The Old Senate Chamber

Webster-Hayne Debate, 1830

One of the most momentous debates in Senate history began over a plan to curtail western land sales. Senators from western states viewed this proposal by a Connecticut senator as a cynical scheme to preserve for northeastern manufacturing interests a cheap labor supply that might otherwise be lured away by the beckoning opportunities of plentiful western lands. Senator Robert Hayne of South Carolina saw in this developing Northeast-West dispute an opportunity to build a political alliance between the South and the West. Hayne shared the view of southern planters that an agricultural system built on slavery could only survive with an unlimited supply of cheap western lands.

Hayne began the debate in this chamber on January 19, 1830. He contended that states, not the federal government, should control their lands and that states should have the right to set aside certain federal laws if they wished. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, the Senate's leading orator, responded by challenging the South's apparent willingness to subvert the Union for regional economic gain. In doing so, he broadened the debate beyond land, tariffs, and slavery to a consideration of the very nature of the federal republic.

Maintaining that the North had always been the West's ally, Webster successfully shifted the debate to one of states' rights versus national power. When Hayne again argued that a state had the right to openly defy an act of Congress, Webster returned on January 26 and 27 with his classic "Second Reply to Hayne."

The chamber was jammed beyond reasonable capacity as Webster, using his organ-like voice to great effect, thundered that the nation was not a mere association of sovereign states, but a "popular government, erected by the people; those who administer it responsible to the people; and itself capable of being amended and modified, just as the people may choose it should be." Overnight, the Massachusetts senator became a major national figure, respected by his many friends and enemies alike. The Senate shelved the land sales resolution, and chances of an alliance between the South and West evaporated.

For further reading:

Remini, Robert V, Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997)