Daniel Webster


March 7, 1850: Daniel Webster Speaks in Favor of the Great Compromise

Webster (1782-1852), who served for over twenty years in the House of Representatives and the Senate, was a famous orator at a time when oratory was a much more common skill. Among his speeches, the most famous is one given in 1850 in favor of a bill allowing each new U.S. territory to be given the right to decide whether or not slavery would be permitted within its borders.

The 1850 speech was regarded by many as a betrayal, since Webster was once a fervent abolitionist. In 1820 he thundered to an audience celebrating the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock:

I deem it my duty on this occasion to suggest, that the land is not yet wholly free from the contamination of a traffic, at which every feeling of humanity must for ever revolt, - I mean the African slave-trade. Neither public sentiment, nor the law, has hitherto been able entirely to put an end to this odious and abominable trade. At the moment when God in his mercy has blessed the Christian world with a universal peace, there is reason to fear, that, to the disgrace of the Christian name and character, new efforts are making for the extension of this trade by subjects and citizens of Christian states, in whose hearts there dwell no sentiments of humanity or of justice, and over whom neither the fear of God nor the fear of man exercises a control. In the sight of our law, the African slave-trader is a pirate and a felon; and in the sight of Heaven, an offender beyond the ordinary depth of human guilt. (entire speech here)

But in 1850, the issue of slavery was threatening to tear the United States apart. Webster supported the Compromise of 1850, having decided he was willing to condone slavery rather than see the Union divided. Like most sacrifices of moral principle to political expediency, the benefits of this Compromise were short-lived: the Civil War began in 1861.

Herewith are two excerpts from Webster's 1850 speech. Read them aloud with feeling, and try to imagine any 21st-century politician speaking such elegant and persuasive prose.

I hear with distress and anguish the word "secession," especially when it falls from the lips of those who are patriotic, and known to the country, and known all over the world, for their political services. Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffling the surface! Who is so foolish, I beg every body's pardon, as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck of the universe. There can be no such thing as peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility. Is the great Constitution under which we live, covering this whole country, is it to be thawed and melted away by secession, as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun, disappear almost unobserved, and run off? No, Sir! No, Sir! …

 Never did there devolve on any generation of men higher trusts than now devolve upon us, for the preservation of this Constitution and the harmony and peace of all who are destined to live under it. Let us make our generation one of the strongest and brightest links in that golden chain which is destined, I fondly believe, to grapple the people of all the States to this Constitution for ages to come. We have a great, popular, constitutional government, guarded by law and by judicature, and defended by the affections of the whole people. No monarchical throne presses these States together, no iron chain of military power encircles them; they live and stand under a government popular in its form, representative in its character, founded upon principles of equality, and so constructed, we hope, as to last for ever. In all its history it has been beneficent; it has trodden down no man's liberty; it has crushed no State. Its daily respiration is liberty and patriotism; its yet youthful veins are full of enterprise, courage, and honorable love of glory and renown. Large before, the country has now, by recent events, become vastly larger. This republic now extends, with a vast breadth, across the whole continent. The two great seas of the world wash the one and the other shore. …

Webster's whole speech is here.

...and the response

From Stephen Greenleaf Whittier, a fervent abolitionist:

All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead.

Sculpture of Webster

Ball sculpted a head of Webster just before Webster’s death in 1852. It proved so popular that he created a statuette to go with the head, and sold numerous copies, putting the Webster among the first mass-produced works of art in the United States. In the 1870s Gordon W. Burnham asked Ball to create this larger-than-life version for Central Park.