March 7, 1850: Seventh of March Speech

 

 

“You have made great speeches,” said the stranger. “You will make more.”

“Ah,” said Dan’l Webster.

“But the last great speech you make will turn many of your own against you,” said the stranger. “They will call you Ichabod; they will call you by other names. Even in New England some will say you have turned your coat and sold your country, and their voices will be loud against you till you die.”

“So it is an honest speech, it does not matter what men say,” said Dan’l Webster. Then he looked at the stranger and their glances locked. “One question,” he said. “I have fought for the Union all my life. Will I see that fight won against those who would tear it apart?”

“Not while you live,” said the stranger, grimly, “but it will be won. And after you are dead, there are thousands who will fight for your cause, because of words that you spoke.”

The Devil and Daniel Webster, Stephen Vincent Benet

1850 was a year of great transition for the United States.  The great trilogy of statesman who had guided the fortunes of the nation since the War of 1812 were engaging in their swan songs.  John C. Calhoun would be dead before the end of March of 1850.  Henry Clay and Daniel Webster would be dead two years later, but 1850 would mark their disappearance as major figures in American political life.  All three men were in the United States Senate.  Henry Clay, taking his last bow as the Great Compromiser, had cobbled together the elements of what would become the Compromise of 1850.  Calhoun devoted his dying energies to attacking the Compromise, convinced that the North and the South could no longer compromise on the issue of slavery and that the time had come for a peaceful separation by the dissolution of the Union.

Webster throwing his support behind the Compromise was critical in its passage.  Webster had always cared most of all for the preservation of the Union, and he knew that if some sort of compromise was not worked out, the Union would almost certainly dissolve.  His position was highly unpopular throughout New England where he was widley regarded as a traitor.  Eventually Webster resigned from the Senate, serving as Secretary of State until his death.  The Compromise of 1850 probably ensured Union victory in the Civil War, delaying the conflict for ten years, during which time the North became more industrialized, with ever spreading  railroads and telegraphs knitting the North into a powerful nascent world power, largely nullifying Southern initial advantages in generalship and cavalry. Here is the text of his speech:

 

 

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Published in: on March 7, 2022 at 5:44 am  Comments Off on March 7, 1850: Seventh of March Speech  
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Daniel Webster

 

Yes, Dan’l Webster’s dead–or, at least, they buried him. But every
time there’s a thunder storm around Marshfield, they say you can hear
his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky. And they say that if you
go to his grave and speak loud and clear, “Dan’l Webster–Dan’l
Webster!” the ground’ll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake.
And after a while you’ll hear a deep voice saying, “Neighbor, how
stands the Union?” Then you better answer the Union stands as she
stood, rock-bottomed and copper sheathed, one and indivisible, or he’s
liable to rear right out of the ground. At least, that’s what I was
told when I was a youngster.

Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster

In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named, and we have examined the lives of each of them including the “life” I made up for the fictional the Reverend John Smeet.  We also looked at the judge who presided over the case, Justice Hathorne.  Only one personage remains to examine, Daniel Webster.

Born in 1782 a few months after the American victory at Yorktown, Webster would live to be a very old man for his time, dying in 1852.  Webster would serve in the House for 10 years from New Hampshire and 19 years in the Senate from Massachusetts.  Three times Secretary of State, he also attempted on three occasions to win the Presidency failing three times, watching as much lesser men attained that office.  Like his two great contemporaries, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, his name is remembered while most Americans would be hard pressed to name many of those presidents.

While holding political office he also practiced law, arguing an astounding 223 cases before the United States Supreme Court and winning about half of them.

He was acknowledged to be the finest American orator of his day, a day in which brilliant speech making was fairly common on the American political scene, and his contemporaries often referred to him blasphemously as “the god-like Daniel”.  Perhaps the finest example of Webster’s oratory is his Second Reply to Senator Haynes of South Carolina during the debate on tariffs which took place in the Senate  in January of 1830.  In the background lurked the nullification crisis and possible secession, a crisis which would build over the next three decades and explode into the attempted dissolution of the union in 1860.  The ending of this speech was once known by every schoolchild:   Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable! 

The American Union was Webster’s passion throughout his life, he being above all an ardent patriot.  He was also an ardent opponent of slavery.  However, in 1850 when his opposition to slavery conflicted with what he perceived to be the necessity of a compromise to preserve the Union, he did not hesitate and helped hammer the compromise together.  Because it included a stronger fugitive slave act, he was roundly condemned throughout New England, something noted in The Devil and Daniel Webster:

Well, with that the stranger began to beg and to plead. And he begged and he pled so humble that finally Dan’l, who was naturally kind hearted, agreed to let him go. The stranger seemed terrible grateful for that and said, just to show they were friends, he’d tell Dan’l’s for tune before leaving. So Dan’l agreed to that, though he didn’t take much stock in fortunetellers ordinarily.

