From VOA Learning English, welcome to The Making of a Nation, our weekly program of American history for people learning American English. I’m Steve Ember.
During the first half of the 19th
century, leaders of the United States could find no answer to the question of slavery. The dispute grew more threatening after the war with Mexico in 1849.
Northern states refused to permit slavery in the new territories of California and New Mexico. Southern states declared that they had a constitutional right to bring slaves into the new lands. The South was ready to secede – to leave and break up the Union of states.
Then, in 1850, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky offered a compromise to avoid secession, and a likely war between the North and South.
Henry Clay proposed a compromise over the issue of slavery in the United States in 1850
He said the Union was permanent and created for all future Americans. He attacked the South's claim that it had the right to leave. He warned the war that would follow southern secession would be long and bloody.
One week after Senator Clay spoke, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi explained his position. He did not say much about Clay's proposed compromise.
Davis was sure that no good would result from it, not even from stronger laws on the return of escaped slaves. He said these laws would not be enforced in states where people opposed slavery.
He said that what was needed was a change in the North's policy toward the South. He said the North must recognize the rights of southerners, especially the right to take slave property into U.S. territories.
Davis said Congress had no right to destroy or limit this right. He admitted that the old Missouri Compromise of 1820 had limited the right to take slaves into the territories. He said the 1820 compromise worked -- not because Congress passed it, but because the states agreed to it.
Senator Davis said the North was responsible for the growing split in the country, because the North was trying to get complete control of the South. He said if these efforts were not stopped, the North some day would be powerful enough to change the Constitution and end slavery everywhere. Davis warned the South would never accept this change.
Three weeks later, the Senate heard another southern leader, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. For years, Calhoun was the voice of the South. He now was 68 years old and a sick man. He spent the last week in February writing what he believed to be the true position of the South. Many Senators understood it would be his last speech.
On Monday, March 4th, the Senate was crowded when Calhoun entered. One by one, friends came to speak to him. The old man's long, gray hair fell to his shoulders. His face was thin and white. But his eyes were bright and his jaw firm. Calhoun was too weak to read his speech. He asked another senator to read it for him.
Calhoun said that for a long time he had believed the dispute over slavery -- if not settled -- would end in disunion. Calhoun said it was clear now to everyone that the Union was breaking apart, that the ties that had held the North and South together were breaking, one by one.
Three churches, once united across the nation, now were split between the North and South. The major political parties, he declared, were divided in the same way. Calhoun said the North was responsible for all this disunity because it had destroyed the political balance between the two parts of the country.
As the population of the North had grown large, he noted, that part of the country seized political and economic control. The North passed tariff bills the South opposed. It had filled most of the offices in the federal government. It closed the new territories to southern slaveholders. And, said Calhoun, it viciously attacked the southern institution of slavery.
The situation was so bad, he said, that the South could not -- with honor and safety -- remain in the Union. "How can the Union be saved?" he asked. "Not by the compromise proposed by the senator from Kentucky. There is but one way. A full and final settlement, with justice, of all the questions disputed by the two sections.
"The South asks for justice, simple justice, and less she ought not to take. She has no compromise to offer but the Constitution, and no concession or surrender to make. She has already surrendered so much that she has little left to surrender."
At the end of Calhoun’s speech to the Senate, southern lawmakers crowded around the old man, congratulating him. But many of them could not agree with his demands and the violence of his words. By now, most southerners believed that Senator Clay's proposals were a reasonable way to settle the difference and protect the Union.
Yet Clay worried that northerners might reject his proposals. Many in the North felt slavery was wrong. They opposed Clay’s compromise because it might permit slavery in New Mexico, and because it called for stronger laws on the return of slaves who had escaped to the North. So Clay asked an important senator from the north to speak in support of his proposals.
This is an undated portrait of American congressman & orator, Daniel Webster (1782-1852). Webster of Massachusetts was accused of ``scarlet infamy'' in 1851 when he backed a North-South compromise that forestalled the dissolution of the Union. (AP Photo)
Daniel Webster represented the northeastern state of Massachusetts. Senator Webster believed that slavery was evil. Yet he believed that national unity was more important. He did not want the nation to divide. He did not want to see the end of the United States of America.
Webster was 68 years old, as old as Calhoun. Three days after Calhoun’s speech, Webster spoke to the Senate. His voice was weaker now. But his words rang with the same strength as years earlier.
"I speak today," he said, "to save the Union. I speak today out of a concerned and troubled heart. I speak for the return of a spirit of unity. I speak for the return of that general feeling of agreement which makes the blessings of this union so special to us all."
Senator Webster spoke of how he hated slavery. He spoke of his fight against the spread of slavery. But he disagreed with those who wanted laws making slavery illegal in new territories. It would not be wise to pass such laws, he said. They would only make the South angry. They would only push the South away from the Union.
Then Webster spoke about the things the North and South had done to make each other angry.
One, he said, was the failure of the North to return runaway slaves. He said the South had good reason to protest. It was a matter of law. The law was contained in Article Four of the nation’s constitution.
"Every member of every northern legislature," Webster said, "has sworn to support the constitution of the United States. And the constitution says that states must return runaway slaves to their owners. This part of the constitution has as much power as any other part. It must be obeyed."
Next, Webster spoke about Abolition societies. These were organizations that demanded an end to slavery everywhere in the country.
"I do not think that Abolition societies are useful," Webster said. "At the same time, I believe that thousands of their members are honest and good citizens who feel they must do something for liberty. However, their interference with the South has produced trouble."
As an example, Webster spoke about the state of Virginia. Slavery was legal there. Webster noted that public opinion in Virginia had been turning against slavery until Abolitionists angered the people. After that, he said, no one would talk openly against slavery. He said Abolitionists were not ending slavery, but helping it continue.
Then Webster said the North also had a right to protest about some things the South had done. He said the South was wrong to try to take slaves into new American territories. He said attempts to expand slavery violated earlier agreements to limit slavery to areas where it already existed.
Webster said the North also had a right to protest statements by southern leaders about working conditions in the North. Southerners often said that slaves in the South lived better lives than free workers in the North.
Webster appealed to both sides to forgive each other. He urged them to come to an agreement. He said the South could never leave the Union without violence.
Webster said the two sides were joined together socially, economically, culturally, and in many other ways. There was no way to divide them. No Congress, he said, could establish a border between the North and South that either side would accept.
In general, Webster's speech to the Senate was moderate. He wanted to appeal to reason, not emotion. Yet it was difficult for him to be unemotional. His voice rose as he finished.
"Secession." he called out. "Peaceable secession! Your eyes and mine will never see that happen. There can be no such thing as peaceable secession. We live under a great constitution. Is it to be melted away by secession, as the snows of a mountain are melted away under the sun?
"Let us not speak of the possibility of secession. Let us not debate an idea so full of horror. Let us not live with the thought of such darkness. Instead, let us come out into the light of day. Let us enjoy the fresh air of liberty and union."
Northern Abolitionists quickly criticized Daniel Webster's speech. They called him a traitor. But most people of the North accepted Webster's appeal for compromise. His speech cooled the debate that threatened a complete break between the North and South.
Yet the speech was not the end of the debate. The Senate’s final decision on the Compromise of 1850 will be our story next week.
I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us next time for The Making of a Nation — American history from VOA Learning English.