On this day in history, Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster began his closing oration on a debate over a proposal by a Connecticut senator to limit federal land sales in the West. Like many debates at the time, the issue quickly changed into one pitting the interests of slavery against its opponents.
South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne argued that land sales benefited the federal government, and that states should have the power not only to control their own lands but to nullify federal laws they believed to be not in their best interests. Hayne continued that the North was intentionally trying to destroy the South through a policy of high tariffs and its increasingly vocal opposition to slavery.
Webster excoriated Hayne for straying from the original topic by segueing into the slavery issue. He reminded his audience that in spite of Northern opposition, the North had never claimed Congress could abolish slavery.
Responding to Hayne’s argument that the nation was simply an association of sovereign states, Daniel Webster launched into an eloquent disquisition on the nature of government in the United States as set forth by the Constitution (which also, he noted, conferred the power to decide disagreements between states on the judicial branch):
This leads us to inquire into the origin of this government and the source of its power. Whose agent is it? Is it the creature of the State legislatures, or the creature of the people? If the government of the United States be the agent of the State governments, then they may control it, provided they can agree in the manner of controlling it; if it be the agent of the people, then the people alone can control it, restrain it, modify, or reform it. It is observable enough, that the doctrine for which the honorable gentleman contends leads him to the necessity of maintaining, not only that this general government is the creature of the States, but that it is the creature of each of the States severally, so that each may assert the power for itself of determining whether it acts whithin the limits of its authority. It is the servant of four-and-twenty masters, of different will and different purposes and yet bound to obey all.
This absurdity (for it seems no less) arises from a misconception as to the origin of this government and its true character. It is, Sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people. The people of the United States have declared that the Constitution shall be the supreme law. We must either admit the proposition, or dispute their authority. The States are, unquestionably, sovereign, so far as their sovereignty is not affected by this supreme law. But the State legislatures, as political bodies, however sovereign, are yet not sovereign over the people. So far as the people have given the power to the general government, so far the grant is unquestionably good, and the government holds of the people, and not of the State governments. We are all agents of the same supreme power, the people.”
Webster’s speech lasted for several hours and stretched over two days. Reprinted later (in a version edited by Webster), it had an impact that reached far beyond the Senate chamber.
You can read the entire speech here.