For me the moments of highest drama in our history are the congressional debates preceding the monumental tragedy that was our Civil War. Like the chorus in a Greek drama, the players had their say and moved offstage within two years’ time.
In the Senate were not only Clay, CaIhoun, and Webster but Benton and Sam Houston, who refused to secede when Texas did. They were all there. Clay had already spoken, in all his golden eloquence; Calhoun, sitting by like a ghost, had had his last warning read for him on March 4, 1850, which, according to the press, might have forced the Northern senators to bow to the will of the South, “had it not been for Mr. Webster’s masterly playing. ” The day was March 7, when Webster delivered his magnificent oration in defense of the Union he so loved, Calhoun creeping into the chamber to hear his great antagonist once more.
Within a month, Calhoun was gone, murmuring that he would die happy if the Union could be preserved. Two years later, Henry Clay died in Washington; Webster died in Massachusetts that same year, his last gaze fixed on the flag of the Union, “not a stripe obscured. ” None of the three lived to see the curtain rise on the great tragedy, which John Calhoun had foreseen. I would like to have been there with the press that March, but with the insights of my present incarnation, knowing that in the end, the Union would be preserved.