OF MARCH SPEECH
DANIEL WEBSTER (1850)
Source: Shewmaker, 121-130
Mr. President, - I wish to speak to-day, not as a Massachusetts
man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of
the United States. It is fortunate that there is a Senate of the United States;
a body not yet moved from its propriety, not lost to a just sense of its own
dignity and its own high responsibilities, and a body to which the country looks,
with confidence, for wise, moderate, patriotic, and healing counsels.
It is not to be denied that we live
in the midst of strong agitations, and are surrounded by
very considerable dangers to our institutions and our government.
The imprisoned winds are let loose. The East, the North,
and the stormy South combine to throw the whole sea into
commotion, to toss its billows to the skies, and disclose
its profoundest depths. I do not affect to regard myself,
Mr. President, as holding, or as fit to hold, the helm in
this combat with the political elements; but I have a duty
to perform, and I mean to perform it with fidelity, not without
a sense of existing dangers, but not without hope.
I have a part to act, not for my own
security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment
upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must
be, but for the good of the whole, and the preservation of
all; and there is that which will keep me to my duty during
this struggle, whether the sun and the stars shall appear,
or shall not appear for many days. I speak to-day for the
preservation of the Union.
"Hear me for my cause." I
speak to-day, out of a solicitous and anxious heart for the
restoration to the country of that quiet and harmonious harmony
which make the blessings of this Union so rich, and so dear
to us all.
These are the topics I propose to myself to discuss; these
are the motives, and the sole motives, that influence me in
the wish to communicate my opinions to the Senate and the country;
and if I can do any thing, however little, for the promotion
of these ends, I shall have accomplished all that I expect...
Now, Sir, upon the general nature and influence of slavery
there exists a wide difference of opinion between the northern
portion of this country and the southern. It is said on the
one side, that, although not the subject of any injunction
or direct prohibition in the New Testament, slavery is a wrong;
that it is founded merely in the right of the strongest; and
that is an oppression, like unjust wars, like all those conflicts
by which a powerful nation subjects a weaker to its will; and
that, in its nature, whatever may be said of it in the modifications
which have taken place, it is not accofding to the meek spirit
of the Gospel.
It is not "kindly affectioned";
it does not "seek another's, and not its own";
it does not "let the oppressed go free". These
are the sentiments that are cherished, and of late with greatly
augmented force, among the people of the Northern States.
They have taken hold of the religious sentiment of that part
of the country, as they have, more or less, taken hold of
the religious feeling of a considerable portion of mankind.
The South, upon the other side, having been accustomed to
this relation between two races all their lives, from their
birth, having been taught, in general, to treat the subjects
of this bondage with care and kindness, and I believe, in
general, feeling great kindness for them, have not taken
the view of the subject which I have mentioned.
There are thousands of religious men,
with consciences as tender as any of their brethren at the
North, who do not see the unlawfulness of slavery; and there
are more thousands, perhaps, that whatsoever they may think
of it in its origin, and as a matter depending upon natural
right, yet take things as they are, and, finding slavery
to be an established relation of the society in which they
live, can see no way in which, let their opinions on the
abstract question be what they may, it is in the power of
the present generation to relieve themselves from this relation.
And candor oblliges me to say, that I believe they are just
as conscientious, many of them, and the religious people,
all of them, as they are at the North who hold different
The honorable Senator from South Carolina [John C. Calhoun]
the other day alluded to the seperation of that great religious
community, the Methodist Episcopal Church. That separation
was brought about by differences of opinion upon this particular
subject of slavery. I felt great concern, as that dispute
went on, about the result. I was in hopes that the difference
of opinion might be adjusted, because I looked upon that
religious denomination as one of the great props of religion
and morals throughout the whole country, from Maine to
Georgia, and westward to our utmost boundary. The result
was against my wishes and against my hopes.
I have read all their proceedings and
all their arguments; but I have never yet been able to come
to the conclusion that there was any real ground for that
separation; in other words, that any good could be produced
by that separation. I must say I think there was some want
of candor or charity. Sir, when a question of this kind seizes
on the religious sentiments of mankind, and comes to be discussed
in religious assemblies of the clergy and laity, there is
always to be expected, or always to be feared, a great degree
of excitement. It is in the nature of man, manifested in
his whole history, that religious disputes are apt to become
warm in proportion to the strength of the convictions which
men entertain of the magnitude of the questions at issue.
