The debate over Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850 was a forum for three fundamental positions regarding the spread of slavery. John C. Calhoun supported slavery in the guise of the South’s Constitutional rights; Daniel Webster accorded with Clay’s accommodating position, arguing that slavery should be allowed to die a natural death; while William Seward put forth the strongest argument, adopting an uncompromising position against the extension of the slave owners’ rights based on Constitutional/legal and spiritual grounds.
The speeches by William Seward, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun represent three foundational positions on slavery that were prevalent in the mid-19th century. John C. Calhoun, a fiery Southern partisan, zealously argued for the rights of slave owners. Daniel Webster cited the great Constitutional debate among America’s Founding Fathers who, he argued, believed that slavery would eventually become marginalized and go out of existence. William Seward put forth an intensely emotional argument calling for abolition based not just on moral grounds but on the belief that the spirit of the Constitution lay in the natural rights of man, which are bestowed by God.
Calhoun cries out against a loss of regional “equilibrium,” while Webster argues floridly about the wise restraint the Founding Fathers showed in finding a middle way so as to placate all interests. Despite the force and eloquence of their respective arguments, Calhoun and Webster essentially promote the facilitation of a reprehensible and morally bankrupt practice that virtually every other nation had outlawed by 1850. Seward is the only one of the three who would not accommodate or compromise simply because it was politically expedient to do so. Seward’s is not the most politic position but it is the only one with vision. Seward alone seemed to understand that only abolition and the consequent assurance of universal freedom could fulfill the promise envisioned by the likes of Madison, Jefferson and Monroe.
Calhoun, too, addresses the desirability of unity and security but he fails to make a compelling ethical argument – his is a cynical position based on representation. But what, after all, is being represented? Slavery, all three seem to agree in their disparate ways, was a necessary evil but an evil nonetheless. Is it enough to insist that slavery, despite its moral repugnance, must be retained in the interest of representative government? Calhoun complained that “one section has the exclusive power of controlling the Government, which leaves the other without any adequate means of protecting itself against its encroachment and oppression…” (Calhoun, 1850). But he is not speaking of armed aggression by one section against the other but the extension and continuation of an ethically indefensible practice. Arguing that slavery must be sanctioned in order to ensure political stability is tantamount to moral blackmail.
Webster’s support of Clay’s compromise smacks of equivocation and deal-making, which serves the political interests of politicians but not the long-term interests of the nation. Webster declared that “slavery could not be continued in the country if the importation of slaves were made to cease, and therefore (the Founding Fathers) provided that, after a certain period, the importation might be prevented by the act of the new government” (Webster, 1850).
Webster’s laissez-faire doctrine, in which he assures us that slavery will die out on its own, absolves itself from the responsibility of resolving two fundamentally incompatible views and of removing the wedge those views were driving between North and South. Webster, like Clay, sought an accommodation for North and South but his logic is skewed. He invokes Madison whom, he points out, refused to introduce the terms “slavery” or “slave” into the Constitution. This is mere semantics when one considers that slavery was an institution that Madison, Jefferson and others among the Founders found reprehensible but failed to undo. How, then, could Webster expect that slavery would be any more likely to simply fade away in his time?
Seward, too, refers to the Founders’ avoidance of the term “slave.” Instead, he stresses John Jay’s characterization of a slave as “two-fifths of the man” (Seward, 1853). This, Seward insists, is sufficient to consider a slave a human being, worthy of consideration as such. He also argues on the basis of institution, asserting that slavery is only one of several mentioned by the Founders. Not only is it not a “ruling” institution, it is a “temporary, accidental, partial, and incongruous one,” Seward argues (Ibid). The Constitution, then, is insufficient grounds upon which to base an argument in support of extending the institution of slavery into new territories. This is the temporal aspect of Seward’s position. The spiritual component of his argument is even more compelling. Seward stakes out the moral high ground, which Wilberforce urged in pushing the British Empire toward an anti-slavery stance and which Lincoln would draw upon a decade later. Seward’s two-pronged attack on Clay’s compromise and the institution of slavery is irrefutable in its fundamental moral rectitude and is superior to the arguments of Calhoun and Webster on Constitutional grounds.
Calhoun, J.C. (1850). “Proposal to Preserve the Union.”
Seward, W.H. (1853). “William Henry Seward’s Higher Law Speech.” The Works of William
H. Seward. George Baker, ed. New York: Redfield. I, 70-93.
Webster, D. “Speech to the U.S. Senate in Favor of the Compromise of 1850.” 7 March 1850.