Webster's Seventh of March Speech and the Secession Movement, 1850,
by Herbert Darling Foster,
American Historical Review, Vol. 27, No. 2 (January, 1922) , pp. 245-270.
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.
Nathaniel Wright Stephenson
"Webster's Seventh of March Speech and the Secession Movement, 1850"
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 letters.
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 societies.
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 partisan 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
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 endemic.
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." 4South 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 Winthrop6 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
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 Virginian.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."51
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
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
"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
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
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 Union.
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
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
On March 1, Webster recorded his determination "to make an
honest, truth-telling speech, and a Union speech"70. 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.71
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."72 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 personal or political
friends; none by Webster, so far as the writer has observed.
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."73 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."74
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.75.
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."76. Offensive as this law was to the North, the
only logical alternatives were to fulfill 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."77. 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."78. 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."79.
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. 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."8888. 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."91. "Its tranquilizing effect upon public opinion has
been wonderful"; "it has almost the unanimous support of this
community", wrote the New York philanthropist Minturn.92. "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."107.
Modern writers, North and South—Garrison, Chadwick, T. C. Smith,
Merriam, for instance108.—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
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 shorted 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.
1. Cf. Parton with Lodge on intellect, morals, indolence,
drinking, 7th of March speech, Webster's favorite things in
England; references, see note 63, below.
2. Manuscripts 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.
3. Bennett, Dec. 1, 1848, to Partridge, Norwich University. MS.
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
5. Calhoun, Correspondence, American Historical Association, Annual Report (1899, vol
11.), pp. 1193-1194.
6. To Crittenden, Dec. 20, 1849, Smith, Political History of Slavery, I.
122; Winthrop MSS., Jan. 6, 1850.
7. Calhoun, Correspondence, p. 781; cf. 764-766, 778, 780, 783-784.
8. Congressional Globe, XXI. 451-455, 463; Correspondence, 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.
9. Calhoun, Correspondence, American Historical Association, Annual Report (1899, vol.
II), pp. 1210-1212; Toombs, Correspondence, (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.
10. Hearon, Mississippi and the Compromise of 1850,, p. 209.
11. A letter to Webster, Oct. 22, 1851, Greenough MSS., shows
the strength of Calhoun's secession ideas. Hamer, p. 125, quotes
12. Hamer, p. 142; Hearon, p. 220.
13. Mar. 6, 1850. Laws (Miss.), pp. 521-526.
14. Claiborne, Quitman, II 37; Hearon, p. 161 n.
15. Hearon, pp. 180-181; Claiborne, Quitman, II. 51-52.
16. Nov. 10, 1850, Hearon, pp. 178-180; 1851, pp. 209-212.
17. Dec. 10, Southern Rights Assoc. Hearon, pp. 183-187.
18. Claiborne, Quitman, II. 52.
19. July 1, 1849. Correspondence, p. 170 (American Historical Association, Annual
Report, 1911, vol. II.).
20. Johnston, Stephens, pp. 238-239, 244; Smith, Political History of Slavery, 1. 121.
21. Laws (Ga.), 1850, pp. 122, 405-410.
22. Johnston, Stephens, p. 247.
23. Correspondence, pp. 184,193-195, 206-208, July 21. Newspapers, see
Brooks, in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, IX. 289.
24. Phillips, Georgia and State Rights, pp. 163-166.
25. Ames, Documents, pp. 271-272; Hearon, p. 190.
26. 1854, American Historical Review, VIII. 92-97; 1857, Johnston,
Stephens, pp. 321-322; infra, pp. 267, 268.
27. Hammond MSS., Jan. 27, Feb. 8; Virginia Resolves, Feb. 12;
Ambler, Sectionalism in Virginia, p. 246; New York Tribune, June 14;
M. R. H. Garnett, Union Past and Future, published between Jan.
24 and Mar. 7. Hodgson, Alabama: Cradle of the Confederacy, p.
