Webster and Hayne Debate Slavery and Westward Expansion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the most famous debates in U.S. political history, the Senate confrontation between Daniel Webster and Robert Young Hayne crystallized the issues separating the slave and free states in the context of westward expansion and intensified the struggle between states’ rights and nationalism.

Summary of Event

In December, 1829, Connecticut senator Samuel A. Foot presented a resolution to the U.S. Senate suggesting the imposition of a temporary restriction on sales of public land. Under his resolution, only lands already surveyed and placed for auction were to be sold. Foot’s resolution was seemingly inoffensive, but it precipitated America’s most famous debate during the first month of the following year. Hayne, Robert Young Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;debate with Hayne Debates;Webster and Hayne Congress, U.S.;Webster-Hayne debate States’ rights[States rights];and Webster-Hayne debate[Webster-Hayne debate] [kw]Webster and Hayne Debate Slavery and Westward Expansion (Jan. 19-27, 1830) [kw]Hayne Debate Slavery and Westward Expansion, Webster and (Jan. 19-27, 1830) [kw]Debate Slavery and Westward Expansion, Webster and Hayne (Jan. 19-27, 1830) [kw]Slavery and Westward Expansion, Webster and Hayne Debate (Jan. 19-27, 1830) [kw]Westward Expansion, Webster and Hayne Debate Slavery and (Jan. 19-27, 1830) [kw]Expansion, Webster and Hayne Debate Slavery and Westward (Jan. 19-27, 1830) Hayne, Robert Young Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;debate with Hayne Debates;Webster and Hayne Congress, U.S.;Webster-Hayne debate States’ rights[States rights];and Webster-Hayne debate[Webster-Hayne debate] [g]United States;Jan. 19-27, 1830: Webster and Hayne Debate Slavery and Westward Expansion[1540] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 19-27, 1830: Webster and Hayne Debate Slavery and Westward Expansion[1540] Calhoun, John C. Foot, Samuel Augustus Benton, Thomas Hart

A liberal policy on distributing land to settlers was considered vital for the continued growth of the West. When Foot presented his resolution, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who represented the West as a senator from Missouri, jumped to his feet to attack it as a barefaced attempt to keep emigrant laborers out of the West and force them to remain in the East as industrial wage-slaves. Eastern efforts to check the development and prosperity of the West were nothing new, according to Benton Benton, Thomas Hart , who called Foot’s Foot, Samuel Augustus resolution another sign of the hatred of the East toward the West that had so often plagued the forum of national politics. Benton concluded by saying that the hope of the West lay “in that solid phalanx of the South,” which in earlier times had saved that section when in danger.

Southern political leaders were anxious to make an alliance with western politicians to secure their support for the slavery issue. The South also was interested in alliance with the West because southern politicians saw the growing population and economic clout of the North and thought that westward expansion of slaveholding societies would help redress the North-South balance. This was imperative in light of the fact that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 Missouri Compromise (1820) had unearthed fundamental tensions between the free and slave states. An alliance between southern planters and western farmers could more than offset the eastern manufacturing interests in controlling the federal government. The hope for such a combination led South Carolina’s Senator Robert Y. Hayne to step forward and take up the fight.

Hayne offered southern support to the West and deftly shifted the argument from land to state sovereignty. If the eastern proposals were put into effect, he said, the price of land would increase. The income derived from the sale of the higher-priced land would provide a “fund of corruption” that would add to the power of the federal government and correspondingly reduce the independence of the states. Preaching strict constructionist and states’ rights views against federal intervention, the South Carolinian declared that “the very life of our system is the independence of the states and there is no evil more to be deprecated than the consolidation of government.”

In the course of his remarks, Hayne made a bitter attack upon New England and what he regarded as that section’s disloyalty during the War of 1812. His remarks incensed Senator Daniel Webster from Massachusetts, who rose to defend his state and section: “Sir . . . I deny that the East has at anytime shown an illiberal policy toward the West.” Fearful that he might further alienate the West, Webster ignored Benton Benton, Thomas Hart and addressed his remarks to Hayne. Attacking the southerner’s views on the consolidation of government, Webster deplored the tendency of some “habitually [to] speak of the Union in terms of indifference and even disparagement,” and then challenged Hayne to meet him on the grounds of states’ rights versus national power.

Thus, a discussion that had started on the subject of public-land policy shifted to a debate over the nature and meaning of the federal Union. Both nationalism and state sovereignty were debated by two of their most capable champions. Hayne was an able lawyer, a skilled debater, and a splendid orator. Tall and graceful, with cordial and unaffected manners, he was the epitome of the southern aristocrat. As the defender of the South and the advocate of that section’s doctrines, Hayne stood second only to his mentor and fellow statesman, John C. Calhoun, then the vice president.

