Herbert Darling Foster.

Webster's March 7th Speech/Secession online

. (page 3 of 4)
Online LibraryHerbert Darling FosterWebster's March 7th Speech/Secession → online text (page 3 of 4)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

personal or political friends; none by Webster, so far as the writer has

If one comes to the speech familiar with both the situation in 1850 as
now known, and with Webster's earlier and later speeches and private
letters, one finds his position and arguments on the 7th of March in
harmony with his attitude toward Union and slavery, and with the law and
the facts. Frankly reiterating both his earlier view of slavery "as a
great moral, political and social evil" and his lifelong devotion to
the Union and its constitutional obligations, Webster took national,
practical, courageous grounds. On the fugitive slave bill and the Wilmot
Proviso, where cautious Whigs like Winthrop and Everett were inclined
to keep quiet in view of Northern popular feeling, Webster "took a large
view of things" and resolved, as Foote saw, to risk his reputation
in advocating the only practicable solution. Not only was Webster
thoroughly familiar with the facts, but he was pre-eminently logical
and, as Calhoun had admitted, once convinced, "he cannot look truth in
the face and oppose it by arguments". [72] He therefore boldly faced
the truth that the Wilmot Proviso (as it proved later) was needless, and
would irritate Southern Union men and play into hands of disunionists
who frankly desired to exploit this "insult" to excite secession
sentiment. In a like case ten years later, "the Republican party took
precisely the same ground held by Mr. Webster in 1850 and acted from the
motives that inspired the 7th of March speech". [73]

Webster's anxiety for a conciliatory settlement of the highly dangerous
Texas boundary situation (which incidentally narrowed slave territory)
was as consistent with his national Union policy, as his desires for
California's admission as a free state and for prohibition of the
slave-trade in the District of Columbia were in accord with his
opposition to slavery. Seeing both abolitionists and secessionists
threatening the Union, he rebuked both severely for disloyalty to their
"constitutional obligations", while he pleaded for a more conciliatory
attitude, for faith and charity rather than "heated imaginations". The
only logical alternative to the union policy was disunion, advocated
alike by Garrisonian abolitionists and Southern secessionists. "The
Union... was thought to be in danger, and devotion to the Union
rightfully inclined men to yield... where nothing else could have so
inclined them", was Lincoln's luminous defense of the Compromise in his
debate with Douglas. [74]

Webster's support of the constitutional provision for "return of persons
held to service" was not merely that of a lawyer. It was in accord
with a deep and statesmanlike conviction that "obedience to established
government... is a Christian duty", the seat of law is "the bosom of
God, her voice the harmony of the universe". [75] Offensive as this law
was to the North, the only logical alternatives were to fulfil or
to annul the Constitution. Webster chose to risk his reputation; the
extreme abolitionists, to risk the Union. Webster felt, as his opponents
later recognized, that "the habitual cherishing of the principle",
"resistance to unjust laws is obedience to God", threatened the
Constitution. "He... addressed himself, therefore, to the duty of
calling the American people back from revolutionary theories to...
submission to authority." [76] As in 1830 against Haynes, so in 1850
against Calhoun and disunion, Webster stood not as "a Massachusetts man,
but as an American", for "the preservation of the Union". [77] In both
speeches he held that he was acting not for Massachusetts, but for the
"whole country" (1830), "the good of the whole" (1850). His devotion to
the Union and his intellectual balance led him to reject the impatience,
bitterness, and disunion sentiments of abolitionists and secessionists,
and to work on longer lines. "We must wait for the slow progress of
moral causes", a doctrine already announced in 1840, he reiterated in
1850, - "the effect of moral causes, though sure is slow." [78]


