed". He
reluctantly swung from Taylor's plan of dealing with California alone,
to the Clay and Webster idea of settling the "whole controversy".
[36] Representative Morehead wrote Crittenden, "The extreme Southern
gentlemen would secretly deplore the settlement of this question. The
magnificence of a Southern Confederacy... is a dazzling allurement."
Clay like Webster, saw "the alternative, civil war". [37]

In North Carolina, the majority appear to have been loyal to the
Union; but the extremists - typified by Clingman, the public meeting at
Wilmington, and the newspapers like the Wilmington Courier - reveal the
presence of a dangerously aggressive body "with a settled determination
to dissolve the Union" and frankly "calculating the advantages of a
Southern Confederacy." Southern observers in this state reported that
"the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law or the abolition of slavery in
the District will dissolve the Union". The North Carolina legislature
acquiesced in the Compromise but counselled retaliation in case of
anti-slavery aggressions. [38] Before the assembling of the Southern
convention in June, every one of the Southern states, save Kentucky,
had given some encouragement to the Southern movement, and Kentucky had
given warning and proposed a compromise through Clay. [39]

Nine Southern states-Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama,
Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee sent about 176
delegates to the Nashville Convention. The comparatively harmless
outcome of this convention, in June, led earlier historians to
underestimate the danger of the resistance movement in February and
March when backed by legislatures, newspapers, and public opinion,
before the effect was felt of the death of Calhoun and Taylor, and of
Webster's support of conciliation. Stephens and the Southern Unionists
rightly recognized that the Nashville Convention "will be the nucleus of
another sectional assembly". "A fixed alienation of feeling will be the
result." "The game of the destructives is to use the Missouri Compromise
principle [as demanded by the Nashville Convention] as a medium of
defeating all adjustments and then to... infuriate the South and
drive her into measures that must end in disunion." "All who go to the
Nashville Convention are ultimately to fall into that position." This
view is confirmed by Judge Warner and other observers in Georgia and by
the unpublished letters of Tucker. [40] "Let the Nashville Convention
be held", said the Columbus, Georgia, Sentinel, "and let the undivided
voice of the South go forth... declaring our determination to resist
even to civil war." [41] The speech of Rhett of South Carolina, author
of the convention's "Address", "frankly and boldly unfurled the flag of
disunion". "If every Southern State should quail... South Carolina alone
should make the issue." "The opinion of the [Nashville] address is, and
I believe the opinion of a large portion of the Southern people is, that
the Union cannot be made to endure", was delegate Barnwell's admission
to Webster. [42]

The influence of the Compromise is brought out in the striking change in
the attitude of Senator Foote, and of judge Sharkey of Mississippi,
the author of the radical "Address" of the preliminary Mississippi
Convention, and chairman of both this and the Nashville Convention.
After the Compromise measures were reported in May by Clay and Webster's
committee, Sharkey became convinced that the Compromise should be
accepted and so advised Foote. Sharkey also visited Washington and
helped to pacify the rising storm by "suggestions to individual
Congressmen". [43] In the Nashville Convention, Sharkey therefore
exercised a moderating influence as chairman and refused to sign its
disunion address. Convinced that the Compromise met essential Southern
demands, Sharkey urged that "to resist it would be to dismember the
Union". He therefore refused to call a second meeting of the Nashville
Convention. For this change in position he was bitterly criticized by
Jefferson Davis. [44] Foote recognized the "emergency" at the same time
that Webster did, and on February 25, proposed his committee of thirteen
to report some "scheme of compromise". Parting company with Calhoun,
March 5, on the thesis that the South could not safely remain without
new "constitutional guarantees", Foote regarded Webster's speech as
"unanswerable", and in April came to an understanding with him as to
Foote's committee and their common desire for prompt consideration of
California. The importance of Foote's influence in turning the tide
in Mississippi, through his pugnacious election campaign, and the
significance of his judgment of the influence of Webster and his
speech have been somewhat overlooked, partly perhaps because of Foote's
swashbuckling characteristics. [45]

That the Southern convention movement proved comparatively innocuous in
June is due in part to confidence inspired by the conciliatory policy of
one outstanding Northerner, Webster. "Webster's speech", said Winthrop,
"has knocked the Nashville Convention into a cocked hat." [46] "The
Nashville Convention has been blown by your giant effort to the four
winds." [47] "Had you spoken out before this, I verily believe the
Nashville Convention had not been thought of. Your speech has disarmed
and quieted the South." [48] Webster's speech caused hesitation in the
South. "This has given courage to all who wavered in their resolution or
who were secretly opposed to the measure [Nashville Convention]." [49]

