Chapter 34: the compromise of 1850.—Mr. Webster.
The discovery of gold mines in California
contemporaneously with the cession of that territory from Mexico
brought an unexpected turn in political history.
During the years 1848– 1849 emigrants by tens of thousands, largely enterprising young men from the free States, thronged to the Pacific coast
in search of the precious metal.
Slaveholders, slow in thought and action, could not keep abreast of this wonderful movement, combining thrift, adventure, and the high hopes which inspire the founders of a new commonwealth.
Congress, divided on the slavery issue, failed to supply a government for the newly acquired territory.
The people thus left to themselves, holding a convention at President Taylor
's instance in September, 1849, formed a constitution, which was approved by a popular vote in November, and submitted to Congress the following February. One of its articles, which was voted unanimously, notwithstanding some of the delegates were emigrants from slave States, prohibited slavery.
A new free State was ready for admission, making it impossible to keep the balance between the contending sections.
At the same time the inhabitants of New Mexico
sent a petition to Congress asking for a territorial government with a prohibition of slavery.
Thus it was manifest that a war undertaken to extend and protect slavery was about to reduce the relative power of the slave States.
This failure in a well-laid and long-plotted scheme made the partisans of slavery desperate.
When Congress met in December, 1848, the last session of President Polk
's Administration, the character of the emigration then flowing into California
assured for her a majority of free State citizens.
The Southern members issued an address, and organized resistance to antislavery prohibitions.
They strove to obtain by some vague and covert phrase a recognition of their right under the Constitution
to carry slaves into the territories; and the most outspoken and audacious among them threatened to dissolve the Union
if the asserted right was denied by Congress.
This defiant spirit grew in intensity to the end of the session.
The Senate, as before, was a pro-slavery fortress; and the House
was, as in previous sessions, unsteady,—members changing or withholding votes, with no final advantage on either side.
The contest was renewed in the next Congress,—1849-1850.
It began with the debate on the election of Speaker in December, and continued during the session which ended September 30, 1850.
It passed beyond the question of the territories, and comprehended all the relations of slavery to the nation.
It was marked by profound interest on both sides, and watched with deep anxiety by the country.
, Jefferson Davis
, and Foote
read elaborate speeches at the beginning of the session, and, supported by the bolder spirits of the South
, declared themselves ready for disunion in the event of legislation by Congress prohibiting slavery in the territories, or even of the admission of California
with her free State constitution.1
They seemed to be sincere in this aggressive and threatening attitude, though it was observed at the time that their governing impulse was ambition and empire, and slavery the pretext which was used to fire the Southern
But it did not yet appear that the masses of the Southern
people were with them in their revolutionary purpose.
Meanwhile preparations were made for a convention to meet at Nashville
These demonstrations had an effect on the more timid of the Northern
members, as appeared in the decisive vote, Feb. 4, 1850, against the Wilmot Proviso
The resolute and defiant attitude of the South
and the weakening resistance of the North
opened to Henry Clay
, now again a senator, the opportunity to appear for another and third time in his career as a pacificator between contending sections and policies; and late in January, 1850, he presented his scheme of a comprehensive and final adjustment.
His series of measures, reported May 8, at first failed as a whole, but afterwards prevailed in August and September in the shape of separate bills.
Their success was promoted by the co-operation of Fillmore
, who became President
on the death of Taylor
, July 9.
had been an obstruction, as he desired the admission of California
independently, and not as part of a scheme or bargain; and soldier and patriot as he was, with all his limitations as a Southern planter, he was ready to compel Texas
by force of arms to respect the territory of New Mexico
instead of bribing her to keep the peace.2 California
being entitled by all precedents to admission without an offset, Clay
's Compromise measures, except the one last named, were all in the interest of slavery.
They were (1) the Texas
boundary bill, granting that State ten millions of dollars for territory which did not belong to her, and an excessive amount even if her title had been good;3
(2) territorial governments for Utah
and New Mexico
without the Wilmot Proviso
; (3) a new fugitive-slave law, with novel and extraordinary provisions, which disregarded humane and Christian sentiments and set aside immemorial presumptions and safeguards of personal liberty; and (4) the abolition of the slave-trade (not slavery itself) in the District of Columbia.
The fate of the two territories was left unsettled, and the Fugitive Slave Act
marked another advance of the slave-power.
