The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 26, 2018

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Webster, Daniel
John A. Murley - 05/09/11
Lifespan: (1782–1852)

Regarded as the foremost constitutional lawyer, orator, and statesman of his day, Daniel Webster was a four-term member of the House of Representatives (1812–27), elected four times to the United States Senate (1827–50), and served as secretary of state in the administrations of Presidents Harrison, Tyler, and Fillmore. Landmark cases argued by Webster before the Supreme Court included Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), Ogden v. Saunders (1827), and The Charles River Bridge Case (1837). As secretary of state in the Fillmore administration, Webster negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which settled the long-standing Maine boundary dispute between the United States and England and provided for the searching of ships off the coast of Africa to interdict the outlawed international slave trade.

Too young to have any part in the founding of the republic, Webster sought his highest aspirations in the defense and preservation of the Constitution and the Union. In his 1825 “Address Delivered at the Laying of the Corner Stone of the Bunker Hill Monument,” Webster set forth the theme that would guide his public life:

We can win no laurels in a war for independence. Heartier and worthier hands have gathered them all. Nor are there places for us by the side of Solon, and Alfred, and other founders of states. Our fathers have filled them. But there remains to us a great duty of defense and preservation. . . . Let our object be, OUR COUNTRY, OUR WHOLE COUNTRY, AND NOTHING BUT OUR COUNTRY.

Webster’s defense of the Constitution and the Union was dramatized in 1830 during the Senate debate on Foot’s Resolution. The confrontation between Webster and Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina arose when Samuel A. Foot of Connecticut requested an inquiry into the wisdom of suspending surveys of unsold public lands. Hayne, recognized as the spokesman for John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification, used the occasion to attack the New England states as part of a corrupt consolidated government’s attempt to check the growth of the West and to impoverish the South.

In his “First Speech on Foot’s Resolution,” Webster expounded on the good that had been accomplished by the federal government’s public land policy. Far from being the tool of a corrupt consolidated government, the public lands belonged to all, “a common fund, . . . a common trust to be used for the common benefit.” He denied that the prosperity of the states carved out of the Northwest Territory was the result of any attempt by the government to impoverish the South. Rather, Webster argued, the prosperity of those states, guided by the public land policy of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, was rooted in the freedom made possible by the ordinance, which “fixed forever the character of the population in the vast regions northwest of Ohio by excluding from them involuntary servitude” and “impressed on the soil itself . . . an incapacity to sustain any other than freemen.”

Webster’s arguments stung Hayne and Calhoun to the quick. The following day, with John C. Calhoun presiding over the Senate, Hayne offered a full exposition and defense of nullification, a doctrine which was used to justify Southern resistance to any attempt by Congress to use its constitutional authority to regulate slavery in the territories. In reply, Webster made his “Second Speech on Foot’s Resolution” known ever since, as the “Second Reply to Hayne.” Speaking for more than three hours to a packed gallery, he traced the fifty-year history of the Constitution and the benefits derived from the Union. Webster denied the central tenet of nullification, which was that the Constitution was the creature of the states in that it was a compact between sovereign states. Webster responded that: “It is, sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.” The people of the entire country, Webster maintained, had made “the Constitution the supreme law of the land.” To those who clung to the “delusion and folly of Liberty first and Union afterwards,” Webster responded with the political teaching that always guided his public life, “Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable.” Webster’s replies to Hayne earned him the title “Defender of the Constitution.”

In 1832, after the reelection of Andrew Jackson, South Carolina passed under Calhoun’s guidance an ordinance that affirmed the right of a state to secede from the Union and pledged if necessary “to repel force by force.” Again it was Webster who rose in defense of the Union and the sovereignty of the Constitution. His speech “The Constitution Not a Compact Between Sovereign States” offered, in response to Calhoun’s theories of confederation and nullification, a historical and theoretical rebuttal. The Articles of Confederation, Webster conceded, may have created a league or confederation. Even so the Union had existed for some national purposes as early as 1774. Upon ratifying the Constitution, however, the people had abandoned the Articles to form “a more perfect union” headed by a sovereign national government with the Constitution as its fundamental law. Not the states but “we the people” had, by their consent, “ordained and established” a government, not a league or confederation. Whatever role nullification (the power of veto by a single state) had had under the Articles of Confederation, Webster regarded such an understanding as the antithesis of republican government, having no place under the Constitution.

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