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OF TIME AND THE UNION: WEBSTER AND HIS CRITICS IN THE CRISIS OF 1850 Major L. Wüson In the great debate of 1850, Daniel Webster addressed himself chiefly to his fellow congressmen of the North who stood inflexibly opposed to the compromise measures.1 Because the constitutional obligation with regard to fugitive slaves seemed so clear, he condemned as "guilty of treason" those who appealed to a higher law. He deplored as well the bloodthirst of those who refused concessions to Texas in the boundary dispute with New Mexico, for the threat by that state to occupy the area with troops brought the nation to the brink of civil war.2 Most of all, Webster resisted the effort of the free soilers to apply the Wilmot proviso to the bills for organizing the territorial governments of New Mexico and Utah. Since climate, soil, and the prior laws of Mexico had already interdicted slavery, he could only regard the proviso as "a mere abstraction." Webster desired no less than the free soilers to stop the spread of slavery, and he favored enacting the proviso "wherever there is a particular good to be done." But what he resisted here was an abstract politics which made of the proviso an end in itself. In a more general way he attacked the spirit of moral absolutism which informed that kind of politics. "They deal with morals as with mathematics ," he complained, "and they think what is right may be distinguished from what is wrong, with the precision of an algebraic equation "3 The free soilers eagerly accepted the terms in which Webster would 1 Webster's famous Seventh-of-March speech, according to Robert Winthrop, "was tremendously Southern" as given in the Senate, but the balance was somewhat redressed in the printed version. Quoted in Holman Hamilton, Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (Lexington, 1964), pp. 80-81. Hi» letters and other public addresses at the time developed more fully the basic theme of his Senate address. Daniel Webster, The Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster (National Edition, Boston, 1903), esp. Vols. IV, XI, XII, XIII, XVI, XVIH. * Speech at Syracuse, May, 1851, (bid., XIII, 419, 417. 3 Congressional Globe, 31 Cong., 1 sees., Appendix, 1268 (July 17, 1850); 274,271 (Mar. 7, 1850). 293 294CIVIL WAR HISTORY cast the debate. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania told the House, "There can be no fanatics in the cause of genuine liberty." Questions involving the morality of slavery and freedom, Representative Charles Durkee of Wisconsin agreed, "are more clear than any question in algebra ."4 Absolutists in such a case embodied political realism in its truest sense. "The abstractions of human rights," Senator William H. Seward reminded Webster, "are the only permanent foundations of society ." The Wilmot proviso embodied the most fundamental idea of the nation, Representative George W. Julian of Indiana here added, "the very life blood of our freedom." While Webster dismissed the proviso as a needless taunt to the South, Julian held that its periodic reaffirmation served the salutary purpose of national dedication. "Sir," Thomas B. Butler of Connecticut thus avowed in the House, "we stand where our fathers and their fathers stood—we abide by their principles ."3 Underlying the debate about particular measures of compromise in 1850 were profoundly different concepts of time. Webster, keenly aware of the irreversible flow of events, tended to see the destiny of freemen chiefly within the temporal process. He could not, therefore, accept the view of Lord Bolingbroke that history was only philosophy teaching by example. While something of natural rights and a universal human nature undoubtedly persisted through time, Webster was struck most by the "concomitant rush of altered circumstances" within which the life of each generation transpired.6 As a practical political good, he ever supposed that freedom in America had "an ancestry, a pedigree, a history." The Union, formed to secure the blessings of liberty, likewise possessed temporal dimensions. Webster thought of it as a grand corporation which organized and gave meaning to freemen of each passing generation.7 And, hopefully, qualitative improvement would mark its career through time. But Webster observed that progress would come in the form...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 293-306
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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