The earlier accounts of Webster's losing his friends as a result of his
speech are at variance with the facts. Cautious Northerners naturally
hesitated to support him and face both the popular convictions on
fugitive slaves and the rasping vituperation that exhausted sacred
and profane history in the epithets current in that "era of warm
journalistic manners"; Abolitionists and Free Soilers congratulated one
another that they had "killed Webster". In Congress no Northern man save
Ashmun of Massachusetts supported him in any speech for months. On the
other hand, Webster did retain the friendship and confidence of leaders
and common men North and South, and the tremendous influence of his
personality and "unanswerable" arguments eventually swung the North
for the Compromise. From Boston came prompt expressions of "entire
concurrence" in his speech by 800 representative men, including George
Ticknor, William H. Prescott, Rufus Choate, Josiah Quincy, President
Sparks and Professor Felton of Harvard, Professors Woods, Stuart,
and Emerson of Andover, and other leading professional, literary, and
business men. Similar addresses were sent to him from about the same
number of men in New York, from supporters in Newburyport, Medford,
Kennebeck River, Philadelphia, the Detroit Common Council, Manchester,
New Hampshire, and "the neighbors" in Salisbury. His old Boston
Congressional district triumphantly elected Eliot, one of Webster's most
loyal supporters, by a vote of 2,355 against 473 for Charles Sumner.
[781] The Massachusetts legislature overwhelmingly defeated a
proposal to instruct Webster to vote for the Wilmot Proviso. Scores
of unpublished letters in the New Hampshire Historical Society and the
Library of Congress reveal hearty approval from both parties and all
sections. Winthrop of Massachusetts, too cautious to endorse Webster's
entire position, wrote to the governor of Massachusetts that as a result
of the speech, "disunion stock is already below par". [79] "You have
performed the responsible duties of, a national Senator", wrote General
Dearborn. "I thank you because you did not speak upon the subject as
a Massachusetts man", said Reverend Thomas Worcester of Boston, an
overseer of Harvard. "Your speech has saved the Union", was the verdict
of Barker of Pennsylvania, a man not of Webster's party. [80] "The Union
threatened... you have come to the rescue, and all disinterested lovers
of that Union must rally round you", wrote Wainwright of New York.
In Alabama, Reverend J. W. Allen recognized the "comprehensive and
self-forgetting spirit of patriotism" in Webster, "which, if followed,
would save the Union, unite the country and prevent the danger in the
Nashville Convention". Like approval of Webster's "patriotic stand for
the preservation of the Union" was sent from Green County and Greensboro
in Alabama and from Tennessee and Virginia. [81] "The preservation of
the Union is the only safety-valve. On Webster depends the tranquility
of the country", says an anonymous writer from Charleston, a native of
Massachusetts and former pupil of Webster. [82] Poinsett and Francis
Lieber, South Carolina Unionists, expressed like views. [83] The growing
influence of the speech is testified to in letters from all sections.
Linus Child of Lowell finds it modifying his own previous opinions and
believes that "shortly if not at this moment, it will be approved by a
large majority of the people of Massachusetts". [84] "Upon sober second
thought, our people will generally coincide with your views", wrote
ex-Governor and ex-Mayor Armstrong of Boston. [85] "Every day adds to
the number of those who agree with you", is the confirmatory testimony
of Dana, trustee of Andover and former president of Dartmouth. [86]
"The effect of your speech begins to be felt", wrote ex-Mayor Eliot of
Boston. [87] Mayor Huntington of Salem at first felt the speech to be
too Southern; but "subsequent events at North and South have entirely
satisfied me that you were right... and vast numbers of others here in
Massachusetts were wrong." "The change going on in me has been going on
all around me." "You saw farther ahead than the rest or most of us and
had the courage and patriotism to stand upon the true ground." [88] This
significant inedited letter is but a specimen of the change of attitude
manifested in hundreds of letters from "slow and cautious Whigs". [89]
One of these, Edward Everett, unable to accept Webster's attitude on
Texas and the fugitive slave bill, could not "entirely concur" in the
Boston letter of approval. "I think our friend will be able to carry
the weight of it at home, but as much as ever." "It would, as you justly
said," he wrote Winthrop, "have ruined any other man." This probably
gives the position taken at first by a good many moderate anti-slavery
then. Everett's later attitude is likewise typical of a change in New
England. He wrote in 1851 that Webster's speech "more than any other
cause, contributed to avert the catastrophe", and was "a practical
basis for the adjustment of controversies, which had already gone far to
dissolve the Union". [90]