Of this Act it is sufficient, without attempting a minute and critical statement, to say that it invested commissioners appointed by the federal courts with power to decide summarily and finally the claimant's right to the negro; denied to the latter claimed as a slave a jury trial or a hearing on his right before any court on habeas corpus
; made affidavits taken in a distant slave State conclusive evidence of the master's title, without opportunity to cross-examine the affiants and contest their statements; denied expressly to the negro the right to testify for himself; fixed for the commissioner a larger fee when his decision was for the claimant than when it was for the negro; imposed a heavy penalty both of fine and imprisonment, without the alternative of either, for assisting the negro to escape or for harboring and concealing him, in addition to a civil penalty of one thousand dollars recoverable by the slave-owner; provided more commissioners and a large executive
force solely for the service of claimants; and by an unusual, if not unprecedented, provision anticipated the abhorrence which awaited the Act from a free and Christian people, ‘by commanding all good citizens to aid and assist in its prompt and efficient execution.’4
No law so barbarous in aim and machinery, so hostile in every line to personal liberty, has ever dishonored the legislation of a civilized people.
The Fugitive Slave law, with its provisions and penalties more effective than those of the Act of 1793, and the increased pro-slavery spirit of the period, stimulated slaveholders to reclaim their escaped slaves, some of whom had been living for a long time in the free States and had intermarried with free persons; and the hardship, cruelty, and violence which attended the reclamations aroused deep indignation in the North
Southern masters at once put the law into execution in the cities of New York and Philadelphia
and other places,—in some cases succeeding in recovering their negroes with little opposition or excitement, but in others encountering a resolute contest in the courts, or forcible resistance carried sometimes to a fatal result.
In Syracuse, N. Y.
, where the population was altogether in sympathy with the negroes, a rescue planned by prominent citizens was effected.
The partisans of compromise set their hearts on a triumph in Boston
, the seat of antislavery agitation.
A month after Congress had adjourned, a meeting was held in Faneuil Hall, with C. F. Adams
as chairman, and R. H. Dana, Jr.
, as mover of resolutions, to denounce the obnoxious law and express sympathy with the negroes against whose liberty it was aimed; but only Free Soilers and Abolitionists took part in it.5
About the same time, a slave claimant from Virginia
sought to secure William and Ellen Crafts
, who had recently escaped, and on arriving in Boston
had found wise and brave protectors in Theodore Parker
, Dr. Henry I. Bowditch
, Ellis Gray Loring
and Mrs. George S. Hillard
They were skilfully secreted and sent to England
The next February (1851), when the case of Shadrach was pending before G. T. Curtis
, a commissioner, a body of colored men forced the door of the court room, and the negro, being taken from the officers, escaped to Canada
at once issued a proclamation, directing the army and navy to co-operate in enforcing the law. Then followed the trials of persons accused of assisting the rescue, who were defended by John P. Hale
and R. H. Dana, Jr.
; but one or two dissenting jurors prevented verdicts against them.
, as Secretary of State
, took a personal interest in having the law executed in Boston
, and assumed the direction of the prosecutions, although it properly belonged to the Attorney-General
Early in April, 1851, Thomas Sims
, another negro living in Boston
, was brought before the same commissioner, claimed by a slaveholder from Georgia
The Administration at Washington
, under Mr. Webster
's lead, determined that this proceeding should not fail.
The city marshal, acting under a formal order of Mayor Bigelow
and the Board of Aldermen, in co-operation with the United States
officers, surrounded the court house with chains.
's counsel, S. E. Sewall
, R. Rantoul, Jr.
, C. G. Loring
, and R. H. Dana, Jr.
, sought to secure the negro's liberty by writs of habeas corpus
, bringing him before the Supreme Court of the State
and the District
and Circuit Courts of the United States
, but without avail.
The commissioner gave a certificate of rendition, and the negro was taken by three hundred armed policemen to Long Wharf, and put on board the brig Acorn,
owned by John H. Pearson
, a name already associated with a kidnapping case.7
's fate was pending, a public meeting was held to denounce the Fugitive Slave Act
and its instruments,—in which, as before, only Free Soilers and Abolitionists took part.
was also counsel in the defence of Sims
In association with Mr. Sewall
he applied, without success, to Judge
, of the United States District Court, for the writ of habeas corpus
. Judge Woodbury
, however, granted it, and sat for the hearing in the Circuit Court room, afterwards occupied for many years by the Municipal Court
The judge was unfriendly and brusque,—breaking out, when Sewall
in a quiet way habitual with him made the point that slavery did not exist in Massachusetts
, with the exclamation, accompanied by an emphatic gesture, ‘Yes, but there is slavery in the Union
; and Massachusetts
is yet in the Union
, tank God!’10
The room was crowded, chiefly with the claimant's supporters, and this un-judicial outburst was received with applause.
insisted on the prisoner's discharge, maintaining that Commissioner Hallett
's warrant charging Sims
with assaulting the officer when arrested was defective, and that Marshal Devens
's conduct—on which he commented at length—was illegal in not returning the warrant, but holding it as a cover to defeat a State criminal process against Sims
which the prisoner's friends had procured in order to hold him against Commissioner Curtis
's order of rendition.