Ames cites nearly a store of issues of newspapers in Mississippi, South
Carolina, Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia reflecting
the change in public opinion in March. Even some of the radical papers
referred to the favorable effect of Webster's speech and "spirit" in
checking excitement. "The Jackson (Mississippi) Southron had at first
supported the movement [for a Southern Convention], but by March it had
grown lukewarm and before the Convention assembled, decidedly opposed
it. The last of May it said, 'not a Whig paper in the State approves'."
In the latter part of March, not more than a quarter of sixty papers
from ten slave-holding states took decided ground for a Southern
Convention. [50] The Mississippi Free Trader tried to check the growing
support of the Compromise, by claiming that Webster's speech lacked
Northern backing. A South Carolina pamphlet cited the Massachusetts
opposition to Webster as proof of the political strength of abolition.

The newer, day by day, first-hand evidence, in print and manuscript,
shows the Union in serious danger, with the culmination during the three
weeks preceding Webster's speech; with a moderation during March; a
growing readiness during the summer to await Congressional action; and
slow, acquiescence in the Compromise measures of September, but with
frank assertion on the part of various Southern states of the right and
duty of resistance if the compromise measures were violated. Even
in December, 1850, Dr. Alexander of Princeton found sober Virginians
fearful that repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act would throw Virginia info
the Southern movement and that South Carolina "by some rash act"
would precipitate "the crisis". "All seem to regard bloodshed as the
inevitable result." [52]

To the judgments and legislative acts of Southerners already quoted,
may be added some of the opinions of men from the North. Erving, the
diplomat, wrote from New York, "The real danger is in the fanatics
and disunionists of the North". "I see no salvation but in the total
abandonment of the Wilmot Proviso." Edward Everett, on the contrary,
felt that "unless some southern men of influence have courage enough
to take grounds against the extension of slavery and in favor of
abolition... we shall infallibly separate". [53]

A Philadelphia editor who went to Washington to learn the real
sentiments of the Southern members, reported February 1, that if the
Wilmot Proviso were not given up, ample provision made for fugitive
slaves and avoidance of interference with slavery in the District of
Columbia, the South would secede, though this was not generally believed
in the North. "The North must decide whether she would have the Wilmot
Proviso without the Union or the Union without the Wilmot Proviso." [54]

In answer to inquiries from the Massachusetts legislature as to whether
the Southern attitude was "bluster" or "firm Resolve", Winthrop wrote,
"the country has never been in more serious exigency than at present".
"The South is angry, mad." "The Union must be saved... by prudence and
forbearance." "Most sober men here are apprehensive that the end of the
Union is nearer than they have ever before imagined." Winthrop's own
view on February 19 had been corroborated by General Scott, who wrote
him four days earlier, "God preserve the Union is my daily prayer, in
and out of church". [55]

Webster however, as late as February 14, believed that there was no
"serious danger". February 16, he still felt that "if, on our side, we
keep cool, things will come to no dangerous pass". [56] But within the
next week, three acts in Washington modified Webster's optimism:
the filibuster of Southern members, February 18; their triumph in
conference, February 19; their interview with Taylor about February 23.

On February 18, under the leadership of Stephens, the Southern
representatives mustered two-thirds of the Southern Whigs and a majority
from every Southern state save Maryland for a successful series of over
thirty filibustering votes against the admission of California without
consideration of the question of slavery in New Mexico and Utah. So
indisputable was the demonstration of Southern power to block not
only the President's plan but all Congressional legislation, that the
Northern leaders next day in conference with. Southern representatives
agreed that California should be admitted with her free constitution,
but that in New Mexico and Utah government should be organized with no
prohibition of slavery and with power to form, in respect to slavery,
such constitutions as the people pleased - agreements practically enacted
in the Compromise. [57]

The filibuster of the 18th of February, Mann described as "a
revolutionary proceeding". Its alarming effect on the members of the
Cabinet was commented upon by the Boston Advertiser, February 19. The
New York Tribune, February 20, recognized the determination of the
South to secede unless the Missouri Compromise line were extended to the
Pacific. February 22, the Springfield Republican declared that "if the
Union cannot be preserved" without the extension of slavery, "we allow
the tie of Union to be severed". It was on this day, that Webster
decided "to make a Union speech and discharge a clear conscience".

