“Everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, . . . that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart–Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights provided general rules regarding how the state and national governments should relate to one another. Differences of interpretation on this issue have existed ever since. When debating a Senate resolution regarding the disposition of federal lands, Senator Robert Y. Hayne, from South Carolina, expanded the debate to include states’ rights and his belief that these were superior to the rights of the national government. In response, Daniel Webster gave this speech on the origins of the United States and the relative positions of the national and state governments within the federal system. Webster transformed the discussion on whether states had the right to nullify federal law to one on the origins of political power for the US government, and in what extreme circumstances this power might be withdrawn. Webster spoke so forcefully that President Andrew Jackson was swayed to Webster’s point of view on the broader issues of the debate.
In 1830, Webster was completing the second decade of his political career, which would span nearly four decades. In the first half of his career, he had seen a reversal in the regional views of relationships with the United States government. During the War of 1812, New England was uneasy with the federal government, and some leaders spoke of secession, or at least rewriting parts of the Constitution. By 1830, New England was mainly supportive of the federal government, while states in the South spoke of secession, or at least of taking the initiative to not allow the enforcement of federal laws with which they disagreed. It was at this moment that Webster, the junior senator from Massachusetts, took to the floor of the US Senate to proclaim his vision of what the United States should be.
The thirteen colonies that came together to oppose British rule in the 1770s had all been created separately and had their own histories and heritages. Under the Articles of Confederation, it became clear that greater unity among the colonies was necessary. With the adoption of the Constitution, the mechanism for a strong central government was created; however, there were many different views of how the national and state governments should work together. The South, especially South Carolina, had been strongly affected by the 1819 recession. More than 10 percent of its population moved west, and the cotton industry had a hard time recovering. The federal government was blamed, with tariffs acts from 1816 through 1828 being the focus of the blame. South Carolina had already flouted a federal judge’s ruling on the status of African sailors on foreign ships in port at Charleston. The “nullification” movement, as this pro-states’ rights group was called, asserted that each state could pick and choose which federal law to enforce and obey. Their position was forcefully presented in 1828 by Vice President John C. Calhoun, who later stepped down from the position of vice president in order to freely present his views on this issue. Webster was a strong advocate for national unity, and he spoke up when the issue was raised in the debates of January 1830. This speech went far beyond carrying the day in the Senate, with thousands of printed copies distributed throughout the nation. It has been seen as one of the greatest speeches in the history of the Senate and was used as a prime example of a persuasive speech by teachers of rhetoric for the rest of the century.
Webster was born in Salisbury (now Franklin), New Hampshire, on January 18, 1782. One of the nine children of Ebenezer and Abigail Webster, he grew up while his father, a strong Federalist, worked as a small farmer and innkeeper. Webster had a substantial formal education, first at Phillips Exeter Academy and then at Dartmouth College. He studied law in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, passed the bar, and started his practice in New Hampshire. In 1807, Webster began to be more active in political affairs, through writing and giving speeches. He married Grace Fletcher in 1808. His public speaking led to his 1812 election to the House of Representatives as an antiwar Federalist representing New Hampshire. After two terms, he decided to leave Congress, and New Hampshire, in order to establish a lucrative law practice in Boston.
While he had been a well-known lawyer prior to entering Congress, Webster became known as a preeminent scholar on the Constitution. As a result, he handled many of the highest-profile cases of that period, including arguing more than two hundred cases before the Supreme Court. In 1822, he was elected to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts, serving until he was elected to the Senate. His legislation included reforming the criminal codes and blocking actions to undermine the treaty with the Creek Indians. In 1828, he was elected to the Senate, where he would serve until 1841, and again from 1845 to 1850. From 1841 to 1843, and again beginning in 1850, Webster served as secretary of state.
Once in the Senate, he supported the 1828 tariff bill, although he had opposed earlier ones and normally advocated free trade. Through this, he became allied with Henry Clay on the issues of federal land and roads. Opposing President Jackson, Webster was one of the founders of the Whig Party. Throughout his Senate service, Webster strongly advocated American unity. As secretary of state, he negotiated a treaty finalizing the border between Maine and New Brunswick. Returning to the Senate in 1845, he opposed Texas joining the union because he thought it would lead to war (it did) and because it would increase the number of slave states. He supported the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Most New England leaders were shocked by his support of the Fugitive Slave Act portion of the compromise. Returning to the position of secretary of state, Webster was outspoken on many international issues, even though the United States technically remained neutral. He died, while serving as secretary of state, on October 24, 1852.