In all such disputes, there will sometimes be found men with
whome every thing is absolute; absolutey wrong, or absolutely
They see the right clearly; they think
others ought so to see it, and they are disposed to establish
a broad line of distinction between what is right and what
is wrong. They are not seldom willing to establish that line
upon their own convictions of truth or justice; and are ready
to mark and guard it by placing along it a series of dogmas,
as lines of boundary on the earth's surface are marked by
posts and stones. There are men who, with clear perception,
as they think, of their own duty, do not see how too eager
a pursuit of one duty may involve them in the violation of
others, or how too warm an embracement of one truth may lead
to a disregard of other truths equally important. As I heard
it stated strongly, not many days ago, these persons are
disposed to mount upon some particular duty, as upon a war-horse,
and to drive furiously on and upon and over all other duties
that may stand in the way. There are men who, in reference
to disputes of that sort, are of the opinion that human duties
may be ascertained with the exactness of mathematics.
They deal with morals as with mathematics;
and they think what is right may be distinguished from what
is wrong with the precision of an algebraic equation. They
have, therefore, none too much charity towards others who
differ from them. They are apt, too, to think that nothing
is good but what is perfect, and that there are no compromises
or modifiations to be made in consideration of difference
of opinion or in deference to other men's judgment.
If their perspicacious vision enables
them to detect a spot on the face of the sun, they think
that a good reason why the sun should be struck down from
heaven. They prefer the chance of running into utter darkness
to living in heavenly light, if that heavenly light be not
absolutely without any imperfection. There are impatient
men; too impatient always to give heed to the admonition
of St. Paul, that we are not to "do evil that good may
come"; too impatient to wait for the slow progress of
moral causes in the improvement of mankind...
Mr. President, in the excited times
in which we live, there is found to exist a state of crimination
and recrimination between the North and South. There are
lists of grievances produced by each; and those grievances,
real or supposed, alienate the minds of one portion of the
country from the other, exasperate the feelings, and subdue
the sense of fraternal affection, patriotic love, and mutual
regard. I shall bestow a little attention, Sir, upon these
various grievances existing on the one side and on the other.
I begin with complaints of the South.
I will not answer, further than I have, the general statements
of the honorable Senator from South Carolina [Calhoun], that
the North has prospered at the expense of the South in consequence
of the manner of administering this government, in the collecting
of its revenues, and so forth. These are disputed topics,
and I have no inclination to enter into them. But I will
allude to the other complaints of the South, and especially
to one which has in my opinion just foundation; and that
is, that there has been found at the North, among individuals
and among legislators, a disinclination to perform fully
their constitutional duties in regard to the return of persons
bound to service who have escaped into the free States. In
that respect, the South, in my judgment, is right, and the
North is wrong.
Every member of every Northern legislature
is bound by oath, like every other officer in the country,
to support the Constitution of the United States; and the
article of the Constitution which says to these States that
they shall deliver up fugitives from service is as binding
in honor and conscience as any other article. No man fulfills
his duty in any legislature who sets himself to find excuses,
evasions, escapes from this constitutional obligation.
I have always thought that the Constitution
addressed itself to the legislatures of the States or to
the States themselves. It says that those persons escaping
to other States "shall be delivered up," and I
confess I have always been of the opinion that it was an
injunction upon the States themselves. When it is said that
a person escaping into another State, and coming thereofre
within the jurisdiction of that State, shall be delivered
up, it seems to me the import of the clause is, that the
State itself, in obedience to the Constitution, shall cause
him to be delivered up. That is my judgment. I have always
entertained that opinion, and I entertain it now. But when
the subject, some years ago, was before the Supreme Court
of the United States, the majority of the judges held that
the power to cause fugitives from service to be delivered
up was a power to be exercised under the authority of this
I do not know, on the whole, that it
may not have been a fortunate decision. My habit is to respect
the result of judicial deliberations and the solemnity of
judicial decisions. As it now stands, the business of seeing
that these fugitives are delivered up resides in the power
of Congress and the national judicature, and my friend at
the head of the Judiciary Committee [James M. Mason] has
a bill on the subject now before the Senate, which, with
some amendments tot, I propose to support, with all its provisions,
to the fullest extent. And I desire to call the attention
of all sober-minded men at the North, of all conscientious
men, of all men who are not carried away by some fanatical
idea or some false impression, to their constitutional obligations.
I put it to all the sober and sound
minds at the North as a question of morals and a question
of conscience. What right have they, in their legislative
capacity or any other capacity, to endeavor to get round
this Constitution, or to embarass the free exercise of the
rights secured by the Constitution tohe persons whose slaves
escape from them? None at all; none at all. Neither in the
forum of conscience, nor before the face of the Constitution,
are they, in my opinino, justified in such an attempt.
Of course it is a matter for their consideration.
They probably, in the excitement of the times, have not stopped
to consider of this. They have followed what seemed to be
the current of thought and of motives, as the occasion arose,
and they have neglected to investigate fully the real question,
and to consider their constitutional obligations; which,
I am sure, if they did consider, they would fulfil with alacrity.
I repeat, therefore, Sir, that here is a well-founded ground
of complaint against the North, which ought to be removed,
which it is now in the power of the different departments
of this government to remove; which calls for the enactment
of proper laws authorizing the judicature of this government,
in the several States, to do all that is necessary for the
recapture of fugitie slaves and for their restoration to
those who claim them.
