Political differences have always existed in America, but for Americans today those disagreements seldom occur solely along geographic lines. This has not always been the case though. In the early nineteenth century, political concerns were oftentimes based on purely sectional interests. Most notably, the North and the South found themselves clashing over conflicting economic interests. In the early 1830’s, however, there was one American politician who attempted to remind all Americans that geographical boundaries should not dictate the political concerns of the nation. One of his greatest moments came when he delivered a speech proclaiming the importance of national unity. His name was Daniel Webster. This is the story of how he waged a political battle to protect the nation from those whose private interests would threaten the very existence of a unified country.
During his life, Daniel Webster saw the differing sectional interests evolve into a full-blown national crisis. He was born in 1782 in New Hampshire to a father who fought in the Revolution, served in New Hampshire’s Constitutional Ratification Convention, and loyally supported George Washington. The older Webster raised his son with the same appreciation for the new country. After attending Exeter Academy, Daniel entered Dartmouth College where he studied law. Later he moved to Boston, Massachusetts, establishing himself as a successful lawyer before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1822 and the Senate in 1827. At the same time, he showed that he already had a national perspective on matters. He had stood apart from other New Englanders who called for possible secession due to their opposition to the War of 1812. As an elected representative, he worked to serve Massachusetts’ interests, but he also appeared before the Supreme Court on a number of occasions to argue the supremacy of national laws. He became convinced that sectional concerns needed to take second place to national interests. It would not be long before Webster employed this argument in one of the greatest speeches in American history, defending the belief that America truly was one nation and not just a collection of regions with competing interests.
Daniel Webster’s cherished dream of national cohesion was threatened in 1828 when the Southern states contested the constitutionality of a federally mandated revenue collection. The national legislature had passed a new protective tariff — a tax collected on goods brought into the country — in order to protect the mercantile and textile industries emerging in Northern cities. Webster recognized that the tariff was designed to benefit large parts of the country. Unfortunately, the tariff negatively affected certain trade and financial interests in the South. In response, Southerners decried the Tariff of 1828 to be a “Tariff of Abominations.” Many in the South hoped the newly elected president from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson, would work to weaken its effect. To their disappointment, Jackson refused to oblige them, and Southern leaders searched for an alternative to negate the tariff’s restrictions. The alternative ultimately seized upon by Southerners would propel Daniel Webster into the limelight as the primary spokesman for national cohesion.
Daniel Webster may have been a Northerner who worked for the good of his constituents, but more importantly, he was a staunch defender of the Constitution. He held firm to the belief that the national government had supreme authority over the states. He also believed that the Constitution banded all of the states together as one. Contrary to this position, however, many Southerners, most especially Vice-President John C. Calhoun, maintained an abiding belief that loyalty to an individual’s state trumped one’s loyalty to the entire country. Southern opposition to the “Tariff of Abominations” demonstrated Southern determination to protect their sectional interests, even at the expense of national unity. Soon after passage of the tariff, Calhoun and his fellow Southerners called for a radical new step. They revived an argument originally made by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that a state had the power to declare null and void any law that the state felt violated the Constitution. Hearing this argument, Webster recognized the danger of the national government giving in to such a threat. If states could decide which laws to obey then the very future of the Union was in doubt. Webster was not the only one alarmed by this turn of events. Nullification thoroughly enraged President Jackson. While Jackson would ultimately take steps that forced the “nullifiers” to back down, it was Daniel Webster who stood as the country’s defender at this moment of crisis.
In January 1830, Daniel Webster saw the time had come to prove his dedication to the Union. On January 19, he called on Senator Robert Hayne of South Carolina to engage him in a debate on the theory of nullification. Over the next few days, Hayne defended an individual state’s right to defy federal legislation if it adversely affected the state. He justified such an argument by claiming that the states had voluntarily joined together to create the Constitution. By this interpretation, the states had retained the power to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether or not a federal law was beneficial to the individual interests of the state. If the law was not beneficial, Hayne argued, it was the state’s prerogative to declare that it would not abide by the law. Hayne’s arguments drew support from many Southerners who held firmly to the conviction that the ultimate power in federal legislation remained with the states. The argument was not persuasive to those senators who shared Webster’s more nationalistic view. Once Hayne had concluded, Webster readied himself to give a speech that would ring out as a clarion call for the protection of the Union.
On January 27, 1830, Daniel Webster delivered a stirring response to Hayne’s defense of nullification. In countering Hayne’s claims regarding state supremacy, Webster maintained that it was the individual citizens of the country who had created the nation, and the states had no authority to decide if the law violated the Constitution. He argued such a decision only rested in the hands of the justices who composed the Supreme Court. He then went as far as to claim that if a state attempted to subvert power given to the people of America, the state was committing an act that bordered on treason. He spoke of how it was the national union that gave America the strength and reputation it enjoyed and how America’s standing in the world would suffer if the national union failed. As he closed, Webster expressed a desire that the country not shatter because of sectional divisions. From his deathbed, he said, he did not want to see the sun “shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union.” Rather, he desired to “behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic” proudly floating across a united country. That “gorgeous ensign” he thundered stood for “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” His declaration was greeted with cheers from supporters of the Union in every state, and they began to label Webster as the “Defender of the Constitution.” It would be a title he would carry for the rest of his life.
In the immediate aftermath of his “Liberty and Union” speech, Daniel Webster continued to stand as one of the foremost defenders of American unity. He was most outspoken in 1832 when South Carolina carried through with its threat and nullified the tariff. Webster immediately called this act “another name for civil war” and predicted that if the government failed to respond then “from that moment the whole Union is virtually dissolved.” He vocally supported President Jackson’s promise to use military force to subdue the “nullifiers,” as they were called. The use of force proved unnecessary as Calhoun and others managed to reach a compromise solution. Even though the immediate threat to the country had been removed, Webster saw the dark clouds ahead and continued to urge national cohesion.
Throughout the rest of his life, Daniel Webster personally reached out to those on the opposite side of the political fence in order to achieve the harmonious accord of which he had previously spoken. In the aftermath of the nullification crisis, the North and the South engaged in debates over slavery. Webster attempted to alleviate the South’s fear of abolition by claiming that the national government had no authority over slavery where it currently existed. As the debates continued though, Webster saw the threat of an approaching storm. In an effort to preserve national solidarity, Webster worked with states’-rights supporters, first as President John Tyler’s Secretary of State in the early 1840’s and later backing his old opponent John C. Calhoun to craft the Compromise of 1850. He would be denounced by abolitionists for accepting the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of runaway slaves to their masters, but he saw the Compromise as a necessary evil if the country was to escape a bloody civil war. His efforts ultimately failed, but he would not live to see it. Daniel Webster died on October 24, 1852, nine years before the civil war he had predicted finally came to pass.
Daniel Webster was a warrior to the end, but his battlefields were the halls of Congress and the court of public opinion where he fought to preserve the country he loved. Webster may have been born in the North, but his ultimate loyalty was not to his native Massachusetts. His was a more modern view of the country — one where you were an American first and a Southerner, Northerner, Texan or New Yorker second. He himself said in the debates over the Compromise of 1850 that he did not speak “as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man but as an American.” In every sense the “Defender of the Constitution,” he stood defiant in the face of those who attacked the solidarity of the nation. He understood the power of “oneness” and the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Daniel Webster worked tirelessly his whole life to hold together this dream called America. May his words stand for all time — “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”