Daniel Webster of Massachusetts reminded his senatorial listeners to bear in mind that when the Constitution was adopted, “the South was more outspoken than the North in denunciation of slavery.” Southerners had taken the lead in bringing on the Constitutional Convention and in the discussion on prohibiting the slave trade, in which New England was dominant, and it was James Madison of Virginia who thought twenty years was too long to permit the nefarious traffic to continue. Webster also noted that on the question of prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory, the only vote cast against it was from a northern man. He very kindly gave abolitionists credit for good intentions, but not for good sense.
Webster, Abolitionists and Free-Soilers
“The story of Daniel Webster and his great speech in 1850 has been told at some length because it is instructive. The historians who had set themselves to the task of upholding the idea that it was the aggressiveness of the South, during the controversy over slavery, and not that of the North, that brought on secession and war, could not make good their contention while Daniel Webster and his speech for “the Constitution and the Union” stood in their way. They, therefore, wrote the great statesman “down and out,” as they conceived. But Webster and that speech still stand as beacon lights in the history of that crusade.
The attack came from the North. The South, standing for its constitutional rights in the Union, was the conservative party. Southern leaders, it is true, were, during the controversy over slavery, often aggressive, but they were on the defensive – aggressive, just as Lee was when he made his campaign into Pennsylvania for the purpose of stopping the invasion of his own land; and the South lost in her political campaign just for the same reason that Lee lost in his Gettysburg campaign: numbers and resources were against her. “The stars in their courses fought against Sisera.”
Mr. Webster in his great speech for “the Constitution and the Union,” as it became a great statesman pleading for conciliation, measured the terms in which he condemned “personal liberty” laws and Abolitionism. But afterward, irritated by the attacks made upon him, he naturally spoke out more emphatically.
McMaster [“Webster,” p. 340] quotes several expressions from his speeches and letters replying to these assaults, and says: “His hatred of Abolitionists and Free-Soilers grew stronger and stronger. To him these men were a “band of sectionalists, narrow of mind, wanting in patriotism, without a spark of national feeling, and quite ready to see the Union go to pieces if their own selfish ends were gained.” Such, if this is a fair summing up of his views, was Webster’s final opinion of those who were carrying on the great anti-slavery crusade.”
(The Abolitionist Crusade and Its Consequences, Hilary A. Herbert, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912, excerpts pp. 125-127)