What is called the Webster-Hayne debate was actually a series of four speeches during the period of January 19–27, 1830. The first speech by each man dealt fairly directly with the western land resolution under consideration. However, in his second speech, Senator Hayne expanded the discussion to include the relative role of state governments versus that of the national government. The day after Hayne’s second speech, Webster began a two-day response, excerpts of which are the text in the historical document section. Webster claimed that the United States was not a collection of states but one political system founded upon the consent of the people. He asserted that the national government had the right to expect that all constitutional laws would be observed in all parts of the nation. He believed that the people had given the federal government rights and powers to carry out policies in the best interest of the nation as a whole, and that these powers should not be limited by one region’s desire to follow another policy. Webster proudly proclaimed that the United States had become a respected power in the world because of its unity and that any division would only come from a civil war, which, if successful, would lead to the ruin of all parts of the nation.
The beginning of the excerpt of Webster’s speech is located more than three-fifths of the way through the full speech. The last four paragraphs of the excerpt are the last paragraphs of his speech. Prior to presenting the philosophical arguments of the excerpt, which in the Senate records is subtitled “The True Principles of the Constitution,” Webster dealt with many of the substantive issues of the resolution and of Hayne’s speeches. Webster’s speech included many passages dealing with the history of certain issues, as well as Webster’s previous views on many of these issues such as the creation of the Northwest Territory, slavery, and New England’s relationship with the western states and territories. Webster continued with various discussions regarding perceived regional political differences as represented in tariffs, the national debt, and what types of infrastructure projects should be the responsibility of the national government. Having argued these points forcefully, Webster then turned to a more general view of the Constitution and its interpretation regarding the relationship between the national government and the states.
During his legal career, Webster had studied the Constitution quite closely in order to appeal cases to the Supreme Court. Although in the opening paragraph of the speech Webster stated that he wished the “task should have fallen into other and abler hands,” there was no other senator who was actually recognized as being more able than Webster. In fact, once it became clear he would respond a second time to Hayne on January 26, interested observers packed the session, filling the visitors’ gallery. One person in the gallery was a friend of Webster who, on Webster’s instructions, was to use shorthand to take down the full speech. Webster was not as modest as he claimed to be. Webster stated that he did not seek this debate, which was partially true, because Hayne initiated the series of speeches. However, once engaged, Webster was more than happy to continue the discussion. Webster had little doubt that he understood the “true principles of the Constitution.”
Within the first section of the speech, Webster continued with short statements regarding Hayne’s views of the Constitution and the federal system. Webster stated that Hayne believed that “it is a right of the state legislatures to interfere whenever, in their judgment, this government transcends its constitutional limits.” Because one can find points where Hayne, and others, interrupted Webster’s speech to clarify or correct a position he said they held, one can assume that these, and the following points, are essentially correct interpretations of Hayne’s position. It is interesting to note that it was the state legislature—rather than the chief executive of a state—which could decide whether or not the national government was acting properly. This was in line with two points of early nineteenth-century American political thought. The first point was that the king and executive branch of the British government, not the British people, had provoked the American colonies to engage in the American Revolution. Thus, chief executives were somewhat suspect within any government. The second point was the thought that the legislature was closer than the executive branch to the people and, thus, better able to judge and carry out the will of the people. According to the argument Webster said Hayne put forward, if the state legislature was certain the national government was not acting in accordance to the Constitution, the legislature had the authority to stop the implementation of whatever national law was causing the problem.
The second point Webster said Hayne presented was that this right to block the implementation of a federal law was “a right existing under the Constitution.” This meant that the state could block a federal law on its own, without seceding from the Union. As he clearly stated later in the speech, Webster did believe in the right of the people to revolt in extreme circumstances. This point he saw as something clearly different from blocking the implementation of a law by a particular state legislature.