Wherever I go, and whenever I speak
on the subject, and when I speak here I desire to speak to
the whole North, I say that the South has been injured in
this respect, and has a right to complain; and the North
has been too careless of what I think the Constitution peremptorily
and emphaticually enjoins upon her as a duty...
Then, Sir, there are the Abolition societies,
of which I am unwilling to speak, but in regard to which
I have very clear notions and opinions. I do not think them
useful. I think their operations for the last twenty years
have produced nothing good or valuable. At the same time,
I believe thousands of their members to be honest and good
men, perfectly well-meaning men. They have excited feelings;
they think they must do something for the cause of liberty;
and, in their sphere of action, they do not see what else
they can do than to contribute to an Abolition press, or
an Abolition society, or to pay an Abolition lecturer.
I do not mean to impute gross motives
even to the leaders of these societies, but I am not blind
to the consequences of their proceedings. I cannot but see
what mischiefs their interference with the South has produced.
And its it not plain to every man? Let any gentleman who
entertains doubts on this point recur to the debates in the
Virginia House of Delegates in 1832, and he will see with
what freedom a proposition made by Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson
Randolph for the gradual abolition of slavery was discussed
in that body.
Every one spoke of slavery as he thought;
very ignominious and disparaging names and epithets were
applied to it. The debates in the House of Delegates on that
occasion, I believe, were all published. They were read by
every colored man who could read, and to those who could
not read, those debates were read by others. At that time
Virginia was not unwilling or unafraid to discuss this question,
and to let that part of her population know as much of discussion
as they could learn. That was in 1832. As has been said by
the honorable member from South Carolina [Calhoun], these
Abolition societies commenced their course of action in 1835.
It is said, I do not know how true it may be, that they sent
incendiary publications into the slave States; at any rate,
they attempted to arouse, and did arouse, a very strong feeling;
in other words, they created great agitation in the North
against Southern slavery.
Well, what was the result? The bonds
of the slave were bound more firmly than before, their rivets
were more strongly fastened. Public opinion, which in Virginia
had begun to be exhibited against slavery, and was opening
out for the discussion of the question, drew back and shut
itself up in its castle. I wish tooknow whether any body
in Virginia can now talk openly as Mr. Randoph, Governor
[James] McDowell, and others talked in 1832 and sent their
remarks to the press? We all know the fact, and we all know
the cause; and every thing that these agitating people have
done has been, not to enlarge, but to restrain, not to set
free, but to bind faster the slave population of the South...
Mr. President, I should much prefer
to have heard from every member on this floor declarations
of opinion that this Union could never be dissolved, than
the declaration of opinion by any body, that, in any case,
under the pressure of any circumstances, such a dissolution
was possible. I hear with distress and anguish the word "secession,"
especially when it falls from the lips of those who are patriotic,
and known to the country, and known all over the world, for
their political services. Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir,
your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle.
The dismemberment of this vast country
without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the
great deep without ruffing the surface! Who is so foolish,
I beg every body's pardon, as to expect to see any such thing?
Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around
a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places
and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to
see heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against
each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck
of the universe.
There can be no such thing as peaceable
secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility.
Is the great Constitution under which we live, covering this
whole country, is it to be thawed and melted away by secession,
as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of
a vernal sun, disappear almost unobserved, and run off? No,
Sir! No, Sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption
of the Union; but, Sir, I see as plainly as I see the sun
in heaven what that disruption itself must produce; I see
that it must produce war, and such a war as I will not describe,
in its twofold character.
Peaceable secession! Peaceable secession!
The concurrent agreement of all the members of this great
republic to seperate! A voluntary separation, with alimony
on one side and on the other. Why, what would be the result?
Where is the line to be drawn? What States are to seceded?
What is to remain American? What am I too? An American no
longer? Am I to become a sectional man, a local man, a separatist,
with no country in common with the gentlemen who sit around
me here, or who fill the other house of Congress? Heaven
forbid! Where is the flag of the republic to remain? Where
is the eagle still to tower? or is he to cower, and shrink,
and fall to the ground? Why, Sir, our ancestors, our fathers
and our grandfathers, those of them that are yet living amongst
us with prolonged lives, would rebuke and reproach us; and
our children and our grandchildren would cry out shame upon
us, if we of this generation should dishonor these ensigns
of the power of the government and the harmony of that Union
which is every day felt among us with so much joy and gratitude.
What is to become of the army? What
is to become of the navy? What is to become of the public
lands? How is each of the thirty States to defend itself?
