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Webster's Seventh of March Speech and the Secession Movement, 1850   By: (1863-1927)

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By Herbert Darling Foster

With foreword by Nathaniel Wright Stephenson

American Historical Review Vol. XXVII., No. 2

January, 1922


It is very curious that much of the history of the United States in the Forties and Fifties of the last century has vanished from the general memory. When a skilled historian reopens the study of Webster's "Seventh of March speech" it is more than likely that nine out of ten Americans will have to cudgel their wits endeavoring to make quite sure just where among our political adventures that famous oration fits in. How many of us could pass a satisfactory examination on the antecedent train of events the introduction in Congress of that Wilmot Proviso designed to make free soil of all the territory to be acquired in the Mexican War; the instant and bitter reaction of the South; the various demands for some sort of partition of the conquered area between the sections, between slave labor and free labor; the unforeseen intrusion of the gold seekers of California in 1849, and their unauthorized formation of a new state based on free labor; the flaming up of Southern alarm, due not to one cause but to many, chiefly to the obvious fact that the free states were acquiring preponderance in Congress; the southern threats of secession; the fury of the Abolitionists demanding no concessions to the South, come what might; and then, just when a rupture seemed inevitable, when Northern extremists and Southern extremists seemed about to snatch control of their sections, Webster's bold play to the moderates on both sides, his scheme of compromise, announced in that famous speech on the seventh of March, 1850?

Most people are still aware that Webster was harshly criticized for making that speech. It is dimly remembered that the Abolitionists called him "Traitor", refusing to attribute to him any motive except the gaining of Southern support which might land him in the Presidency. At the time so bitter was factional suspicion! this view gained many adherents. It has not lost them all, even now.

This false interpretation of Webster turns on two questions was there a real danger of secession in 1850? Was Webster sincere in deriving his policy from a sense of national peril, not from self interest? In the study which follows Professor Foster makes an adequate case for Webster, answering the latter question. The former he deals with in a general way establishing two things, the fact of Southern readiness to secede, the attendant fact that the South changed its attitude after the Seventh of March. His limits prevent his going on to weigh and appraise the sincerity of those fanatics who so furiously maligned Webster, who created the tradition that he had cynically sold out to the Southerners. Did they believe their own fiction? The question is a large one and involves this other, did they know what was going on in the South? Did they realize that the Union on March 6, 1850, was actually at a parting of the ways, that destruction or Civil War formed an imminent issue?

Many of those who condemned compromise may be absolved from the charge of insincerity on the ground that they did not care whether the Union was preserved or riot. Your true blue Abolitionist was very little of a materialist. Nor did he have primarily a crusading interest in the condition of the blacks. He was introspective. He wanted the responsibility for slavery taken off his own soul. As later events were to prove, he was also pretty nearly a pacifist; war for the Union, pure and simple, made no appeal to him. It was part of Webster's insight that he divined this, that he saw there was more pacifism than natural ardor in the North of 1850, saw that the precipitation of a war issue might spell the end of the United Republic. Therefore, it was to circumvent the Northern pacifists quite as much as to undermine the Southern expansionists that he offered compromise and avoided war... Continue reading book >>

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