It’s the 164th anniversary of one of our nation’s great speeches. Daniel Webster offers an eloquent argument in support of the Compromise of 1850. A compromise, among others, that eventually fails to keep the young nation from spiraling into civil war.
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The Constitution & the Union
March 7, 1850
Specialists in rhetorical address universally have judged Daniel Webster to be this nation’s preeminent orator. “Like no other speaker in American history,” concludes one authority, “Webster dominated the courts, the legislature and the public speaking circuit.” The editor of the definitive modern edition of Webster’s papers writes that his “Constitution and the Union” speech “is rivalled only by the ‘Second Reply to Hayne’ for its importance in Webster’s career and its impact on the nation. It is also one of the most controversial speeches ever delivered in the Senate, and one of the most fully analyzed and annotated by scholars.”
1850 was to be Daniel Webster’s final year in the Senate. He had served in the upper house for nearly twenty years, rising to a position of great prominence among the second generation of American statesmen. The death of President Zachary Taylor in July 1850 placed Webster’s admirer Millard Fillmore in the White House. Seeking an experienced counsellor at a time of grave national crisis, Fillmore nominated the Massachusetts senator to be Secretary of State, a post Webster had held from 1841 to 1843 under the only previous Whig administration. Webster resigned from the Senate on July 22, 1850, and served as Secretary of State until his death on October 24, 1852.
A month after Henry Clay’s two-day speech on the Compromise of 1850, a mortally ill John C. Calhoun summoned the strength to draft a reply, which his colleague James Mason read to the Senate on March 4. Calhoun challenged the Senate to respect the South’s institutions and to protect her economic vitality against northern efforts to limit slavery and promote industrial over agricultural interests. Three days later, Daniel Webster, the final member of the “Great Triumvirate,” delivered his response to Calhoun. Prepared rather hastily, modeled after Clay’s address, and delivered in a “pain-fully laborious” manner, Webster’s three-and-a-half-hour speech (pdf) has come to be considered a triumph of American persuasive oratory.
Webster viewed slavery as a matter of historical reality rather than moral principle. He argued that the issue of its existence in the territories had been settled long ago when Congress prohibited slavery in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and divided regions into slave and free in the 1820 Missouri Compromise. He believed that slavery where it existed could not be eradicated but also that it could not take root in the newly acquired agriculturally barren lands of the southwest. Attacking radical abolitionists to boost his credibility with moderate southerners, Webster urged northerners to respect slavery in the South and to assist in the return of fugitive slaves to their owners. He joined Clay in warning that the Union could never be dismembered peacefully.
Webster immediately earned the praise of moderates throughout the country, while reaping the scorn of northern abolitionists who believed he had sold his soul to advocates of the South’s “peculiar institution” in return for their support of his presidential candidacy. John Greenleaf Whittier captured the abolitionists’ anger and disillusionment:
Of all we loved and honored, naught
Save power remains;
A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
Still strong in chains
All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!
So bitter was the reaction expressed in the New England press, that none of Webster’s congressional colleagues from that region was willing publicly to support the speech. Yet members of the Massachusetts legislature rejected a resolution condemning his actions, and several hundred New York businessmen sent him a letter of thanks and a gold watch. In the South, Webster’s moderate tone made it easier for senators to support compromise measures.
Webster revised the speech to remove particularly contentious remarks and arranged for the printing of 200,000 pamphlet copies in Washington; half of these were mailed out under his Senate frank. Additional quantities were printed throughout the country as Webster traveled widely, wrote editorials, met with legislators, and addressed huge crowds at public meetings.
On March 11 New York Senator William H. Seward delivered his “Higher Law” speech, an oration that split Webster’s Whig party and stalled the momentum behind the compromise measures. The death of John C. Calhoun on March 31 further slowed the forces of compromise.
Webster’s “Seventh of March” speech should be viewed in tandem with his other great oratorical effort of 1850, his “Seventeenth of July” address. He designed the first to influence public opinion in favor of compromise to preserve the Union; later he acknowledged that it was “probably the most important effort of my life.” Shortly after he gave that address, however, he realized that it had not done much to persuade his Senate colleagues to support the pending compromise measures. In his July 17 farewell address to the Senate, Webster presented a more subtle, complex, and legislatively specific call to his fellow senators to adopt compromise measures. Within two months those measures had become law.