Daniel Webster’s “The Constitution and the Union”
In this speech, U.S. Senator Daniel Webster strives to unify a deeply divided nation. Speaking “not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American,” he pleads “for the preservation of the Union.”
He begins with a conciliatory tone in which he tries to view the issue of slavery from both perspectives. Careful not to scold the South for the practice, he argues that the fight stems from a “difference of opinion” among equally religious men. His concern is that neither side is convincing the other and the people are merely diverging in their views. Because this is a religious debate, he believes, people are apt to “think that nothing is good but what is perfect, and that there are no compromises or modifications to be made in consideration of difference of opinion.”
Webster then outlines the complaints that the South and North have lodged against one another. He supported the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 requiring federal officials to recapture and return runaway slaves, and therefore takes time in his speech to castigate the North for violating their duty to return Southern “property.” He expounds, “What right have they, in their legislative capacity or any other capacity, to endeavor to get round this Constitution, to embarrass the free exercise of the rights secured by the Constitution; to the persons whose slaves escape from them? None at all.”
Webster likewise finds fault with the Abolitionists. He believes that, although their efforts may be well intentioned, they are inciting discord. They rouse the North versus the South and slaves against their owners. Webster argues that the backlash against the Abolitionists even moved Virginia, which had begun to discuss ending the institution, to become even more pro-slavery. He believes that “every thing that these agitating people have done has been, not to enlarge, but to restrain, not to set free, but to bind faster, the slave population of the South.”
He finally turns the crux of his argument: the Union must remained together. He warns that “Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility” and any attempt to divide the country would lead to war. From their history to the Constitution, the states are too deeply intertwined be separated, he argues, as he points to the preposterousness of attempts to carve up the nation.
Webster’s goal is compromise. He endeavors to show that the arguments on both sides of the North-South debates have certain merits rather than inflame the divisive sentiment of the era. Webster concludes by calling upon the North and South to rise above their differences and work together to preserve the unity of the United States. He seeks to stir their combined patriotism and pride for America’s “great, popular constitutional government, guarded by law and by judicature, and defended by the affections of the whole people.” He was utterly unsuccessful. Despite Webster’s attempts to mend the deepening chasm between the people, the nation continued its slide towards civil war.
Read “The Constitution and the Union” here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4114
Logan Beirne is an Olin Scholar at Yale Law School and author of Blood of Tyrants: George Washington & the Forging of the Presidency. His writings have appeared in USA Today, the New York Post, and numerous other publications. He served as an attorney at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP in New York City and is admitted to the New York and Connecticut Bars.
A very difficult reading, with my own mind turning first one way, then another. I agree that the North should have returned the slaves to the South, in accordance with the law in existence at the time and that the arguments should have continued in the legislature, with patience that moral justice would win in the end. Complete moral justice took more than 100 years.
At the same time, clearly slavery was at odds with the Declaration’s statement that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Slavery also was at odds with Christian principles and values and abolitionists would have been disobedient in God’s eyes to not fight for those values and principles.
Where I stand firmly with Webster is the commitment of all to the Union, even though they differ on critical principles. We have many similar controversies today, including among others, abortion, “social justice” vs. justice, equality of outcome vs. equality of opportunity, health care, immigration. Each of these, and all of these in combination, are driving a deep wedge between liberal progressives and Constitutional Republicans. No talk of secession, because secession would have to be cities on one side and rural on the other, fortunately a clear impossibility.
Our founders wisely constructed our government so that discussion and decision would proceed slowly, with enormous time required for argument between decisions. It’s hard to have patience because we’d all like to see these problems resolved in our lifetimes; yet we know they will not and that, even when they are resolved, other problems will rise up to take their place and cause their own division.