Continuing his list of strongly related, but slightly different, points of Hayne’s argument, Webster moved to his third point: Hayne advocated that states had the right to limit the federal (general) government’s power and to force the national government to limit its actions to those the states find acceptable. This clearly would make the state level of government the more powerful than the federal level. In Webster’s mind, allowing states to have this type of power would have been a move back toward the power structure of the Articles of Confederation.
In the fourth point listed by Webster, he made it clear that to accept Hayne’s position would be to give each state veto power over the actions of the national government. Contrary to the understanding that only the Supreme Court had the power to rule on cases of constitutionality, Hayne would extend this power to each state. Webster’s last point in this section of the speech was his assertion that Hayne believed that the state’s power was not only to ignore national laws but also to officially declare them void. In the speech, but not the excerpt, Webster went on to declare that these points were the essence of Hayne’s arguments and that while many in South Carolina might disagree with the federal tariffs, Webster did not believe a majority of South Carolinians accepted Hayne’s argument. Hayne then interrupted and read a statement from a document known as the Virginia Resolution that supported states’ rights. After Webster spoke briefly about the times when armed revolution might be necessary, in a second point of information, Hayne clearly stated that his view was not limited to times of revolution; rather, he believed that a state could constitutionally block any action by the national government. This meant that Hayne believed that the Constitution granted states the right to annul national laws.
After this second clarification by Hayne, the speech resumed at the next section of the excerpt. Webster initiated his argument by asking whether one could claim to be upholding the Constitution by not allowing the government outlined within it to function. Webster did not deny that it was possible to change the structure of the government or to object to unconstitutional laws. The focal point of the discussion, for Webster, was, what part of the American system of government had the right to judge the constitutionality of laws? As to the states’ right to do this, Webster was clear in his response. “I do not admit it.” Webster said there might be times, as in 1776, when an armed revolution might be justified. But for the states to ignore, or call unconstitutional, laws that met the normal standard of constitutionality, was totally wrong from Webster’s point of view.
Webster repeatedly made the point that there was normal acceptance of a law and there was the extreme case when violent revolution was justified, but nothing in between. Continuing in the text, Webster rejected the idea that people’s right “to resist oppression . . . the ground of revolution” gave states the right to “annul a law of Congress.” For Webster, it was an either/or situation. Either one was operating under the Constitution in which the national government was given various rights and powers or one was not operating under the Constitution, which would mean using “an ultimate violent remedy.” There was no middle ground for states to partially accept the governmental structure of the Constitution. This interpretation was held by Webster, but not by Hayne, because of their differing assumptions regarding who had created the American system of government. For Webster, the Constitution and the government of the United States was the “creature of the people,” while the statement that Hayne read from the Virginia Resolution stated the basis of “the federal government . . . result[ed] from the compact to which the States are parties.” This difference as to the basis of the national government was the issue on which Webster spent considerable time.
Webster called it absurd that anyone would believe that it was not “the people’s Constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.” Webster agreed that state governments did have a role to play within the federal system, but he disagreed that they were “sovereign over the people.” By this Webster meant that states could not interfere with the Constitution, as its power came from the people. The supreme power, in Webster’s political theory, was the people. Even though the legitimacy of state and national governments come from the same source, there were differences in their roles. According to Webster, while states had an essential role to play within the federal system, “In the Constitution of the United States, so far, it must be admitted, state sovereignty is effectually controlled.” Thus, although Webster admitted that the national government did not have unlimited powers, its power came from the people and not the states. Therefore, any limitation of power came from the people and not from the states. Whether states should be limited in their power, and if so, where the limits should be drawn, was not at the heart of this discussion, according to Webster. He said he was dealing with the present system outlined in the Constitution.
During the next portion of the speech (which is not in the excerpt), Webster illustrated several areas in which the Constitution, and therefore the people, gave the powers to national government and not to the states. He continued by dealing with the Carolina Doctrine (the states’ ability to nullify federal laws), listing the current and some previous regional disagreements on national laws, and asking how differences in opinion among the states would be resolved when some accepted a federal law and others did not.