Isaac Hill, a bitter New Hampshire political opponent, confesses that
Webster's "kindly answer" to Calhoun was wiser than his own might have
been. Hill, an experienced political observer, had feared in the month
preceding Webster's speech a "disruption of the Union" with "no chance
of escaping a conflict of blood". He felt that the censures of Webster
were undeserved, that Webster was not merely right, but had "power he
can exercise at the North, beyond any other man", and that "all that
is of value will declare in favor of the great principles of your late
Union speech". "Its tranquilizing effect upon public opinion
has been wonderful"; "it has almost the unanimous support of this
community", wrote the New York philanthropist Minturn. "The speech
made a powerful impression in this state... Men feel they can stand
on it with security." [93] In Cincinnati, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New
York, and Pittsfield (with only one exception) the speech was found
"wise and patriotic". [94] The sender of a resolution of approval from
the grand jury of the United States court at Indianapolis says that
such judgment is almost universal. [95] "It is thought you may save the
country.. . you may keep us still united", wrote Thornton of Memphis,
who soberly records the feeling of thoughtful men that the Southern
purpose of disunion was stronger than appeared in either newspapers or
political gatherings. [96] "Your speech has disarmed-has, quieted the
South; [97] has rendered invaluable service to the harmony and union
of the South and the North". [98] "I am confident of the higher
approbation, not of a single section of the Union, but of all sections",
wrote a political opponent in Washington. [99]

The influence of Webster in checking the radical purposes of the
Nashville Convention has been shown above. [100]

All classes of men from all sections show a substantial and growing
backing of Webster's 7th of March speech as "the only statesmanlike
and practicable way to save the Union". "To you, more than to any other
statesman of modern times, do the people of this country owe their
national feeling which we trust is to save this Union in this its hour
of trial", was the judgment of "the neighbors", the plain farmers of
Webster's old New Hampshire home. [101] Outside of the Abolition and
Free Soil press, the growing tendency in newspapers, like that of their
readers, was to support Webster's logical position. [102]

Exaggerated though some of these expressions of approval may have been,
they balance the exaggerated vituperation of Webster in the anti-slavery
press; and the extremes of approval and disapproval both concur in
recognizing the widespread effect of the speech. "No speech ever
delivered in Congress produced... so beneficial a change of opinion. The
change of, feeling and temperament wrought in Congress by this speech is
miraculous." [103]

The contemporary testimony to Webster's checking of disunion is
substantiated by the conclusions of Petigru of South Carolina, Cobb of
Georgia in 1852, Allen of Pennsylvania in 1853, and by Stephens's mature
judgment of "the profound sensation upon the public mind throughout the
Union made by Webster's 7th of March speech. The friends of the Union
under the Constitution were strengthened in their hopes and inspired
with renewed energies." [104] In 1866 Foote wrote, "The speech produced
beneficial effects everywhere." "His statement of facts was generally
looked upon as unanswerable; his argumentative conclusions appeared to
be inevitable; his conciliatory tone.. . softened the sensibilities
of all patriots." [105] "He seems to have gauged more accurately [than
most] the grave dangers which threatened the republic and... the fearful
consequences which must follow its disruption", was Henry Wilson's later
and wiser judgment. [106] "The general judgment," said Senator Hoar in
1899, "seems to be coming to the conclusion that Webster differed from
the friends of freedom of his time not in a weaker moral sense, but only
in a larger, and profounder prophetic vision." "He saw what no other man
saw, the certainty of civil war. I was one of those who... judged him
severely, but I have learned better." "I think of him now... as the
orator who bound fast with indissoluble strength the bonds of union."

