Webster's Reply to Hayne

"Daniel Webster"
T. Knight, after daguerreotype by Mathew B. Brady
ca. 1865

Daniel Webster
Thomas Ball


The morning of Tuesday January 26, 1830 dawned upon a feverish and excited community—all eager to witness the triumph or defeat of Mr. Webster who, himself of all this mighty throng which surged and pressed towards the Capitol, was the calmest.

It was a day never to be forgotten by those who witnessed the scene in the Senate Chamber and a day destined to be forever memorable in the Annals of the Senate. There never had been before in connection with the sessions of either House an occasion of so much excitement. People had been flocking to the city from every direction for days and the hotels and boarding houses were thronged. Before nine o’clock in the morning the streets were full of people winding their way in great hosts towards the Capitol building, and when the hour of meeting 12 o’clock arrived, every available foot of space on the floor and in the galleries and all the lobbies & cloak room were literally packed and jammed with humanity. The stairways and doorways were black with men. The House of Representatives, while it did not really adjourn or entirely suspend business, literally emptied itself into the Senate Chamber, the floor of which was packed so densely that it was almost impossible for one to move.

I well remember that morning just before Mr. Webster rose, (senators were offering petitions and memorials), in passing over from the secretary’s desk to that of a senator, I accidentally trod upon a lady’s foot (the ladies had been admitted to the floor by the courtesy of the Senate). She literally howled out in tones heard plainly in all parts of the Senate Chamber, “You have killed me.” In those olden days the pages wore pumps; they were not allowed to enter the Senate Chamber with heavy shoes on, so I replied to her, “I could not have hurt you very much,” when she fairly shrieked, “But you have trod on my corn.” The effect of such a speech in such a presence may well be imagined.

The anxiety to hear the speech of Mr. Webster was so intense, and everyone was so impatient that no sooner had the vice president assumed the chair, than a motion was made and unanimously carried, to postpone the ordinary morning business of the Senate, and to at once take up for consideration Mr. Foot’s resolution. In the rear of the vice president’s chair the crowd was particularly dense. In this part of the chamber a representative from Alabama by the name of Dixon H. Lewis, an unusually large man, became wedged and unable to move without disturbing a large number of the people. And to make matters worse he was in a position directly behind the chair of the vice president where he could not see and hardly hear the speaker. By [ . . . ] great deal of persistent squeezing and pushing and no small amount of perspiring he finally gained one of the painted windows which flanked the vice president on either side. There he had to give it up as he could make no further progress. But determined not to be balked out of his intention to see Mr. Webster as he spoke, he with some difficulty got out his jack-knife and began scraping off the paint of one of the panes of glass. The noise of his scraping attracted considerable attention, but nothing daunted he persevered until he had cleared quite a large space on the glass sufficient for him to peer through and gaze upon the speaker. The hole which he made in that painted window remained for many a day a monument to his perseverance.

. . . Mr. Webster then rose and began his speech the opening section of which riveted the attention of everyone upon him. Although his most zealous opponents appeared to be unconcerned and uninterested at first, one especially trying hard to read his newspaper upside down, but it was not long before friend and foe alike were carried away with the power of his eloquent oratory.

The exordium with which he began his speech is familiar to almost everyone, but is worthy of recording again in these pages. “Mr. President, when the mariner has been tossed, for many days, in thick weather, and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun, to take his latitude and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course. Let us imitate this prudence, and before we float further on the waves of this debate, refer to the point from which we departed, that we may at least be able to form some conjecture where we now are. I ask for the reading of the resolution.”

The effectiveness of Mr. Webster’s manner, it is difficult to portray to those who never saw him. In the prime of magnificent manhood, and in the zenith of his fame he stood like a gladiator facing his foe.

He never rose to address the Senate on any ordinary subject more self-composed than he appeared to be on this occasion.

He exhibited the calmness of conscious strength in every feature, tone and gesture. Complete master of himself and of his subject and fully conscious of the high estimate that was placed upon his great ability, he strode majestically onward sweeping everything before [him]. [17E32-17E40]

Editor's Note:

Observers then and since have considered Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster’s 1830 reply to South Carolina’s Robert Hayne as the most famous speech in Senate history. The debate between Webster and Hayne began simply enough, centering on the subjects of tariff and public land policy. By the time it ended nine days later, the focus had shifted to slavery and the nature of the federal Union. Hayne asserted the states should have the power to control their own lands and to disobey or “nullify” federal laws that they believed were not in their best interests, and to withdraw from the Union if they wished. In response to Hayne’s argument, Webster reasoned that the federal Union was a “popular government, erected by the people . . . and itself capable of being amended and modified, just as people may choose it should be,” and that a dissolution of the Union would be the ruin of the nation. His closing appeal, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable” became one of the most celebrated expressions of American unity. Although this story occurs before Bassett's appointment as a page, it should be remembered that he often accompanied his father to the Senate Chamber prior to his official employment with the Senate. Of interest in this story is the account of young Bassett stepping on a lady's foot. He also attributes this incident to January 11, 1832 (see "Henry Clay" under the "Senators" theme).

People, Places, & Things:

  • Daniel Webster (Adams, Anti-Jacksonian, Whig - MA) U.S. senator 1827-1841 and 1845-1850.
  • Secretary of the Senate’s desk - The secretary’s desk is located in front of the vice president of the United States' desk, on the platform in the front of the Senate Chamber. It provides desk space for various staff from the office of the secretary of the Senate, who support the operation of the Senate.
  • Page - For more than 175 years, messengers known as pages have served the U.S. Senate. Page duties consist primarily of delivering correspondence and legislative material within the Capitol complex. Other duties include preparing the Senate Chamber for Senate sessions, and carrying bills and amendments to the presiding officer’s desk.
  • Vice President - Under the Constitution, the vice president serves as president of the Senate. In the Senate Chamber, the vice president sits on the platform at the front of the Senate. He is allowed to vote only in the case of a tie. The president pro tempore, or others designated by that officer, preside in the absence of the vice president.
  • Samuel Augustus Foot (Adams, Anti-Jacksonian - CT) U.S. senator 1827-1833.
  • Mr. Foot’s resolution proposed to limit federal land sales in the West. Western critics viewed it as an attempt to safeguard the supply of cheap labor for manufacturers in the Northeast.
  • Dixon Hall Lewis (Democrat - AL) U.S. senator 1844-1848.
  • Mr. President - The vice president, or presiding senator, is addressed as “Mr. President” in the Senate Chamber.