, as he began, said that the prisoner, though under arrest for seven days, and carried from place to place, had now for the first time the privilege of looking on the face of a judge
,—an allusion to the unjudicial and unconstitutional powers delegated to commissioners under the Fugitive Slave Act
. A discharge was refused; and this was the last effort to save Sims
In the session of Congress 1850-1851 the partisans of the Compromise measures—mostly members from slave States— subscribed a compact pledging themselves to maintain the settlement effected by these measures, and not to support as candidates for President
, or for members of Congress or of any State legislature, ‘any man of whatever party who is not known to be opposed to the disturbance of the settlement aforesaid, and to the renewal in any form of agitation upon the subject of slavery.’11
The only Whig member from
who signed this paper was Samuel A. Eliot
, of Boston
, his successor, alone of the Massachusetts
delegation, voted that the Compromise, including the Fugitive Slave
law, was a final and permanent settlement.12
The speech of Daniel Webster in the Senate, March 7, 1850, in favor of the Compromise measures, was a surprise to the people of Massachusetts
It was in conflict with the principles they had uniformly maintained, as well as with his general course as the representative of the State
He was not, like Clay
, the natural supporter of compromise.14
He had repeatedly affirmed his convictions against the extension of slavery and the increase of slave representation in Congress; had asserted for himself precedence of others in the support of the principle of the Wilmot Proviso
, and had even voted for its application to the territories acquired from Mexico
, whose fate was again in question.15
He now announced that he should vote against the insertion of the prohibition in any bill or resolution providing a government for those territories.
He defended this change of position by maintaining that Nature and physical geography had excluded slavery from them as much as from ‘Mars Hill
or the side of the White Mountains
;’ that the character of every foot of land owned by the nation, in regard to its being free or slave territory, had been fixed by an irrepealable law beyond the action of the government; and that therefore the prohibition in such a case would be only a taunt and reproach to the citizens of the Southern States
, and the evidence of supreme power exercised only to wound their pride.
It was not right or patriotic, as he claimed, to insist on an unnecessary restriction which was obnoxious and disagreeable to the South
, and regarded by its people as derogatory to their equality as members of the Union
He shut his eyes to the historical
fact that slavery has existed under all physical conditions; and that it was the duty of the national government, carrying out the policy of the Ordinance of 1787, not to weigh chances, but to exclude by positive law the possibility of its becoming an institution of new States.17
Not content with assumptions and with votes against the prohibition,18
he undertook to belittle it by arts of speech, by offensive and disparaging epithets.
In his first public statement of his new position, and in later speeches and appeals to the public, he made light of it as ‘a mere abstraction,’ ‘a ghostly abstraction,’ ‘a naked possibility,’ ‘no matter of principle,’ and of ‘no real practical importance.’19
In this new direction he did not stop with the territorial question, but joined the Southern party on another measure, hitherto a subordinate subject among their grievances, and volunteered his support of Mason
's fugitive-slave bill, ‘with all its provisions, to the fullest extent.’20
He intimated his purpose to offer some amendments which would qualify its harshness, and later proposed one securing to the alleged fugitive a trial by jury; but his speeches and letters of subsequent date make it clear that the bill unamended would have received his vote.21
He turned aside from the pending questions,—Clay's Compromise measures,—and committed himself on a matter irrelevant to the discussion, by affirming the obligation imposed by the resolutions of annexation to create four more slave States out of Texas
He put himself in antagonism with President Taylor
's plan of admitting California
as a State independently, as she had a right to be admitted; and he objected to her admission
unless she came with the Compromise on her back.23
He supported the Texas
boundary bill, putting forth as his chief ground for yielding to the pretensions of that State that a collision with Texas
troops in New Mexico
would bring on civil war; and he condemned the President
's decision to enforce the laws and suppress the hostile demonstration of Texas
by sending our troops to New Mexico
His method of dealing with armed rebellion in Texas
was in contrast with his prompt action as Secretary of State
in executing the Fugitive Slave
law in Boston
and with his passionate charges of treason against the rescuers of negroes, unarmed and unorganized, acting from instinct of race or generous sentiments of human nature.26
In the Senate he paused in his argument to pay compliments to Calhoun
, and the Nashville
convention,— a body whose disunion purpose was already understood by men less intelligent than himself27
His weighing of sectional grievances was in proportion and emphasis a judgment against the North
In the tone and spirit of what he said, even more than in the substantive propositions he maintained, he stood in conflict with his own past career and the sentiments of his State.