Modern writers, North and South-Garrison, Chadwick, T. C. Smith,
Merriam, for instance [108] - now recognize the menace of disunion in
1850 and the service of Webster in defending the Union. Rhodes, though
condemning Webster's support of the fugitive slave bill, recognizes that
the speech was one of the few that really altered public opinion and won
necessary Northern support for the Compromise. "We see now that in
the War of the Rebellion his principles were mightier than those of
Garrison." "It was not the Liberty or Abolitionist party, but the Union
party that won." [109]

Postponement of secession for ten years gave the North preponderance
in population, voting power, production, and transportation; new
party organization; and convictions which made man-power and economic
resources effective. The Northern lead of four million people in 1850
had increased to seven millions by 1860. In 1850, each section had
thirty votes in the Senate; in 1860, the North had a majority of six,
due to the admission of California, Oregon, and Minnesota. In the House
of Representatives, the North had added seven to her majority. The Union
states and territories built during the decade 15,000 miles of railroad,
to 7,000 or 8,000 in the eleven seceding states. In shipping, the North
in 1860 built about 800 vessels to the seceding states' 200. In 1860,
in the eleven most important industries for war, Chadwick estimates that
the Union states produced $735,500,000; the seceding states $75,250,000,
"a manufacturing productivity eleven times as great for the North as for
the South". [110] In general, during the decade, the census figures
for 1860 show that since 1850 the North had increased its man-power,
transportation, and economic production from two to fifty times as fast
as the South, and that in 1860 the Union states were from two to twelve
times as powerful as the seceding states.

Possibly Southern secessionists and Northern abolitionists had some
basis for thinking that the North would let the "erring sisters depart
in peace" in 1850. Within the next ten years, however, there came a
decisive change. The North, exasperated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of
1854, the high-handed acts of Southerners in Kansas in 1856, and the
Dred Scott dictum of the Supreme Court in 1857, felt that these things
amounted to a repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the opening up of
the territory to slavery. In 1860 Northern conviction, backed by an
effective, thorough party platform on a Union basis, swept the free
states. In 1850, it was a "Constitutional Union" party that accepted the
Compromise and arrested secession in the South; and Webster, foreseeing
a "remodelling of parties", had prophesied that "there must be a Union
party". [111] Webster's spirit and speeches and his strengthening of
federal power through Supreme Court cases won by his arguments had
helped to furnish the conviction which underlay the Union Party of 1860
and 1964. His consistent opposition to nullification and secession,
and his appeal to the Union and to the Constitution during twenty years
preceding the Civil War - from his reply to Hayne to his seventh of March
speech - had developed a spirit capable of making economic and political
power effective.

Men inclined to sneer at Webster for his interest in manufacturing,
farming, and material prosperity, may well remember that in his mind,
and more slowly in the minds of the North, economic progress went hand
in hand with the development of union and of liberty secured by law.

Misunderstandings regarding both the political crisis and the personal
character of the man are already disappearing as fact replaces fiction,
as "truth gets a hearing", in the fine phrase of Wendell Phillips. There
is nothing about Daniel Webster to be hidden. Not moral blindness but
moral insight and sound political principles reveal themselves to the
reader of Webster's own words in public speech and unguarded private
letter. One of those great men who disdained to vindicate himself,
he does not need us but we need him and his vision that Liberty comes
through Union, and healing through cooperation, not through hate.