Webster was considered the country’s greatest orator. Further, he was a man of commanding presence, with a large head, dark and penetrating eyes, and a deep and resonant voice. It has been said that no man could be as great as Daniel Webster looked. Indeed, his countenance was so overpowering and his oratorical style so effective that even trivial and commonplace statements sounded profound when presented by the “god-like Daniel.” Webster brought to his speeches not only a political viewpoint, but a philosophical and conceptual weight that impressed his listeners.

During an age when political debates were loved by the American people, this battle between two brilliant speakers attracted wide attention. The Senate chamber, a small semicircular room in which only forty-eight members sat, was crowded to capacity and the galleries were packed. At one time, so many congressmen came to listen that the House of Representatives could not conduct its own business.

Daniel Webster replying to Robert Young Hayne during their debate on the Senate floor.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

Hayne answered Webster with a slashing defense of states’ rights as it had been outlined by Calhoun Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;on states’ rights[states rights] . He spoke with logic and eloquence as Calhoun looked down from the Speaker’s chair, smiling and occasionally nodding his approval. Hayne’s defense was based upon the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves of 1798 Virginia and Kentucky Resolves (1798) Congress, U.S.;Virginia and Kentucky Resolves , and he asserted that each state, while assenting to the federal Constitution, reserved the right to interpret that document within its own borders; that is, the people of any state, if they believed themselves offended, could declare an act of the federal government null and void. Otherwise, Hayne continued, the federal government would have the capacity to “proscribe the limits of its own authority,” and this made government without any restriction of its powers. The states and the people would be entirely at the mercy of the federal government.

In what has been called the greatest speech ever made in the Senate, Webster upheld the doctrine of nationalism. A state could not, he said, annul an act of Congress except “upon the ground of revolution.” He believed that the Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, was created by the people, not the states. The primary question, Webster maintained, was not the right of revolution against oppression, but that of determining whose prerogative it was to decide on the constitutionality of the laws. For him there was only one answer: The Constitution was the nation’s highest law, and the ultimate appeal lay with the Supreme Court. He ended his endeavor with this peroration:

When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on states dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the glorious ensign of the republic, known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a strip erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as “What is it all worth?” nor those words of delusion and folly, “Liberty first and Union afterwards”: but everywhere . . . that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart, —Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!

Significance

The Philadelphia Gazette summed up the result of the debate: “The opposition party generally contend that Mr. Webster overthrew Mr. Hayne; while, on the other hand, the result is triumphantly hailed by the friends of the administration as a decisive victory over the eastern giant.” It would be a mistake to see the Webster-Hayne debate solely as part of the buildup to the Civil War (1861-1865). This assumption would be purely the product of historical hindsight. Contemporary observers might well have seen the debate as being between Jacksonian Democrats, with their southern and western base, and the emerging Whig Whig Party (American);and slavery[Slavery] Party, which championed national unity above all. Regardless of who may have won, the debate clarified the issues and intensified the struggle between states’ rights and nationalism. It furnished both North and South with powerful arguments and thus accentuated the ardor with which each defended its cause.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baxter, Maurice G. One and Inseparable: Daniel Webster and the Union. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. Thoughtful exposition of Webster’s fundamental philosophy of national unity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chambers, William Nisbet. Old Bullion Benton, Senator from the New West: Thomas Hart Benton, 1782-1858. New York: Russell & Russell, 1970. Examines Benton’s role in the debate and the general question of the West’s role in the slavery and states’ rights debates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Current, Richard Nelson. Daniel Webster and the Rise of National Conservatism. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955. Places Webster in the context of the rise of the Whig Party and its nationalist ideology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petersen, Merrill D. The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Examines Webster’s relations with his legislative colleagues and his pivotal role in the debates of the United States about itself; highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Craig R. Daniel Webster and the Oratory of Civil Religion. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005. Biography of Daniel Webster that closely examines his famous oratory ability.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Page. The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-bellum Years. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. Entertaining general history of the period. Asserts the Webster-Hayne debates presaged the Civil War.

Westward American Migration Begins

Missouri Compromise

Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments

Nullification Controversy

Clay Begins American Whig Party

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Thomas Hart Benton; John C. Calhoun; Henry Clay; Daniel Webster. Hayne, Robert Young Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;debate with Hayne Debates;Webster and Hayne Congress, U.S.;Webster-Hayne debate States’ rights[States rights];and Webster-Hayne debate[Webster-Hayne debate]

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