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1850 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

June 2024
3min read

Clash of the Titans

“Mr. President, never on any former occasion have I risen under feelings of such painful solicitude.” With these words—sounding hyperbolic, yet if anything an understatement—on February 5 Henry Clay of Kentucky rose in the Senate and began the most critical speech of his long and illustrious career. A week earlier he had introduced a set of resolutions designed to end the nation’s strife over slavery. The main provisions would admit California as a free state, leave the territory of New Mexico’s slavery status unspecified, strengthen the fugitive slave law, and essentially prohibit the sale of slaves in the District of Columbia. In an impassioned oration that stretched over two days, Clay defended his plan against opponents on all sides.

The Senate debate over Clay’s package, which came to be known as the Compromise of 1850, was the last major battle for three titans of American politics: Clay, John Calhoun of South Carolina, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. All three had been born during the Revolutionary War; all three could remember President Washington. To them the blood of patriots and the ideals of the Revolution were real, not stock images to be summoned up on the Fourth of July. After four decades together at the forefront of American politics, each of these aging statesmen would make one last effort to preserve the sacred principles of the Republic as he saw them.

For clay, the genius of the American Union was compromise, accommodation, and working together for prosperity. From a muddy rural upbringing, Clay had lived to see a nation that spanned the continent, dotted with factories and knit together by railroads, turnpikes, and steamboats. The prospect of his beloved Union’s abandoning everything it had achieved made him desperate to find a solution.

Paradoxically, Clay’s argument for his compromise rested on its lack of real effect. Slavery’s absence in California, he said, was a fait accompli enacted by a unanimous legislature. In barren New Mexico the institution could never take root. With Maryland and Virginia nearby, the ban on slave sales in the District of Columbia would be of little account. As for the return of fugitive slaves, the Constitution already required it. Were any of these points worth fighting over?

Calhoun stayed defiant to the bitter end, dying four weeks after his final speech.

On March 4 came Calhoun’s turn. As a boy he had heard tales of his relatives fighting in the Revolution; his very name came from an uncle murdered by Tories. To him States’ Rights were an indispensable bulwark against the tyranny his ancestors had vanquished. Severely ill with tuberculosis and weakened by political exertions, Calhoun apologized for being unable to deliver his speech himself. Then, as the silent, cadaverous figure sat hunched at his desk, Sen. James Mason of Virginia read Calhoun’s remarks.

They began by tracing the North’s long record of encroachments on the rights of the South, beginning with the 1787 proscription of slavery in the Northwest Territory, which ensured Northern preponderance in Congress. But merely usurping control of the government was not enough. Now the North was bent on abolishing slavery, the very foundation of Southern life. Talk of compromise was absurd, for the South had nothing left to give up. The only way to protect its interests was with a constitutional amendment to give each section an equal voice regardless of population. If the North persisted in its aggressions, Calhoun warned, “we shall know what to do, when you reduce the question to submission or resistance.”

Three days later Webster spoke. Although a committed foe of slavery, he accorded paramount importance to the Constitution. Just as it gave Congress the power to govern the territories and the District of Columbia, so too did it require the return of fugitives and give states exclusive control over slavery within their borders. Like Clay, he said the arid Southwest climate made restricting slavery superfluous: “... I would not take pains to reaffirm an ordinance of nature, nor to reenact the will of God.” And he scorned absolutists on both sides of the slavery issue: “They deal with morals as with mathematics, and they think what is right, may be distinguished from what is wrong, with the precision of an algebraic equation.”

Webster, the intellectual New Englander, relied on facts, laws, reason, and precedent to build his case. Clay, the practical Westerner, appealed to what worked, while Calhoun, the Southern aristocrat, stressed tradition and wounded honor. Their rhetorical styles showed a similar pattern: Webster high-flown, metaphorical, and eloquent, Clay genial and conciliatory, and Calhoun coldly defiant.

Characteristically, Calhoun had maintained his defiance to the bitter end; he died at his Washington residence on March 31. Webster was still in fairly good health, and he harbored hopes for the Presidency in 1852, but his weakness for high living would soon catch up with him. He died in the fall of 1852, a few months after Clay, who had the satisfaction of seeing his compromise enacted into law and escaped any glimpse of the terrible mess that the next generation of statesmen would make of it.

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