That same week (apparently February 23) occurred the famous interview of
Stephens and Toombs with Taylor which convinced the President that the
Southern movement "means disunion". This was Taylor's judgment expressed
to Weed and Hamlin, "ten minutes after the interview". A week later the
President seemed to Horace Mann to be talking like a child about his
plans to levy an embargo and blockade the Southern harbors and "save the
Union". Taylor was ready to appeal to arms against "these Southern men
in Congress [who] are trying to bring on civil war" in connection with
the critical Texas boundary question. [58]

On this 23d of February, Greeley, converted from his earlier and
characteristic optimism, wrote in his leading editorial: "instead of
scouting or ridiculing as chimerical the idea of a Dissolution of the
Union, we firmly believe that there are sixty members of Congress who
this day desire it and are plotting to effect it. We have no doubt the
Nashville Convention will be held and that the leading purpose of its
authors is the separation of the slave states... with the formation of
an independent Confederacy." "This plot... is formidable." He warned
against "needless provocation which would supply weapons to the
Disunionists". A private letter to Greeley from Washington, the same
day, says: "H - - is alarmed and confident that blood will be spilt on
the floor of the House. Many members go to the House armed every
day. W - - is confident that Disunionism is now inevitable. He knows
intimately nearly all the Southern members, is familiar with their views
and sees the letters that reach them from their constituents. He says
the most ultra are well backed up in their advices from home." [59]

The same February 23, the Boston Advertiser quoted the Washington
correspondence of the Journal of Commerce: "excitement pervades the
whole South, and Southern members say that it has gone beyond their
control, that their tone is moderate in comparison with that of their
people". "Persons who condemn Mr. Clay's resolutions now trust to some
vague idea that Mr. Webster can do something better." "If Mr. Webster
has any charm by the magic influence of which he can control the
ultraism, of the North and of the South, he cannot too soon try
its effects." "If Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri go for the Southern
movement, we shall have disunion and as much of war as may answer the
purposes either of Northern or Southern fanaticism." On this Saturday,
February 23, also, "several Southern members of Congress had a long
and interesting interview with Mr. Webster". "The whole subject was
discussed and the result is, that the limitations of a compromise have
been examined, which are satisfactory to our Southern brethren. This
is good news, and will surround Mr. Webster's position with an uncommon
interest." [60]

"Webster is the only man in the Senate who has a position which would
enable him to present a plan which would be carried", said Pratt of
Maryland. [61] The National Intelligencer, which had hitherto maintained
the safety of the Union, confessed by February 21 that "the integrity
of the Union is at some hazard", quoting Southern evidence of this. On
February 25, Foote, in proposing to the Senate a committee of thirteen
to report some scheme of compromise, gave it as his conclusion from
consultation with both houses, that unless something were done at once,
power would pass from Congress.


It was under these highly critical circumstances that Webster, on
Sunday, February 24, the day on which he was accustomed to dine with his
unusually well-informed friends, Stephens, Toombs, Clay and Hale, wrote
to his only surviving son:

I am nearly broken down with labor and anxiety. I know not how to meet
the present emergency, or with what weapons to beat down the Northern
and Southern follies, now raging in equal extremes. If you can possibly
leave home, I want you to be here, a day or two before I speak... I have
poor spirits and little courage. Non sum qualis eram. [62]

Mr. Lodge's account of this critical February period shows ignorance not
only of the letter of February 24, but of the real situation. He relies
upon von Holst instead of the documents, then misquotes him on a point
of essential chronology, and from unwarranted assumptions and erroneous
and incomplete data draws unreliable conclusions. Before this letter of
February 24 and the new cumulative evidence of the crisis, there falls
to the ground the sneer in Mr. Lodge's question, "if [Webster's] anxiety
was solely of a public nature, why did it date from March 7 when, prior
to that time, there was much greater cause for alarm than afterwards?"
Webster was anxious before the 7th of March, as so many others were,
North and South, and his extreme anxiety appears in the letter of
February 24, as well as in repeated later utterances. No one can read
through the letters of Webster without recognizing that he had a genuine
anxiety for the safety of the Union; and that neither in his letters nor
elsewhere is there evidence that in his conscience he was "ill at ease"
or "his mind not at peace". Here as elsewhere, Mr. Lodge's biography,
written over forty years ago, reproduces anti-slavery bitterness and
ignorance of facts (pardonable in 1850) and seriously misrepresents
Webster's character and the situation in that year. [63]