He no longer as in earlier days held up slavery as a great moral, social, and political evil which had arrested the religious feeling of the community, and taken a strong hold on the consciences of men; but in his review he contemplated its advance with a calmness more than judicial, even with indifference;29
and he deprecated the part which Christian ministers and associations had taken in
Of the slave-trade in the District of Columbia, a scandal under the very shadow of the Capitol
, he had nothing to say, even in a comprehensive treatment of the whole controversy.
He spoke of the Abolitionists as one might speak only of the enemies of human society.31
He passed the bounds of his accustomed moderation and indulged in bitterness and wrath whenever he referred to the opponents of the Fugitive Slave
law,—not only when they obstructed its execution, but even when they confined themselves to an exposure of its enormity, and of its conflict with the maxims and safeguards of civil liberty.
They were ‘votaries of isms,’ ‘a race of agitators,’ victims of ‘a wandering and vagrant philanthropy;’ ‘shallow men, ignorant men, and factious men,—men whose only hope of making or of keeping themselves conspicuous is by incessant agitation, and the most reckless efforts to alarm and misguide the people;’ ‘subject to the frailty of desiring to become conspicuous, or to the influence of a false sentimentality, or borne away by the puffs of a transcendental philosophy into an atmosphere flickering between light and darkness;’ ‘carried away by abstract notions or metaphysical ideas,’ or by ‘that spirit of faction and disunion, that spirit of discord and of crimination and recrimination, that spirit that loves angry controversy, and loves it most especially when evils are imaginary and dangers unreal, which has been so actively employed in doing mischief.’
He denounced the antislavery agitation as ‘mad,’ ‘theoretic, fanatical, and fantastical,’ leading away ‘silly women and sillier men;’ and denounced also ‘the passionate appeals, the vehement and empty declamations, the wild and fanatical conduct of both men and women, which have so long and so much disgraced the Commonwealth
and the country.’
If patriotism had been his only inspiration, he would have met opposition with more sorrow and less anger.
The rescue of Shadrach in Boston
,—chiefly the work of fellow negroes acting under impulses which, however unlawful, have always been deemed honorable,—he pronounced ‘a nefarious project’ which ought to have been ‘crushed into the dust.’32
He magnified and strained the law of treason after the manner
of the worst judges in English history,—not limiting it to revolution and the overthrow of government, but extending it to forcible resistance to the execution of a single law, accompanied with an avowed purpose of resistance in similar cases.33
he held his own State responsible for the exigency which justified the new Fugitive Slave law, particularly the refusal of trial by jury to alleged fugitives, because of the passage of her personal liberty law in 1843,34
—a statute seven years old, of which he had never before spoken a word in criticism, although, leaving the office of Secretary of State
two months after its passage, he was for the next two years in the active practice of his profession in a law office within three minutes walk of the State House
, and in daily association with the law-makers of the period.35
With a disingenuousness least to be expected of him, he confused in one mass, under the common epithet of ‘Abolitionists,’ two separate classes,—the small number of sectaries, largely non-voters, who disowned the limitations of the Constitution
, and the considerable political party which accepted its obligations; and this while speaking in presence of two senators then representing that party, Hale
,—the latter second only to himself as a lawyer and statesman, and destined to the highest judicial office in the nation.36
The love of liberty traditional with the people of the State
, and often lauded by himself, he now derided as ‘fanaticism,’— ‘a local prejudice’ which it was the duty of good citizens ‘to conquer.’37
Instead of treating, as one with his view of the Constitution
might have done, the restoration of fugitive slaves—involving the separation of families, life-long bondage and cruelty—as a painful duty to be performed with the utmost care and tenderness, he set aside the moral and humane aspects of a question which in other days had pressed vividly on his mind, and had
nothing to say of the inhumanity and barbarity of the transaction, while for the master's claim to the slave's person and service he was earnest and strenuous.
He spoke with a sneer of the humane sentiments of his State; of the interest, as if it were no matter of her concern, which Massachusetts
took in the seizure of negroes in Pennsylvania
; and insisted that the actual evil of such reclamations had been exaggerated, inasmuch as no negro had been taken under process of law from Massachusetts
for a generation; but when they followed quickly on the passage of the new law, he had no word of surprise or regret, and was indignant at the protests and obstructions they encountered.38
All the while he was petting and soothing the violent and aggressive partisans of slavery.