But, naturally, the stranger was a little different. Well, he pried and he peered at the line in Dan’l’s hands. And he told him one thing and another that was quite remarkable. But they were all in the past.

“Yes, all that’s true, and it happened,” said Dan’l Webster. “But what’s to come in the future?”

The stranger grinned, kind of happily, and shook his head. “The future’s not as you think it,” he said. “It’s dark. You have a great ambition, Mr. Webster.”

“I have,” said Dan’l firmly, for everybody knew he wanted to be President.

“It seems almost within your grasp,” said the stranger, “but you will not attain it. Lesser men will be made President and you will be passed over.”

“And, if I am, I’ll still be Daniel Webster,” said Dan’l. “Say on.”

“You have two strong sons,” said the stranger, shaking his head. “You look to found a line. But each will die in war and neither reach greatness.”

“Live or die, they are still my sons,” said Dan’l Webster. “Say on.”

“You have made great speeches,” said the stranger. “You will make more.”

“Ah,” said Dan’l Webster.

“But the last great speech you make will turn many of your own against you,” said the stranger. “They will call you Ichabod; they will call you by other names. Even in New England some will say you have turned your coat and sold your country, and their voices will be loud against you till you die.”

“So it is an honest speech, it does not matter what men say,” said Dan’l Webster. Then he looked at the stranger and their glances locked. “One question,” he said. “I have fought for the Union all my life. Will I see that fight won against those who would tear it apart?”

“Not while you live,” said the stranger, grimly, “but it will be won. And after you are dead, there are thousands who will fight for your cause, because of words that you spoke.”

“Why, then, you long-barreled, slab-sided, lantern-jawed, fortune-telling note shaver!” said Dan’l Webster, with a great roar of laughter, “be off with you to your own place before I put my mark on you! For, by the thirteen original colonies, I’d go to the Pit itself to save the Union!”

I think that the Compromise of 1850 was essential for the preservation of the Union.  Ten years later the North barely won the Civil War begun in 1861.  In 1851 the disparity in industrial strength and rail capacity was much less than it would be in 1861.  The South had borne the brunt of the fighting in the Mexican War, and as a result it had many veteran volunteer soldiers in civilian life, still in their prime, who would have given the South perhaps an insurmountable advantage early in a war that began in 1851.  The Republican party still remained in the future, and there was no party in existence in 1850 dedicated both to preservation of the Union and anti-slavery to rally the strength of the North through a terrible conflict.  Finally, the hapless Millard Fillmore would have made a poor substitute for Abraham Lincoln as a war president.  Daniel Webster was absolutely correct in his conclusion that a compromise was needed in order to preserve the Union.  In the world to come I am sure that has given him immense satisfaction.

 

 

Liberty and Union

In the movie The Devil and Daniel Webster  (1941), based upon the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet Daniel Webster beats Satan in a jury trial and saves the soul of Jabez Stone.

 

Stories not unlike this sprang up about Daniel Webster during his life.   He was acknowledged to be the finest American orator of his day, a day in which brilliant speech making was fairly common on the American political scene, and his contemporaries often referred to him, blasphemously, as “the god-like Daniel”.  Perhaps the finest example of Webster’s oratory is his Second Reply to Senator Haynes of South Carolina during the debate on tariffs which took place in the Senate  in January of 1830.  In the background lurked the nullification crisis and possible secession, a crisis which would build over the next three decades and explode into the attempted dissolution of the union in 1860.  The ending of this speech was once known by every schoolchild:   Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!   Here is Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne: (more…)

Published in: on January 17, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Liberty and Union  
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Quotes Suitable for Framing: Daniel Webster

 

If we work upon marble, it will perish; if we work upon brass, time will efface it; if we rear temples, they will crumble to dust; but if we work on men’s immortal minds, if we impress on them with high principles, the just fear of God and love for their fellow-men, we engrave on those tablets something which no time can efface, and which will brighten and brighten to all eternity.

Daniel Webster, May 22, 1852

 

Published in: on March 26, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Quotes Suitable for Framing: Daniel Webster  
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Letter to Webster

 

 

During the Nullifcation crisis, James Madison, one of the last survivors of the Founding Fathers, was an ardent foe of both secession and nullification.  In a letter to Senator Daniel Webster dated March 15, 1833, Madison set forth his thoughts on secession: (more…)

Published in: on February 10, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Letter to Webster  
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Aroostook War

Perhaps the most obscure American conflict, the Aroostook War for a few years seemed likely to spark a third war between Great Britain and the United States.

The treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War had not clarified the boundary line between Maine, then part of Massachusetts, and Canada.  The contested area involved approximately 12,000 square miles in the Saint John’s river valley and its tributaries.  After Maine was admitted to the Union in 1820, tensions grew between Maine and the province of New Brunswick over the disputed territory.  In 1831-32, Great Britain and the US entered into a tentative resolution, simply stating that territory controlled by Maine and territory controlled by New Brunswick would remain under their separate jurisdiction and that neither would claim sovereignty over disputed areas. (more…)

Published in: on March 1, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (3)  
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The Death of the Whigs

Being something of a sadist I recently re-red Michael Holt’s The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. It’s quite the tome to sift through once, and to do it again is a sure sign of some kind of mental disturbance. It is a remarkable work, though perhaps a bit over-extensive.  If you want to know what a low-level Whig state legislator from Rhode Island thought about the death of the Whig party, this is your book.

So why did the Whig party pass?  My interpretation – and I don’t think I’m that far off from Holt – is that it simply stopped being an ideological vehicle of opposition to the Democrats.  In other words, by the time of its death it no longer stood for anything.  It’s not that individual members of the party stopped caring deeply about the major issues of the day, but its leadership, particularly in the persons of Millard Fillmore and Daniel Webster, tried so hard to steer a middle ground in the sectional war brewing between north and south that the Whigs became almost indistinguishable from the Democrats.

There are many other things that contributed to the party’s demise, though all are wrapped up into this inability for the party to provide an attractive and distinct counterweight to the Democrats.  As Holt describes, economic boom times in the late 1840s and early 50s made some of the Whig economic arguments somewhat obsolete.  I plan on discussing this in some greater detail in a subsequent post.  Comparatively speaking the Whigs were the more “big government” of the two parties.  In reality they were the inheritors of the Hamiltonian Federalist program: they supported the national bank, they supported a protectionist tariff, and they advocated federal governmental involvement in internal improvements (canals, roads, trains, etc.).  But the boom times ate into some of these ideas and causes the Whigs to re-focus.  By the early 50s there wasn’t much daylight between the two parties, at least substantively.  Whigs didn’t necessarily abandon their platform, but they muted their advocacy of traditional Whig ideas.

The party also did not offer a unified platform on some of the other major issues of the day, namely nativism, anti-Catholicism, and prohibition.  Certainly the birth of the Know-Nothing party ate into the Whigs, but in a sense Whig dis-unity and silence on these issues encouraged voters to turn to a third party.  None Know-Nothing Whigs opposed to slavery had yet another alternative: the Republican party.  So while some might argue that these other parties killed the Whigs, the reticence of national Whigs to forcefully articulate some kind of platform enabled these other parties to rise to prominence.

Ultimately, Whig leaders tried to make the party all things to all people.  In a sense this was inevitable due to the very nature of the sectional conflict that was brewing.  Pro-slavery southern Whigs naturally clashed with anti-slavery northern Whigs.  But I’d contend that it was the politically tone-deaf turn towards moderation taken by Millard Fillmore and then Secretary of State Daniel Webster that led the Whigs down the path to ultimate ruin.

If voters are not given a clear choice they’ll either stay home or just vote for the real thing.  The more Whigs tried to eliminate real differences between them and the Democrats, the more it discouraged Whig voters.  Given a choice between Democrats and Democrat-lite, it’s no surprise that voters between 1850-1853 chose actual Democrats.

Amazingly modern pundits and other figures have learned nothing from this and continue to advocate the same path for our modern parties – I’m looking at you David Frum, David Brooks, Colin Powell, etc.  Calls to moderate might have some intellectual appeal, but political parties must offer brand differentiation in order to thrive and survive.  The Whigs ceased to offer up a meaningful alternative, and voters proceeded to abandon them.  And so the Whig party passed into oblivion

Published in: on December 3, 2010 at 3:34 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Devil and Daniel Webster

A fantastic video review of the film the Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).  The film is based on the Stephen Vincent Benet short story in which the American statesman Daniel Webster defeats the Devil in a jury trial and saves the soul of Jabez Stone, a New Hampshireman.  My favorite section of the short story is when Daniel Webster is making his closing argument to the jury of the Damned: (more…)

Published in: on August 24, 2010 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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