- The Webster-Hayne Debate: Defining Nationhood in the Early American Republicby Christopher Childers
The debate between Daniel Webster and Robert Young Hayne in the early days of 1830 was a signal moment in the history of the early republic, one that Christopher Childers uses as a lens to analyze competing understandings of the relationship between the people, the states, and the federal government. Going beyond Webster's soaring rhetoric that extolled the blessings of union, Childers casts the senatorial showdown as heralding the emergence of a new party system and the festering of slavery as a national political issue.
While the debate became a discourse on the fundamental nature of union, its origins were far more mundane. Weeks before, a resolution had been introduced to limit sales of western lands. Westerners balked at the idea as an eastern scheme that would limit their sovereignty and slacken the pace of development. Southerners like Hayne saw a chance to make common cause with their western counterparts against an eastern establishment that favored a more powerful and more assertive federal government. The western lands question itself did not motivate Hayne; rather, he reacted to the precedent it set. Hayne's position, Childers observes, was clear: "If the federal government could impose a restrictive land policy … it could impose its will on slaveholders and their human [End Page 680]property" (p. 98). Hayne insisted that the Union was composed of sovereign states whose participation remained voluntary. Webster, however, disagreed, seeing the Union as an inviolable compact of the people, or as he so memorably put it, the Union was "now and forever, one and inseparable" (p. 85). Though the debate settled little, Webster and Hayne gave voice to differing conceptions of union that remain part of the American political landscape.
Childers devotes the bulk of his attention to explaining how each section arrived at its respective position. He explains how New England, a region that had flirted with secession in 1815, became the standard-bearer for an active federal government, while the South retreated from belligerent nationalism to become a hotbed of states' rights. The reason for the reversal was largely economic, as the entrenchment of the market revolution and of chattel slavery shaped the political outlook of each region. As Childers observes, "economic issues became central to American politics in the years following the War of 1812" (p. 18). The primacy of issues such as the tariff and internal improvements in the development of the ascendant Whig and Democratic Parties attests to this fact.
Readers of this journal will be particularly interested in Childers's take on southern politics. The South, Childers contends, committed itself to an unnuanced embrace of states' rights, motivated by a fear of any precedent that might allow the federal government to restrict slavery. This narrative is familiar but feels increasingly out-of-date. While certainly plenty of southerners professed a belief in the uncompromised sovereignty of the states, recent scholarship has shown how adaptable their thinking was. The states' rights that southerners deployed when convenient was not of the ideologically committed, dogmatic sort that Childers suggests became mainstream in southern intellectual circles.
The Webster-Hayne Debate: Defining Nationhood in the Early American Republicis an excellent fit for the undergraduate classroom and will surely spark conversation about the relationship between the states and the Union. Though specialists will find little new in this treatment, this work serves as an introduction to this pivotal moment and to the politics of early antebellum America.