He was most unlike his former self—for he was by nature and early habit inclined to religious thought—when, with an air of lofty contempt, he assailed the belief that human laws are to be tested, and their obligations finally determined, by the supreme moral law.39
Here, as on other points, there was a bitterness and even coarseness in his language altogether uncongenial with the repose which was his when he spoke with the consciousness of a good cause, and was moving in the line of the principles and traditions of his State.40
From 1813, when Mr. Webster
entered Congress, he had not until now censured the free discussion of American slavery.
The opponents, moral or political, of the institution,—‘Abolitionists,’ as he called them,—had for twenty years been endeavoring, in every form of agitation, to array public sentiment against it, all without complaint from him. He now broke the silence for the first time.
If their work were the portentous wrong he described it, destructive to the peace and perpetuity of
the nation, surely this defender of the Constitution
and the Union
should have seen the danger ahead and forewarned his countrymen.
And not only this, but so far did he go in the Southern
direction,—forgetting all he had said in behalf of a Union and government one and indivisible,—that in his speech at Capon Springs
, Va., he dallied with the doctrine of secession, and discharged the South
from ‘the compact’ if the North
deliberately disregarded the obligation to surrender fugitive slaves, using language not unlike that of the secession orators of 1860 and 1861.41
On the death of President Taylor
, he did not conceal from his friends his satisfaction that the government had passed into safer hands, into those of President Fillmore
, who would give to the Compromise policy that thorough support which his predecessor had not given.42
His personal feelings carried him so far, that, as Secretary of State
, he withdrew the patronage of his department—the publication of the laws of Congress—from Whig journals opposed to the Compromise measures, and transferred it to others (sometimes religious weeklies) which supported them.43
The motives of Mr. Webster
, whether those of personal ambition of patriotism, or however these may have been combined, need not be considered in a statement which is intended, so far as it concerns him, only to illustrate the state of affairs in Massachusetts
at this time.44
He was called to the Cabinet
of President Fillmore
in July, and continued till his death, in 1852, to use his personal influence and official power in the direction of his ‘Seventh of March’ speech.
That speech carried the Compromise measures, but it made also a political revolution in Massachusetts
had spoken as he had hitherto always spoken, if he had spoken as Seward
spoke later in the same month, he would have remained in the Senate; or
if he had by choice passed from it, he would have been succeeded by Winthrop
That speech, and what he said and did afterwards in the same line, called Sumner
, a few months later, into public life, which otherwise he might never have entered.
, and the other Northern supporters of the Compromise in Congress or among the people, put in the foreground its necessity as the only means of saving the Union
and avoiding civil war. ‘The Union and the Constitution
’ became their watchword.45
In that name Compromise Democrats and Compromise Whigs, uniting together, determined to rally the national sentiment against the antislavery movement, and for four years, save under peculiar conditions, they had their way. An appeal was also made to a more sordid sentiment, and Northern capitalists were assured by Webster
and other supporters of the Compromise that a revision of the tariff in their interest could be obtained only by concession to Southern demands.46
This review of Webster
's course on slavery in 1850-1852, which has been generally left in the background by his eulogists, has been no welcome task; but it is essential to an understanding of the political revolution which was at hand.
Those who have come to manly life since 1852 cannot without it comprehend the profound indignation which the antislavery leaders and masses in Massachusetts
felt towards him from March 7, 1850, till his death.
His offence was not that one speech alone, of evil import as it was; but it was the speech as developed and interpreted by the successive letters and addresses which followed it.
The Compromise proved to be only a temporary makeshift.
Hardly three years had passed when the power—always grasping and never satisfied—which had wrested it from a timorous and fielding North was demanding new guaranties and a further extension, even by the breach of an old compact.
Happily for the two architects, Clay
, they were not then
living to see how vain had been their promises of peace and conciliation.
The most that can now be said for their work is that it postponed the armed conflict between freedom and slavery, and allowed an interval in which the free States gained in material strength beyond any corresponding advance in the slave States.
This was not indeed the wisdom of the period itself, but an afterthought of a generation later.
The makers of the Compromise professed to be seeking, not a truce, but a final pacification.
But whether their scheme proved to have even this incidental advantage, not claimed or foreseen by them, must always remain a matter of pure speculation.
If the loyal people were in numbers and resources relatively stronger in 1860 than in 1850, on the other hand the pro-slavery party had during the intervening decade, under the administrations of Pierce
, used diligently its opportunity to spread the virus of disunion, solidify opinion, concert action, corrupt officers of the army and navy, and dispose the materials of war in a way to give the insurrection the advantage at its beginning.
The South was united and prepared in 1860 as it was not in 1850, and the government was at the outset in the means of resistance weaker at the later than at the earlier period.