Whether we look to the material progress of the North from 1850 to 1860
or to its development in "imponderables", Webster's policy and his power
over men's thoughts and deeds were essential factors in the ultimate
triumph of the Union, which would have been at least dubious had
secession been attempted in 1850. It was a soldier, not the modern
orator, who first said that "Webster shotted our guns". A letter to
Senator Hoar from another Union soldier says that he kept up his heart
as he paced up and down as sentinel in an exposed place by repeating
over and over, "Liberty and Union now and forever, one and inseparable".
[112] Hosmer tells us that he and his boyhood friends of the North in
1861 "did not argue much the question of the right of secession", but
that it was the words of Webster's speeches, "as familiar to us as the
sentences of the Lord's prayer and scarcely less consecrated,... with
which we sprang to battle". Those boys were not ready in 1850. The
decisive human factors in the Civil War were the men bred on the
profound devotion to the Union which Webster shared with others equally
patriotic, but less profoundly logical, less able to mould public
opinion. Webster not only saw the vision himself; he had the genius
to make the plain American citizen see that liberty could come through
union and not through disunion. Moreover, there was in Webster and the
Compromise of 1850 a spirit of conciliation, and therefore there was on
the part of the North a belief that they had given the South a "square
deal", and a corresponding indignation at the attempts in the next
decade to expand slavery by violating the Compromises of 1820 and 1850.
So, by 1860, the decisive border states and Northwest were ready to
stand behind the Union.

When Lincoln, born in a border state, coming to manhood in
the Northwest, and bred on Webster's doctrine, - "the Union is
paramount", - accepted for the second time the Republican nomination and
platform, he summed up the issues of the war, as he had done before,
in Webster's words. Lincoln, who had grown as masterly in his choice of
words as he had become profound in his vision of issues, used in 1864
not the more familiar and rhetorical phrases of the reply to Hayne,
but the briefer, more incisive form, "Liberty and Union", of Webster's
"honest, truth-telling, Union speech" on the 7th of March, 1850. [113]



[Footnote 1: Cf. Parton with Lodge on intellect, morals, indolence,
drinking, 7th of March speech, Webster's favorite things in England;
references, note 63, below.]

[Footnote 2: In the preparation of this article, manuscripts have been
used from the following collections: the Greenough, Hammond, and
Clayton (Library of Congress); Winthrop and Appleton (Mass. Hist. Soc.);
Garrison (Boston Public Library); N.H. Hist. Soc.; Dartmouth College;
Middletown (Conn.) Hist. Soc.; Mrs. Alfred E. Wyman.]

[Footnote 3: Bennett, Dec. 1, 1848, to Partridge, Norwich University.
MS. Dartmouth.]

[Footnote 4: Houston, Nullification in South Carolina, p. 141. Further
evidence of Webster's thesis that abolitionists had developed Southern
reaction in Phillips, South in the Building of the Nation, IV, 401-403;
and unpublished letters approving Webster's speech.]

[Footnote 5: Calhoun, Corr., Amer. Hist. Assoc., Annual Report (1899,
vol 11.), pp. 1193-1194.]

[Footnote 6: To Crittenden, Dec. 20, 1849, Smith, polit. Hist. Slavery,
I. 122; Winthrop MSS., Jan. 6, 1850.]

[Footnote 7: Calhoun, Corr., p. 781; cf. 764-766, 778, 780, 783-784.]

[Footnote 8: Cong. Globe, XXI. 451-455, 463; Corr., p. 784. On Calhoun's
attitude, Ames, Calhoun, pp. 6-7; Stephenson, in Yale Review, 1919,
p. 216; Newbury in South Atlantic Quarterly, XI. 259; Hamer, Secession
Movement in South Carolina, 1847-1852, pp. 49-54.]

[Footnote 9: Calhoun, Corr., Amer. Hist. Assoc., Annual Report (1899,
vol. II), pp. 1210-1212; Toombs, Corr., (id., 1911, vol. II), pp. 188,
217; Coleman, Crittenden, I. 363; Hamer, pp. 55-56, 46-48, 54, 82-83;
Ames, Calhoun, pp. 21-22, 29; Claiborne, Quitman, H. 36-39.]

[Footnote 10: Hearon, Miss. and the Compromise of 1850, p. 209.]

[Footnote 11: A letter to Webster, Oct. 22, 1851, Greenough MSS., shows
the strength of Calhoun's secession ideas. Hamer, p. 125, quotes part.]

