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Daniel Webster Risks It All on the Seventh of March

Daniel Webster (lower right) addressing the U.S. Senate on the Seventh of March. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Daniel Webster (lower right) addressing the U.S. Senate on the Seventh of March. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

The Seventh of March Speech was one of the most famous orations delivered by Daniel Webster. It was aimed at preserving the union but cost him the presidency of the United States.

For nearly two decades, Daniel Webster had dominated the courts, the legislature and the public speaking circuit. He was a leader among America’s second generation of statesmen.

In early 1850 he intended to rebuke the fanatics and demagogues who were driving the nation toward a bloody schism. In the Seventh of March Speech he argued that slavery was not a human rights issue, but one that resulted from history, geography, politics and law. That infuriated his Massachusetts constituents.

He had risked his career and his reputation, and he lost.

The Compromise of 1850

In the beginning of 1850, the South was hurtling toward the frightening crisis of secession. Senators Henry Clay of Kentucky and Stephen Douglas of Illinois were trying to avert the crisis with The Compromise of 1850. It was a series of five bills that resolved the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War.

Under the compromise, Texas would surrender its claim to New Mexico; California would be admitted as a free state; the slave trade would be banned in Washington; Utah and New Mexico would be allowed to decide for themselves whether to be slave or free states; and the Fugitive Slave Act would require government officials in free states and territories to return escaped slaves to their owners.

Webster supported the compromise. He was frightened for the fate of the nation, but he was 68 and ailing. “I am nearly broken down with labor and anxiety,” he said.

He knew South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun intended a speech attacking compromise in early March. Webster wanted to help bring the moderates together to help Clay and Douglas, and he thought a speech could do it.

So did others. He was told he would be greater than George Washington if he could pull it off.

One Democrat begged Webster to reconcile the North and South. “Do it, Mr. Webster; as you can do it, like a bold and gifted Statesman and Patriot."

The Seventh of March

He hastily drew up the speech. On March 7, 1850, he stood up and laboriously began with the soon-famous words:

Mr. President, I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States. . . . I speak for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause.

He spoke for 3-1/2 hours, which was relatively brief for Webster, who sometimes spoke for five hours.

The speech slammed into Massachusetts like a nor’easter. Daniel Webster was swiftly and harshly condemned.

It was his support of the Fugitive Slave law that infuriated Massachusetts voters. “The South, in my judgment, is right, “ he had said, “and the North is wrong."

Elijah Goodridge

Daniel Webster

"Liberty! Liberty! Pho!” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Let Mr. Webster, for decency's sake shut his lips for once and forever on this word. The word 'Liberty' in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word 'love' in the mouth of a courtesan."

Horace Mann called him “a fallen star! Lucifer descending from Heaven!” The Rev. Theodore Parker said ‘“No living man has done so much to debauch the conscience of the nation.”

Webster counterattacked. He had 200,000 copies of the speech printed and ordered them sent to ‘every man that reads the Atlas,’ and to every town in New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. He it The Constitution and the Union (click here for the full text). He supervised the preparation of a letter in his defense that was signed by 800 prominent Massachusetts men, including Rufus Choate, Oliver Wendell Holmes and George Ticknor.

Southerners and Northern moderates received the speech warmly. Several hundred New York businessmen sent him a thank you letter and a gold watch.

But the Seventh of March speech finished Daniel Webster’s Senate career. On July 17, Daniel Webster delivered another speech to the Senate – his farewell speech. He resumed his position as President Millard Fillmore’s Secretary of State.

In 1852, he unsuccessfully sought the Whig nomination for president. He died on Oct. 24, 1852 after falling off his horse at his home in Marshfield, Mass.

With thanks to Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time by Robert Vincent Remini. This story was updated from the 2015 version.