January 26, 1830
The Most Famous Senate Speech
The debate began simply enough, centering on the seemingly prosaic subjects of tariff and public land policy. By the time it ended nine days later, the focus had shifted to the vastly more cosmic concerns of slavery and the nature of the federal Union. Observers then and since have considered Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster's (pictured) closing oration, beginning on January 26, 1830, as the most famous speech in Senate history.
The debate began with a proposal by a Connecticut senator to limit federal land sales in the West. Responding for the West, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton condemned this as a trick to safeguard the supply of cheap labor for manufacturers in the Northeast.
South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne entered the debate at that point as a surrogate for Vice President John C. Calhoun. Hayne agreed that land sales should be ended. In his opinion, they enriched the federal treasury for the benefit of the North, while draining wealth from the West. At the heart of his argument, Hayne asserted that states should have the power to control their own lands and—ominously—to disobey or "nullify" federal laws that they believed were not in their best interests. Hayne continued that the North was intentionally trying to destroy the South through a policy of high tariffs and its increasingly vocal opposition to slavery.
Daniel Webster rose to Hayne's challenge. In a packed Senate chamber, Webster used his organ-like voice to great effect as he began a two-day speech known as his Second Reply to Hayne. In response to Hayne's argument that the nation was simply an association of sovereign states, from which individual states could withdraw at will, Webster thundered that it was instead a "popular government, erected by the people; those who administer it are responsible to the people; and itself capable of being amended and modified, just as the people may choose it should be."
The impact of Webster's oration extended far beyond the Senate chamber to establish him as a national statesman who would lead the debate over the nature of the Union for the next tumultuous twenty years.
Following his speech, Webster encountered Hayne at a White House reception. When Webster asked the South Carolina senator how he was doing, Hayne relied, "None the better for you, sir."
Remini, Robert V. Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.