281; Dubose, Yancey, pp. 247-249, 481; Fleming, Civil War and
Reconstruction in Alabama, p. 13; Cobb, Correspondence, 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.
28. Resolutions, Feb. 12, 1850; Acts, 1850, pp. 223-224; 1851,
29. Stephens, Correspondence, p. 192; Globe, XXII. II. 1208.
30. Boston Daily Advertiser, Feb. 23.
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.
32. White, Mississippi Valley Historical Association, III. 283.
33. Senate Miscellaneous, 1849-1850, no. 24.
34. Hamer, p. 40; cf. Cole, Whig Party in the South, p. 162;
Congressional Globe, Mar. 5.
35. Coleman, Crittenden, I. 333, 350.
36. Clayton MSS., Apr. 6; cf. Coleman, Crittenden, I. 369.
37. Smith, History of Slavery, 1. 121; Clay, Oct., 1851, letter,
in Curtis, Webster, II, 584-585.
38. Clingman, and Wilmington Resolutions, Globe, XXI. I.
200-205, 311; National Intelligencer, Feb. 25; Cobb, Correspondence, pp.
217-218; Boyd, "North Carolina on the Eve of Secession," in Amer.
Hist. Assoc., Annual Report (1910), pp. 167-177.
39. Hearndon, Nashville Convention, p. 283.
40. Johnston, Stephens, p. 247; Correspondence, pp. 186, 193, 194,
206-207; Hammond MSS., Jan. 27, Feb. 8.
41. Ames, Calhoun, p. 26.
42. Webster, Writings and Speeches, X. 161-162.
43. "Sharkey," Cyclopedia Mississippi History.
44. Hearon, pp. 124, 171-174. Davis to Clayton (Clayton MSS.),
Nov. 22, 1851.
45. Globe, XXI. I. 418, 124, 712; infra, p. 268.
46. MSS., Mar. 10. American Historical Review, vol. xxvii.—18.
47. Anstell, Bethlehem, May 21, Greenough Collection.
48. Anderson, Tenn., Apr. 8, ibid.
49. Goode, Hunter Correspondence, American Historical Association, Annual Report
(1916, vol. II.), p. 111.
50. Ames, Calhoun, pp. 24-27.
51. Hearon, pp. 120-123; Anonymous, Letter on Southern Wrongs... in Reply to Grayson
52. Letters, II. 111, 121, 127.
53. Winthrop MSS., Jan. 16, Feb. 7.
54. Philadelphia Bulletin, in McMaster, VIII. 15.
55. Winthrop MSS., Feb. 10, 6.
56. Writings and Speeches, XVI. 533; XVIII. 355.
57. Stephens, War between the States, II. 201-205, 232; Cong.
Globe, XXI. I. 375-384.
58. Thurlow Weed, Life, II. 177-178, 180-181 (Gen. Pleasanton's
confirmatory letter). Wilson, Slave Power, II. 249. Both
corroborated by Hamline letter Rhodes, I. 134. Stephens's
letters, New York Herald, July 13, Aug, 8, 1876, denying threatening
language used by Taylor "in my presence," do not nullify evidence
of Taylor's attitude. Mann, Life, p. 292. Private Washington
letter, Feb. 23, reporting interview, New York Tribune, Feb. 25.
59. Weekly Tribune, Mar. 2, reprinted from Daily, Feb. 27. Cf.
Washington National Intelligencer, Feb. 21, quoting: Richmond
Enquirer; Wilmington Commercial; Columbia Telegraph.
60. New York Herald, Feb. 25; Boston Daily Advertiser, Feb. 26.
61. Tribune, Feb. 25.
62. Writings and Speeches, XVI. 534.
63. Lodge's reproduction of Parton, pp. 16-17, 98, 195, 325-326,
349, 353, 356, 360. Other errors in Lodge's Webster, pp. 45, 314,
322, 328, 329-330, 352.
