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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: Continue Reading

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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: Continue Reading