[Footnote 12: Hamer, p. 142; Hearon, p. 220.]

[Footnote 13: Mar. 6, 1850. Laws (Miss.), pp. 521-526.]

[Footnote 14: Claiborne, Quitman, IL 37; Hearon, p. 161 n.]

[Footnote 15: Hearon, pp. 180-181; Claiborne, Quitman, II. 51-52.]

[Footnote 16: Nov. 10, 1850, Hearon, pp. 178-180; 1851, pp. 209-212.]

[Footnote 17: Dec. 10, Southern Rights Assoc. Hearon, pp. 183-187.]

[Footnote 18: Claiborne, Quitman, II. 52.]

[Footnote 19: July 1, 1849. Corr., p. 170 (Amer. Hist. Assoc., Annual
Report, 1911, vol. II.).]

[Footnote 20: Johnston, Stephens, pp. 238-239, 244; Smith, Political
History of Slavery, 1. 121.]

[Footnote 21: Laws (Ga.), 1850, pp. 122, 405-410.]

[Footnote 22: Johnston, Stephens, p. 247.]

[Footnote 23: Corr., pp. 184,193-195, 206-208, July 21. Newspapers, see
Brooks, in Miss. Valley Hist. Review, IX. 289.]

[Footnote 24: Phillips, Georgia and State Rights, pp. 163-166.]

[Footnote 25: Ames, Documents, pp. 271-272; Hearon, p. 190.]

[Footnote 26: 1854, Amer. Hist. Review, VIII. 92-97; 1857, Johnston,
Stephens, pp. 321-322; infra, pp. 267, 268.]

[Footnote 27: Hammond MSS., Jan. 27, Feb. 8; Virginia Resolves, Feb. 12;
Ambler, Sectionalism in Virginia, p. 246; N. Y. Tribune, June 14; M. R.
H. Garnett, Union Past and Future, published between Jan. 24 and Mar. 7.
Alabama: Hodgson, Cradle of the Confederacy, p. 281; Dubose, Yancey, pp.
247-249, 481; Fleming, Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama, p. 13;
Cobb, Corr., pp. 193-195, 207. President Tyler of the College of William
and Mary kindly furnished evidence of Garnett's authorship; see J. M.
Garnett, in Southern Literary Messenger, I. 255.]

[Footnote 28: Resolutions, Feb. 12, 1850; Acts, 1850, pp. 223-224; 1851,
p. 201.]

[Footnote 29: Stephens, Corr., p. 192; Globe, XXII. II. 1208.]

[Footnote 30: Boston Daily Advertiser, Feb. 23.]

[Footnote 31: South Carolina, Acts, 1849, p, 240, and the following Laws
or Acts, all 1850: Georgia, pp. 418, 405-410, 122; Texas, pp. 93-94,
171; Tennessee, p. 572 (Globe, XXI. I. 417. Cole, Whig Party in the
South, p. 161); Mississippi, pp. 526-528; Virginia, p. 233; Alabama,
Weekly Tribune, Feb. 23, Daily, Feb. 25.]

[Footnote 32: White, Miss. Valley Hist. Assoc., III. 283.]

[Footnote 33: Senate Miscellaneous, 1849-1850, no. 24.]

[Footnote 34: Hamer, p. 40; cf. Cole, Whig Party in the South, p. 162;
Cong. Globe, Mar. 5.]

[Footnote 35: Coleman, Crittenden, I. 333, 350.]

[Footnote 36: Clayton MSS., Apr. 6; cf. Coleman, Crittenden, I. 369.]

[Footnote 37: Smith, History of Slavery, 1. 121; Clay, Oct., 1851,
letter, in Curtis, Webster, II, 584-585.]

[Footnote 38: Clingman, and Wilmington Resolutions, Globe, XXI. I.

1 3

Online LibraryHerbert Darling FosterWebster's March 7th Speech/Secession → online text (page 3 of 4)