64. Writings and Speeches, XVIII. 356, 387; XVI. 542, W; X.
116; Curtis, Life II. 596; XIII. 434.
65. Mar. 19, Congressional Globe, XXII. II. 1063.
66. Aug. 12, ibid., p. 1562.
67. U. S. Bonds (1867). About 112-113, Dec., Jan., Feb., 1850;
"inactive" before Webster's speech; "firmer," Mar. 8; advanced to
117, 119, May; 116-117 after Compromise.
68. E. P. Wheeler, Sixty Years of American Life, p. 6; cf.
Webster's Buffalo Speech, Curtis, Life, II. 576; Weed, Autobiography, p. 596.
69. Winthrop MSS.
70. Webster to Harvey, Apr. 7, MS. Middletown (Conn.) Hist.
Soc., adds Fletcher's name. Received through the kindness of
Professor George M. Dutcher.
71. Writings and Speeches, X. 57; "Notes for the Speech,"
281-291; Winthrop MSS., Apr. 3.
72. Writings and Speeches, XVIII. 371-372.
73. Blaine, Twenty Years of Congress, I. 269-271.
74. Works, II. 202-203.
75. Writings and Speeches, XVI. 580-581.
76. Seward, Works, III. 111-116.
77. Writings and Speeches, X. 57, 97.
78. Ibid., XIII. 595; X. 65.
79. Mar. 10. MS., "Private," to Governor Clifford.
80. Mar 11, Apr. 13. Webster papers, New Hampshire Historical Society, cited
hereafter as "N.H.."
81. Mar. 11, 25, 22, 17, 26, 28, Greenough Collection.
82. May 20. N.H.
83. Apr. 19, May 4. N.H.
84. Apr. 1. Greenough.
85. Writings and Speeches, XVIII. 357.
86. Apr. 19. N.H.
87. June 12. N.H. Garrison childishly printed Eliot's name upside down, and
between black lines, Liberator, Sept. 20.
88. Dec. 13. N.H.
89. Writings and Speeches, XVI. 582.
90. Winthrop MSS., Mar. 21 and Apr. 10, 1850, Nov. 1951; Curtis, Life, II. 580; Everett's
Memoir; Webster's Works (1851), I.
91. Apr. 17, to Webster. Liberator, Dec. 27, 1850, May
8, 1856. Curtis, Life, II, 429 n.
92. Apr. 4. N.H.
93. Barnard, Albany, Apr. 19. N.H.
94. Mar. 15, 28. N.H.
95. June 10. Greenough.
96. Mar. 28. Greenough.
97. H. L Anderson, Tenn., Apr. 8. Greenough.
98. Nelson, Va., May 2. N.H.
99. Mar. 8. Greenough.
100. Pp. 17-20.
101. August, 1850; 127 signatures. N.H.
102. Ogg, Webster, p. 379; Rhodes, I. 157-58.
103. New York Journal of Commerce, Boston Advertiser, Richmond
Whig Mar. 12; Baltimore Sun, Mar. 18; Ames, Calhoun, p. 25;
Boston Watchman and Reflector, in Liberator, Apr. 1.
104. War between the States, II. 211.
105. Civil War (1866), pp. 130-131.
106. Slave Power, II. 246.
107. Scribner's Magazine XXVI. 84.
108. Garrison, Westward Expansion, pp. 327-332; Chadwick, The
Causes of the Civil War, pp. 49-51; Smith, Parties and Slavery,
p. 9; Merriam, Life of Bowles, I. 81.
109. Rhodes, I. 157, 161.
110. Preliminary Report, Eighth Census, 1860; Chadwick, Causes of the Civil War, p. 28.
111. Oct. 2, 1950. Writings and Speeches, XVI. 568-569.
112. Scribner, XXVI. 84; American Law Review, XXXV. 804.
113. Nicolay and Hay, IX. 76.