Returning to the issue of where the foundation of political power is, Webster reasserted that the power came from the people. The system of government was “erected by the people,” and the people had the right and power to change it, if they desired. The division of power between the state and federal governments was because of what he called a division of labor between the two. Webster then went on to advance his claim of federal superiority over state governments by asserting that the people have supported the national government in order to impose “restraints on state sovereignties.” Listing powers reserved to the national government, Webster remarked that if the state governments really were the entities that created the national government, then it was strange that so many powers were taken away from the states and given to the national government.
In a passage not included in the excerpt Webster outlined the role of the Supreme Court and how granting it the power to decide on constitutionality made the current system a government and not a confederation. Because of this, as the excerpt continues, Webster asserted that state governments did not have the ability to “protect the people from intolerable oppression.” Webster argued that anytime oppression was so extreme that the states might contribute to the protection of the people, the people would already have taken steps to protect themselves. “A nullifying act of a state legislature cannot alter the case,” was Webster’s statement regarding the inadequacies of state governments. Webster maintained that his argument clearly supported people’s rights, some of which the people had voluntarily given to the national government. Webster then went on to confirm that there was only one body, at the federal level rather than the state level, which had the power to determine whether an action was proper. Webster again reminded the senators that he accepted the idea that the national government had “limited powers.” However, this did not make it possible for states to nullify an act of the national government.
In the closing section of the speech, Webster apologized for speaking so long, and he repeated his claim that, while the topic was of great concern to him, this speech was not something for which he had prepared. He recalled his Federalist background, asserting that he had always worked for the interests of the entire United States. He recalled that the United States had come into existence because of “great adversity” and, in its initial years, was far from solid. However, Webster proclaimed that everyone could be proud of what the Union had achieved and that each year its achievements were even greater, just as its territory and population continued to grow. Webster was convinced that liberty could only be preserved by the preservation of the United States. He proclaimed, “while the Union lasts, we have high, exciting, gratifying prospects spread out before us, for us and our children.” He felt that only through unity was happiness and prosperity possible. Webster offered a prayer that he would never see events move beyond debates, to “civil feuds . . . drenched . . . in fraternal blood!” His hope was that throughout his life and beyond, the country would remain united, without “a single star obscured.” Rather, Webster prayed that what would always be seen was the image “dear to every true American heart—Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”
Ultimately, Webster was on the winning side of the debate over states’ rights versus the power of the national government. While not everyone has agreed with the relative powers of the national versus state governments, it is clear that throughout the decades since Webster’s speech his point of view has prevailed. States do not have the right to unilaterally reject a federal law, just as he so eloquently argued. This debate and this speech did not end the “issue of whether a state could nullify a national law. The nullification debate continued for three more years, but Webster had asserted his philosophical position so forcefully that it became widely accepted. This was helped by the fact that more than forty thousand copies of his speech were printed across the United States.
At the end of the Nullification Crisis, President Jackson foresaw that the next regional crisis would be over slavery. The same strong pro-Union views that Webster held and proclaimed in the 1830s, and fear of massive bloodshed if secession were attempted by the South, were the reasons he accepted the Compromise of 1850, even though it cost him politically. Webster desperately sought ways to help cement the unity of the United States. Eventually the regional disagreements became so great that words alone could not solve the problem, and the two sides could not envision any more compromises. However, after the close of the Civil War, perhaps even bloodier than Webster had foreseen, Webster’s vision of a strong, prosperous United States, made possible by the unity of the nation, came to be better understood by all.
Baxter, Maurice G. One and Inseparable: Daniel Webster and the Union. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984. Print. Byrd, Robert C. The Senate, 1789–1989: Classic Senate Speeches. Washington, DC: US Senate, 1994. Print. Remini, Robert V. Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time. New York: Norton, 1997. Print. Bartlett, Irving H. Daniel Webster. New York: Norton, 1978. Print. Kartalopoulos, William S. “Daniel Webster: Dartmouth’s Favorite Son.” Dartmouth College. Dartmouth College, 1995. Web. 3 Sept. 2012. McDonald, Forrest. States’ Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2000. Print. Webster, Daniel, et al. The Webster-Hayne Debate on the Nature of the Union. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000. Print.