“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: