On this day in history, the famous Whig Senator from Massachusetts spoke in Congress in favor of the “Compromise of 1850” which allowed California into the Union as a free state in exchange for a stronger Fugitive Slave Act.
Webster, to the shock of his fellow northerners, criticized opponents of the Fugitive Slave Law, advising them they had a constitutional duty to return slaves who had escaped into the free states, saying:
No man fulfills his duty in any legislature who sets himself to find excuses, evasions, escapes from this constitutional obligation.”
Webster claimed slavery was a matter of historical reality rather than a moral question. He strove to avoid a civil war and to preserve the Union. To that end, he concluded:
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.”
Unfortunately, he meant only for whites not to dwell in “caverns of darkness” and only for whites to “enjoy the fresh air of Liberty and Union.”
Northern abolitionists were incensed, convinced Webster had sold out moral principles for a chance to appease Southerners and northern textile merchants in order to win the presidency. (In fact, several hundred New York businessmen sent him a letter of thanks and a gold watch.)
On March 11 New York Senator William H. Seward countered Webster with his “Higher Law” speech, thundering out the moral precepts that Webster seemed to have abjured.
But there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes. … I cannot stop to debate long with those who maintain that slavery is itself practically economical and humane. I might be content with saying that there are some axioms in political science that a statesman or a founder of states may adopt, especially in the Congress of the United States, and that among those axioms are these: That all men are created equal, and have inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the choice of pursuits of happiness; that knowledge promotes virtue, and righteousness exalteth a nation; that freedom is preferable to slavery, and that democratic governments, where they can be maintained by acquiescence, without force, are preferable to institutions exercising arbitrary and irresponsible power.”