Imagini ale paginilor
PDF
ePub

ings were accordingly held at Washington during the first session of the Thirtieth Congress, attended by a majority of the members from the slaveholding States, to take into consideration the measures proper to be adopted. At one of these meetings a sub-committee was appointed, of which Mr. Calhoun was chairman, to prepare an address “ of the Southern delegates to their constituents." At a subsequent meeting a substitute for this address was submitted by Mr. Berrien of Georgia, under the title of an address “to the people of the United States." The original paper was, however, adopted in preference, and received the signatures of forty-eight of the members of Congress from the slaveholding States. Of these all but two were of the Democratic party."

These proceedings contributed materially to increase the dis. contents existing at the South. Nor was the progress of excitement less rapid at the North. The nomination of General Taylor by the Whig convention, accompanied by the refusal of that convention to countenance the Wilmot Proviso, led to the organization of the Free Soil party in the non-slaveholding States. In the summer of 1818, a convention of delegates of this party assembled at Buffalo in New York, at which an antislavery platform was adopted, and Mr. Van Buren was nominated as a candidate for the Presidency.

These occurrences and the state of feeling which they created, or indicated, appeared to Mr. Webster to constitute a crisis in the condition of the country of a most formidable description. Opinion at the North and South had, in his judgment, either reached, or was rapidly reaching, a point at which the coöperation of the two sections of the country in carrying on the government as coequal members of the Federal Union would cease to be practicable. The constitutional opinions and the views on the subject of slavery set forth in Mr. Calhoun's address he deemed to be such as could never be acquiesced in by the non-slaveholding States. On the other hand, the organization of a party on the basis of antislavery agitation at the North appeared to him equally menacing to the Union. The professions of attachment to the Union and the Constitution made on both sides, and often, no doubt, in

In compiling this narrative much use has been made of the third volume of the work entitled “The Statesman's Manual," a most useful work of reference.

entire good faith, did but increase the danger, by their tendency to produce misapprehension and self-deception as to the really irreconcilable nature of the opposite extremes of opinion.

It was his profound and anxious sense of the dangers of the Union, in this crisis of affairs, which reconciled Mr. Webster to the nomination of General Taylor. He saw in his position as a citizen of a Southern State and a slaveholder the basis of support to his administration from that quarter of the Union; while his connection with the Whig party, the known moderation of his views, with his declared sentiments on the subject of the Presidential veto, were a sufficient ground for the confidence of the North. In fact, in the existing state of things, it was soon apparent that there was no other candidate of either party so well calculated to allay sectional differences, and guide the vessel of state over the stormy sea of excitement and agitation.

But whatever reliance might justly have been placed upon the character and disposition of General Taylor, the prospect of affairs was sufficiently dark and inauspicious. Thoughtful persons looked forward to a struggle on the territorial question, at the first session of the Thirty-first Congress, which would convulse the country. In this state of things the event which we have already alluded to took place, and California presented herself for admission as a State, with a constitution prohibiting slavery. As California was the only portion of the Mexican territory in reference to which the question was of practical importance, Mr. Webster derived from this unexpected and seasonable occurrence a gleam of hope. It removed a topic of controversy in reference to which it had seemed hopeless to propose any terms of compromise; and it opened, as it were providentially, the door for an understanding on other points, on the basis of carrying into execution existing compacts and constitutional provisions on the one hand, and not strenuously insisting, on the other hand, upon applying the antislavery proviso where, as in Utah and New Mexico, he was persuaded it could be of no practical importance.

On these principles, and with this object in view, Mr. Webster made his great speech of the 7th of March, 1850.

It would be too much to expect, in reference to a subject of so much difficulty, and one on which the public mind has been so greatly excited, that a speech of this description should find universal favor in any part of the country. It is believed, however, that by the majority of patriotic and reflecting citizens in every part of the United States, while on single topics there may be differences of opinion, it has been regarded as holding out a practical basis for the adjustment of controversies, which had already gone far to dissolve the Union, and could not be much longer pursued without producing that result. If those who have most strongly expressed their dissent from the doctrines of the speech (we do not, of course, allude to the mere clamor of political or personal enemies) will pause from the work of denunciation, and make the attempt themselves to lay down a practicable platform on which this great controversy can in fact be settled, and the union of the States perpetuated, they will not find it so hard to censure what is done by others as to do better themselves. It is quite easy to construct a Southern platform or a Northern platform; the difficulty is to find a basis on which South and North will be able and willing to stand together. Of all those who have condemned the views of Mr. Webster, who has gone further than he, in the speech of the 7th of March, 1850, to furnish such a basis? Or rather, we may ask, who of those that have been loudest in condemnation of his course has taken a single step towards effecting this paramount object?

