Understanding Daniel Webster's Seventh of March Speech

Illustration of Daniel Webster delivering the Seventh of March Speech in 1850

Library of Congress/Public domain

As the United States struggled with the deeply divisive issue of enslavement a decade before the Civil War, public attention in early 1850 was directed to Capitol Hill. And Daniel Webster, widely regarded as the nation's greatest orator, delivered one of the most controversial Senate speeches in history.

Webster's speech was widely anticipated and was a major news event. Crowds flocked to the Capitol and packed the galleries, and his words traveled quickly by telegraph to all regions of the country.

Webster's words, in what became famous as the Seventh of March Speech, provoked instant and extreme reactions. People who had admired him for years suddenly denounced him as a traitor. And those who had been suspicious of him for years praised him.

The speech led to the Compromise of 1850 and helped to hold off open warfare over enslavement. But it came at a cost to Webster's popularity.

Background of Webster's Speech

In 1850, the United States seemed to be splitting apart. Things seemed to be going well in some regards: the country had concluded the Mexican War, a hero of that war, Zachary Taylor, was in the White House, and newly acquired territories meant the country reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The nation's nagging problem, of course, was enslavement. There was a strong sentiment in the North against allowing enslavement to spread to new territories and new states. In the South, that concept was deeply offensive.

The dispute played out in the U.S. Senate. Three legends would be the major players: Henry Clay of Kentucky would represent the West; John C. Calhoun of South Carolina represented the South, and Webster of Massachusetts would speak for the North.

In early March, John C. Calhoun, too frail to speak for himself, had a colleague read a speech in which he denounced the North. Webster would respond.

Webster's Words

In the days before Webster's speech, rumors circulated that he would oppose any sort of compromise with the South. A New England newspaper, the Vermont Watchman and State Journal published a dispatch credited to the Washington correspondent of a Philadelphia newspaper.

After asserting that Webster would never compromise, the news item lavishly praised the speech Webster had not yet delivered:

"But Mr. Webster will make a powerful Union speech, one which will be a model of eloquence, and the memory of which will be cherished long after the orator's bones shall have mingled with the kindred of his native soil. It will rival Washington's farewell address, and be an admonition to both sections of the country to fulfill, through union, the great mission of the American people."

On the afternoon of March 7, 1850, crowds struggled to get into the Capitol to hear what Webster would say. In a packed Senate chamber, Webster rose to his feet and gave one of the most dramatic speeches of his long political career.

"I speak today for the preservation of the Union," Webster said near the beginning of his three-hour oration. The Seventh of March Speech is now considered a classic example of American political oratory. But at the time it deeply offended many in the North.

Webster endorsed one of the most hated provisions of the compromise bills in Congress, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. And for that, he would face withering criticism.

Public Reaction

On the day after Webster's speech a leading newspaper in the North, the New York Tribune, published a brutal editorial. The speech, it said, was "unworthy of its author."

The Tribune asserted what many in the North felt. It was simply immoral to compromise with pro-slavery states to the extent of requiring citizens to become involved in capturing freedom seekers:

"The position that Northern States and their Citizens are morally bound to recapture fugitive Slaves may be good for a lawyer, but is not good for a Man. The provision is on the face of the Constitution. True, but that does not make it the duty of Mr. Webster nor any other human being, when a panting fugitive presents himself at his door begging for shelter and the means of escape, to arrest and bind him and hand him over to the pursuers who are hot upon his trail."

Near the end of the editorial, the Tribune stated: "We cannot be converted into Slave-catchers, nor can Slave-catchers operate freely among us."

An abolitionist newspaper in Ohio, the Anti-Slavery Bugle, blasted Webster. Quoting the noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, it referred to him as the "Colossal Coward."

Some northerners, especially business people who preferred tranquility between the regions of the nation, did welcome Webster's appeal for compromise. The speech was printed in many newspapers and was even sold in pamphlet form.

Weeks after the speech, the Vermont Watchman and State Journal, the newspaper which had predicted that Webster would deliver a classic speech, published what amounted to a scorecard of editorial reactions.

It began: "As to Mr. Webster's speech: it has been better praised by his enemies and better condemned by his friends than any speech ever before made by any statesman of his standing."

The Watchman and State Journal noted that some northern papers praised the speech, yet many denounced it. And in the South, the reactions were considerably more favorable.

In the end, the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Act, became law. And the Union wouldn't split until a decade later when the pro-slavery states seceded.

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McNamara, Robert. "Understanding Daniel Webster's Seventh of March Speech." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/daniel-websters-seventh-of-march-speech-1773503. McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Understanding Daniel Webster's Seventh of March Speech. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/daniel-websters-seventh-of-march-speech-1773503 McNamara, Robert. "Understanding Daniel Webster's Seventh of March Speech." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/daniel-websters-seventh-of-march-speech-1773503 (accessed June 8, 2023).