I know, although the idea has not been stated distinctly,
there is to be, or it is supposed possible that there will
be, a Southern Confederacy. I do not mean, when I allude
to this statement, that any one seriously contemplates such
a state of things. I do not mean to say that it is true,
but I have heard it suggested elsewhere, that the idea has
been entertained, that, after the dissolution of this Union,
a Southern Confederacy might be formed.
I am sorry, Sir, that it has ever been
thought of, talked of, or dreamed of, in the wildest flights
of human imagination. But the idea, so far as it exists,
must be of a separation, assigning the slave States to one
side and the free States to the other. Sir, I may express
myself too strongly, perhaps, but there are impossibilities
in the natural as well as in the physical world, and I hold
the idea of a separation of these States, those that are
free to form one govenrment, and those that are slave-holding
to form another, as such an impossibility. We could not separate
the States by any such line, if we were to draw it. We could
not sit down here to-day and draw a line of seperation that
would satisfy any five men in the country. There are natural
cuases that would keep and tie us together, and there are
social and domestic relations which we could not break if
we would, and which we should not if we could.
Sir, nobody can look over the face of
this country at the present moment, nobody can see where
its population is the most dense and growing, without being
ready to admit, and compelled to admit, that ere long the
strength of America will be in the Valley of the Mississippi.
Well, now, Sir, I beg to inquire what the wildest enthusiast
has to say about the possibility of cutting that river in
two, and leaving free States at its source and on its branches,
and slave States down near its mouth, each forming a separate
government? Pray, Sir, let me say to the people of this country,
that these things are worthy of their pondering and of their
consideration. Here, Sir, are five millions of freemen in
the free States north of the river of Ohio.
Can any body suppose that this population
can be severed, by a line that divides them fro the territory
of a foreign and alien government, down somewhere, the Lord
knows where, upon the lower banks of the Mississippi? What
would become of Missouri? Will she join the arrondissement
of the slave States? Shall the man from the Yellow Stone
and the Platte be conncected, in the new republic, with the
man who lives on the southern extremity of the Cape of Florida?
Sir, I am ashamed to pursue this line of remark. I dislike
it, I have an utter disgust for it.
I would rather hear of natural blasts
and mildews, war, pestilence, and famine, than to hear gentlemen
talk of secession. To break up this great government! to
dismember this glorious country! to astonish Europe with
an act of folly such as Europe for two centures has never
beheld in any government or any people! No, Sir! no, Sir!
There will be no secession! Gentlemen are not serious when
they talk of secession...
And now, Mr. President, I draw these
observations to a close. I have spoken freely, and I meant
to do so. I have sought to make no display. I have sought
to enliven the occasion by no animated discussion, nor have
I attempted any train of elaborate argument. I have wished
only to speak my sentiments, fully and at length, being desirous,
once and for all, to let the Senate know, and to let the
country know ,the opinions and sentiments which I entertain
on all these subjects.
These opinions are not likely to be
suddenly changed. If there be any future service that I can
render to the country, consistently with these sentiments
and opinions, I shall cheerfully render it. If there be not,
I shall still be glad to have had an opportunity to disburden
myself from the bottom of my heart, and to make known every
political sentiment that therein exists.
And now, Mr. President, instead of speaking
of the possibility or utility of secession, instead of dwelling
in those caverns of darkness, instead of groping with those
ideas so full of all that is horrid and horrible, let us
come out into the light of day; let us enjoy the fresh air
of Liberty and Union; let us cherish those hopes which belong
to us; let us devote ourselves to those great objects that
are fit for our consideration and action; let us raise our
conceptions to the magnitude and the importance of the duties
that devolve upon us; let our comprehension be as broad as
the country for which we act, our asperations as high as
its certain destiny; let us not be pigmies in a case that
calls for men.
Never did there devolve on any generation
of men higher trusts than now devolve upon us, for the preservation
of this Constitution and the harmony and peace of all who
are destined to live under it. Let us make our generation
one of the strongest and brightest links in that golden chain
which is destined, I fondly believe, to grapple the people
of all the States to this Constitution for ages to come.
We have a great, popular, constitutional government, guarded
by law and by judicature, and defended by the affections
of the whole people.
No monarchical throne presses these
States together, no iron chain of military power encircles
them; they live and stand under a government popular in its
form, representative in its character, founded upon principles
of equality, and so constructed, we hope, as to last for
In all its history it has been beneficent; it has trodden down
no man's liberty; it has crushed no State. Its daily respiration
is liberty and patriotism; its yet youthful veins are full
of enterprise, courage, and honorable love of glory and renown.
Large before, the country has now, by recent events, become
This republic now extends, with a vast
breadth, across the whole continent.
The two great seas of the world wash the one and the other
We realize, on a mighty scale, the beautiful description of
the ornamental border of the buckler of Achilles: -
"Now, the broad shield completed, the artist crowned
With his last hand, and poured the ocean round;
In living silver seemed the waves to roll,
And beat the bucklers verge, and bound the whole."