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20. The Middle Way (1850)


Webster's "seventh-of-March speech" on the Compromise, though it brought upon him an avalanche of criticism from the anti-slavery people, is, on the whole, harmonious with his earlier utterances; for the burden of his argument was always "liberty and union," and he considered a compromise necessary to preserve the Union. — For Webster, see Henry Matson, References for Literary Workers, 124-125; Contemporaries, III, No. 159. — Bibliography as in No. 19 above.


NOW say, sir, as the proposition upon which I stand this day, and upon the truth and firmness of which I intend to act until it is overthrown, that there is not, at this moment, within the United States, or any territory of the United States, a single foot of land, the character of which, in regard to its being free-soil territory or slave territory, is not fixed by some law, and some irrepealable law, beyond the power of the action of this Government. Now, is it not so with respect to Texas? Why, it is most manifestly so. . . .

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But now that, under certain conditions, Texas is in, with all her territories, as a slave State, with a solemn pledge that if she is divided into many States, those States may come in as slave States south of 36° 30', how are we to deal with this subject? I know no way of honorable legislation, when the proper time comes for the enactment, but to carry into effect all that we have stipulated to do. . . .


Now, as to California and New Mexico, I hold slavery to be excluded from those territories by a law even superior to that which admits and sanctions it in Texas - I mean the law of nature—of physical geography — the law of the formation of the earth. That law settles forever, with a strength beyond all terms of human enactment, that slavery cannot exist in California or New Mexico. . . . I look upon it, therefore, as a fixed fact, to use an expression current at this day, that both California and New Mexico are destined to be free, so far as they are settled at all, which I believe, especially in regard to New Mexico, will be very little for a great length of time-free by the arrangement of things by the Power above us. I have therefore to say, in this respect also, that this country is fixed for freedom, to as many persons as shall ever live there, by as irrepealable and a more irrepealable law, than the law that attaches to the right of holding slaves in Texas; and I will say further, that if a resolution, or a law, were now before us, to provide a territorial government for New Mexico, I would not vote to put any prohibition into it

whatever. The use of such a prohibition would be idle, as it respects any effect it would have upon the territory; and I would not take pains to reaffirm an ordinance of nature, nor to reënact the will of God. And I would put in no Wilmot proviso, for the purpose of a taunt or a reproach. I would put into it no evidence of the votes of superior power, to wound the pride, even whether a just pride, a rational pride, or an irrational pride — to wound the pride of the gentlemen who belong to the southern States. . . .

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 the South. . . . I will state these complaints, especially one complaint of the South, which has in my opinion just foundation; and that is, that there has been found at the North, among individuals and among the Legislatures of the North, 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, it is my judgment that the South 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 this article of the Constitution, which says to these States, they shall deliver up fugitives from service, is as binding in honor and conscience as any other article. . . . 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 all their legislative capacity, or any other, to endeavor to get round this Constitution, to embarrass the free exercise of the rights secured by the Constitution, to the 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 justified, in my opinion. Of course, it is a matter for their consideration. They probably, in the turmoil 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 neglected to investigate fully the real question, and to consider their constitutional obligations, as I am sure, if they did consider, they would fulfill them with alacrity. . . .

Then, sir, there are those 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 know thousands of them are 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. I cannot but see what mischiefs their interference with the South has produced. . . . The bonds of the slaves 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. . . . We all know the fact, and we all know the cause, and everything that this 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. . . .

Now, sir, so far as any of these grievances have their foundation in matters of law, they can be redressed, and ought to be redressed; and so far as they have foundation in matters of opinion, in sentiment, in mutual crimination and recrimination, all that we can do is, to endeavor to allay the agitation, and cultivate a better feeling and more fraternal sentiments between the South and the North.

Mr. President, I should much prefer to have heard, from every member on this floor, declarations of opinion that this Union should never be dissolved, than the declaration of opinion that in any case, under the pressure of any circumstances, such a dissolution was possible. I hear with pain, and anguish, and distress, the word secession, especially when it falls from the lips of those who are eminently 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 ruffling the surface! Who is so foolish -I beg everybody'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 the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without producing the crush of the universe. There can be no such thing as a peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility. Is the great Constitution under which we live here — 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 die off? No, sir! no, sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the States; but, sir, I see it as plainly as I see the sun in heaven I see that disruption must produce such a war as I will not describe, in its twofold characters.

Appendix to the Congressional Globe, 31 Cong., I sess. (John C. Rives, Washington, 1850), 272–276 passim, March 7, 1850.

21. "Thy Glory is Departed" (1850)


Whittier early became identified with the anti-slavery crusade. The pathetic earnestness of these verses on Webster's supposed apostasy in his seventh-of-March speech is typical of the feeling with which the speech was received among the antislavery radicals, who had previously considered Webster a stanch advocate and defender of all constitutional measures against slavery. For Whittier, see W. S. Kennedy, John G. Whittier, the Poet of Freedom; Contemporaries, III, No. 178.Bibliography as in No. 19 above.

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Nor brand with deeper shame his dim,
Dishonored brow.

But let its humbled sons, instead,

From sea to lake,

A long lament, as for the dead,
In sadness make.

Of all we loved and honored, nought
Save power remains

A fallen angel's pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.

All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled :

When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!

Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;

Walk backward, with averted gaze,

And hide the shame!

John G. Whittier, Ichabod, in his Songs of Labor, and other Poems (Boston, 1850), 93-94.

22. An Appeal to the Higher Law (1850)


The compromise measures of 1850 caused the only great debate in which the statesmen of both the second and third generations after the Revolution took part. Seward, destined to play so important a part for the next fifteen years as senator and secretary of state, in this discussion made his first appearance as a national legislator. His speech is typical of the moderate northern view; it attracted great attention for the argument given in this extract, an appeal which voiced a stronger moral feeling than Seward intended. - For Seward, see Channing and Hart, Guide, § 25. Bibliography: Frederic Bancroft, Life of Seward, I, 243–263.

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T is insisted that the admission of California shall be attended

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I AM OPPOSED TO ANY SUCH COMPROMISE, IN ANY AND ALL THE FORMS IN WHICH IT HAS BEEN PROPOSED, because, while admitting the purity and the patriotism of all from whom it is my misfortune to differ, I think all legislative compromises radically wrong and essentially vicious. . .


Nor would success attend any of the details of the compromise. And,

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