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Over the course of approximately a week in late January, 1830, a debate occurred in the United States Senate that historians consider the greatest ever in that chamber. Before a gallery packed with listeners, under the animated gaze of Vice-President John C. Calhoun, Senators Robert Hayne of South Carolina and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts waged an oratorical battle. Astonishing is that it was precipitated by a skirmish over an intellectually rather dry, though politically charged, topic–the sale of public lands in the American West to settlers.
The previous month, Senator Samuel Foot of Connecticut had proposed that Congress investigate the desirability of curtailing the sale of public lands by the federal government. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, representing the Western interests, denounced the proposal as another attempt by Eastern economic interests to prevent the migration of workers from their states. From his perspective, keeping those workers tied down in their locales suppressed the cost of labor and increased the industrialists’ profits. The Westerners wanted free migration and federally-financed “internal improvements” and the economic and political benefits that would accrue from them.
The country was increasingly riven by sectional tension, not just the familiar one between North and South, but, as significantly, between Northeast and West. Gone, it was lamented, was the ethos of sectional compromise forged by the exigencies of the Revolutionary War. Western politicians, such as Benton, sought to increase their political importance by aligning themselves with one section’s interest against the other. On this particular matter, as comically described by the historian Samuel Eliot Morison, Benton “summoned the gallant South to the rescue of the Western Dulcinea, and Senator Hayne of South Carolina was the first to play Don Quixote.”
Hayne was an accomplished lawyer, speaker, and writer. He was well-educated, with handsome features, and unfailingly polite. He was elected to the Senate at 31, barely over the minimum age, a fitting champion for his Southern aristocratic class. His first speech in the debate, on January 19, chastised the Northeast for its protectionism of nascent industries and linked that policy to Benton’s claim about the industrialists’ obstruction of Western migration.
Hayne’s attack dovetailed with increasingly determined and desperate Southern opposition to the national tariff policy during the 1820s and 1830s. Import duties on European finished goods, such as textiles, protected the weavers of New England, but increased the price of such goods to consumers. Moreover, these duties invited British retaliation against American commodities, including cotton, by tariffs and by expanded reliance on alternative suppliers, such as cotton growers in Egypt and India.
Thus, the “Tariff of Abominations” of 1828, was so economically damaging and politically volatile, that a Member of Parliament, William Huskisson, delivered a speech that laid out clearly for the South the British policy. Huskisson predicted that the failure to lower the tariff would lead inevitably to Southern secession. Then-Congressman George McDuffie of South Carolina, popularized the “forty-bale theory.” Due to British retaliation, Southern cotton prices fell, and the South became a captive supplier for Northern mills. As well, consumer goods prices were artificially high. In such combination, the tariff so decreased Southern purchasing power that, McDuffie claimed, of every hundred bales of cotton produced, forty went into the pockets of Northeastern industrialists. Many Southerners saw themselves as the victims of a “colonial” policy by Northeastern financial, industrial, and political interests. As Western grievances complemented theirs, it is no wonder that Benton’s charge resonated with Southerners.
In a historical irony, the protective tariff of 1816, which got protectionism rolling, was the work of two South Carolinians, one of them then-Congressman John C. Calhoun. But by 1830, with the Tariff of Abominations in full force, Calhoun was Vice-President and was crafting his theories of nullification and concurrent majorities, from his 1828 Exposition and Protest to his 1831 Fort Hill Address. Historians have debated the extent to which Hayne’s speeches were merely the words of Calhoun, who, by virtue of his role as the Senate’s president, was debarred from speaking. Clearly the two men, bound by state residency, party affiliation, intellectual prowess, and cultural and class affinity, saw eye-to-eye. Most likely, Calhoun’s philosophical depth and systematic mind helped Hayne craft his argument. But, ultimately, Hayne was his own man.
The next day, Senator Daniel Webster rose to respond. At age 48, he was ten years older than Hayne. Though not as pleasing of looks as his opponent, Webster had his own advantages, physical and intellectual. Morison described him as “the most commanding figure in the Senate…with a crag-like face, and eyes that seemed to glow like dull coals under a precipice of brows….His magnificent presence and deep, melodious voice gave distinction to the most common platitudes; but his orations were seldom commonplace.” Webster was possessed of a powerful intellect, one that, combined with his oratorical talents, had made him a successful lawyer, Supreme Court advocate, and politician. He argued well over 200 cases before the Supreme Court, litigating some of the most important constitutional disputes, such as McCulloch v. Maryland, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, Gibbons v. Ogden, and Luther v. Borden.
Webster rejected Hayne’s attacks on New England’s alleged selfishness and its placing of sectional self-interest over the common national good. Not content merely to parry Hayne’s political attacks and to reject emphatically any suggestion that the Northeast opposed Western development, he broadened the debate to criticize Southern states’ rights doctrines. He charged the South with insufficient gratitude for, and pride in, the Union and denounced recent political movements in South Carolina calling for a state convention to nullify the tariffs. Webster also injected slavery into the debate to play on the discomfort of many Westerners (though not of Senator Benton) over the expansion of the South’s “peculiar institution.” He praised the swift growth of Ohio over the past generation and goaded Hayne about the inferiority of Kentucky, a distinction he attributed to the latter’s protection of slavery. Webster sought to tar Hayne with the spirit of disunion, scolding Hayne’s apparent willingness to “preserve the Union while it suits local and temporary purposes” and to “dissolve it whenever it shall be found to thwart such purposes.” This was particularly galling because Calhoun and Hayne had restrained the nullification efforts of more radical elements in South Carolina led by McDuffie and state leaders, such as Robert Barnwell Rhett.
Hayne was not about to let the gauntlet lie. On January 21 and 25, the South Carolinian went on offense. In a blistering, often sarcastic, and impassioned speech delivered in a tone of “scarcely contained bitterness and rage,” he extolled the South’s patriotism and contrasted it with New England’s conduct during the War of 1812. In the Federalist Party-controlled Hartford Convention of 1814, the (then) five New England states had challenged the constitutionality of federal war policy that harmed them and had pledged to interpose themselves between the federal authority and their people. Webster had not taken part in that gathering, but he was a long-time Federalist Party member and had made anti-war speeches. Hayne launched into a long and detailed indictment of Massachusetts’s perfidies against the United States during that war.
Hayne also vigorously defended the practical aspects of Southern slavery. He urged those, like Webster, who did not understand the conditions in which the system operated, to heed the South’s desire simply to be left alone. Taking the argument to slavery’s opponents, Hayne described the miserable conditions under which free Blacks often lived in Northern cities.
Hayne explained, analyzed, taunted, and exhorted relentlessly over portions of two days. He struck rhetorical and analytical blow after blow. Through it all, Webster sat impassively. To his friends, concerned that Webster had but one night to prepare his response, Webster grimly offered the assurance that he would “grind [Hayne] as fine as a pinch of snuff.”
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