Mr. Webster's thoughts are known to have been earnestly and profoundly employed on this subject from the commencement of the session. He saw beforehand the difficulties and the dangers incident to the step which he adopted, but he believed that, unless some such step was taken in the North, the separation of the States was inevitable. The known state of opinion of leading members of Congress led him to look for little support from them. He opened the matter to some of his political friends, but they did not encourage him in the course he felt bound to pursue. He found that he could not expect the coöperation of the members of Congress from his own State, nor that of many of the members from the other Northern States. He gave up all attempt to rally beforehand a party which would sustain him. His own description of his feelings at the time was, “that he had made up his mind to embark alone on what he was aware would prove a stormy sea, because, in that case, should final disaster ensue, there would

[blocks in formation]

be but one life lost.” But he believed that the step which he was about to take would be sanctioned by the mass of the people, and in that reliance he went forward.

While the compromise measures were still undecided before Congress, about midsummer of 1850, President Taylor was removed from his high office by death. In the reorganization of the executive occasioned by this event, Mr. Webster, to the general satisfaction of the country, was placed by President Fillmore at the head of the administration. Subsequent events are too recent to need to be described. The correspondence with the Austrian Chargé d'Affaires is the worthy complement, after an interval of a quarter of a century, to the profound discussion of international politics contained in the speech of January, 1824, on the revolution in Greece, and that of 1826, on the Congress of Panama. We have before us a translation of this correspondence furtively published in Germany, and circulated throughout the Austrian empire. The fervid appeals to the patriotism of the people, with which Mr. Webster has electrified the Union on various occasions during the last nine months, have contributed materially to the great work of sectional conciliation; and his last noble effort, on laying the corner-stone of the Capitol, will be read with admiration as long as the Capitol itself shall last.

Such, in a brief and imperfect narrative, is the public life of Mr. Webster, extending over a period of forty years, marked by the occurrence of events of great importance. It has been the aim of the writer to prevent the pen of the biographer from being too much influenced by the partiality of the friend. Should he seem to the candid not wholly to have escaped that error, (which, however, he trusts will not be the case, he ventures to hope that it will be forgiven to an intimacy which commenced in the youth of one of the parties and the boyhood of the other, and which has subsisted for nearly half a century. It will be admitted, he thinks, by every one, that this career, however inadequately delineated, has been one of singular eminence and brilliancy. Entering upon public life at the close of the first epoch in the political history of the United States under the present Constitution, Mr. Webster has stood below none of the distinguished men who have impressed their character on the second. There is a class of public questions in reference to which the opinions of most men are greatly influenced by prejudices founded in natural temperament, early association, and real or supposed local interest. As far as such questions are concerned, it is too much to hope that, in times of high party excitement, full justice will be done to prominent statesmen by those of their contemporaries who differ from them.

We greatly err, however, if candid men of all parties, and in all parts of the country, do not accord to Mr. Webster the praise of having formed to himself a large and generous view of the character of an American statesman, and of having adopted the lostiest standard of public conduct. They will agree that he has conceived, in all its importance, the position of the country as a member of the great family of nations, and as the leading republican government. In reference to domestic politics it will be as generally conceded, that, reposing less than most public men on a party basis, it has been the main object of his life to confirm and perpetuate the great work of the constitutional fathers of the last generation.

By their wisdom and patriotic forethought we are blessed with a system in which the several States are brought into a union so admirably composed and balanced, — both complicated and kept distinct with such skill, -as to seem less a work of human prudence than of Providential interposition.* Mr. Webster has at all times been fully aware of the evils of anarchy, discord, and civil war at home, and of utter national insignificance abroad, from which the formation of the Union saved us. He has been not less sensible to the obstacles to be overcome, the perils to be encountered, and the sufferings to be borne, before this wonderful framework of government could be established. And he has been firmly persuaded that, if once destroyed, it can never be reconstructed. With these views, his political life has been consecrated to the maintenance in all their

This idea is beautifully expressed in the following passage of a late letter from Mr. Webster, in reply to an invitation from the citizens of Macon, Georgia:" The States are united, not consolidated ;

Not, chaos-like, together crushed and bruised,
But, like the world, harmoniously confused,
Where order in variety we see ;
And where, though all things differ, all agree.'

« ÎnapoiContinuă »