By the last week in February and the first in March, the peak of the
secession movement was reached. Never an alarmist, Webster, like others
who loved the Union, become convinced during this critical last week in
February of an "emergency". He determined "to make a Union Speech and
discharge a clear conscience." "I made up my mind to risk myself on a
proposition for a general pacification. I resolved to push my skiff
from the shore alone." "We are in a crisis," he wrote June 2, "if
conciliation makes no progress." "It is a great emergency, a great
exigency, that the country is placed in", he said in the Senate, June
17. "We have," he wrote in October, "gone through the most important
crisis which has occurred since the foundation of the government." A
year later he added at Buffalo, "if we had not settled these agitating
questions [by the Compromise]... in my opinion, there would have been
civil war". In Virginia, where he had known the situation even better,
he declared, "I believed in my conscience that a crisis was at hand, a
dangerous, a fearful crisis." [64]

Rhodes's conclusion that there was "little danger of an overt act of
secession while General Taylor was in the presidential chair" was based
on evidence then incomplete and is abandoned by more recent historians.
It is moreover significant that, of the speeches cited by Rhodes,
ridiculing the danger of secession, not one was delivered before
Webster's speech. All were uttered after the danger had been lessened
by the speeches and attitude of Clay and Webster. Even such Northern
anti-slavery speeches illustrated danger of another sort. Hale of
New Hampshire "would let them go" rather than surrender the rights
threatened by the fugitive slave bill. [65] Giddings in the very speech
ridiculing the danger of disunion said, "when they see fit to leave the
Union, I would say to them 'Go in peace'". [66] Such utterances played
into the hands of secessionists, strengthening their convictions that
the North despised the South and would not fight to keep her in the

It is now clear that in 1850 as in 1860 the average Northern senator
or anti-slavery minister or poet was ill-informed or careless as to the
danger of secession, and that Webster and the Southern Unionists were
well-informed and rightly anxious. Theodore Parker illustrated the
bitterness that befogs the mind. He concluded that there was no danger
of dissolution because "the public funds of the United States did not
go down one mill." The stock market might, of course, change from many
causes, but Parker was wrong as to the facts. An examination of the
daily sales of United States bonds in New York, 1849-1850, shows that
the change, instead of being, "not one mill," as Parker asserted, was
four or five dollars during this period; and what change there was, was
downward before Webster's speech and upward thereafter. [67]

We now realize what Webster knew and feared in 1849-1850. "If this
strife between the South and the North goes on, we shall have war,
and who is ready for that?" "There would have been a Civil War if the
Compromise had not passed." The evidence confirms Thurlow Weed's mature
judgment: "the country had every appearance of being on the eve of a
Revolution." [68] On February 28, Everett recognized that "the radicals
at the South have made up their minds to separate, the catastrophe seems
to be inevitable". [69]

On March 1, Webster recorded his determination "to make an honest,
truth-telling speech, and a Union speech" [691] The Washington
correspondent of the Advertiser, March 4, reported that Webster will
"take a large view of the state of things and advocate a straightforward
course of legislation essentially such as the President has
recommended". "To this point public sentiment has been gradually
converging." "It will tend greatly to confirm opinion in favor of this
course should it meet with the decided concurrence of Mr. Webster."
The attitude of the plain citizen is expressed by Barker, of Beaver,
Pennsylvania, on the same day: "do it, Mr. Webster, as you can, do it as
a bold and gifted statesman and patriot; reconcile the North and South
and PRESERVE the UNION". "Offer, Mr. Webster, a liberal compromise to
the South." On March 4 and 5, Calhoun's Senate speech reasserted that
the South, no longer safe in the Union, possessed the right of peaceable
secession. On the 6th of March, Webster went over the proposed speech
of the next morning with his son, Fletcher, Edward Curtis, and Peter
Harvey. [70]


It was under the cumulative stress of such convincing evidence, public
and private utterances, and acts in Southern legislatures and in
Congress, that Webster made his Union speech on the 7th of March. The
purpose and character of the speech are rightly indicated by its title,
"The Constitution and the Union", and by the significant dedication to
the people of Massachusetts: "Necessity compels me to speak true rather
than pleasing things." "I should indeed like to please you; but I prefer
to save you, whatever be your attitude toward me." [71] The malignant
charge that this speech was "a bid for the presidency" was long ago
discarded, even by Lodge. It unfortunately survives in text-books more
concerned with "atmosphere" than with truth. The modern investigator
finds no evidence for it and every evidence against it. Webster was
both too proud and too familiar with the political situation, North
and South, to make such a monstrous mistake. The printed or manuscript
letters to or from Webster in 1850 and 1851 show him and his friends
deeply concerned over the danger to the Union, but not about the
presidency. There is rarest mention of the matter in letters by

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Online LibraryHerbert Darling FosterWebster's March 7th Speech/Secession → online text (page 2 of 4)