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Classic Senate Speeches

Image of Senator Robert Hayne

Robert Y. Hayne
Reply to Daniel Webster

January 21 and 25, 1830

The "greatest debate in the history of the Senate" began on January 18, 1830, and concluded nine days later, on January 27. Missouri's Thomas Hart Benton triggered the oratorical eruption on January 18 and was followed sympathetically on the nineteenth by South Carolina's Robert Y. Hayne. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts responded--briefly by his standards--to Benton and Hayne on the twentieth. On January 21 and 25 Hayne challenged Webster's arguments.

Small and slender, possessed of a refined and charming manner, Robert Y. Hayne entered the Senate in 1823 when he was only thirty-one years old, one year above the constitutional threshold for Senate service. Previously, he had served as speaker of the South Carolina house of representatives and as that state's attorney general. A protégé of John C. Calhoun, Hayne brought with him a reputation as a polished orator, a master of sustained argument, and a man of keen intelligence. He would greatly expand his oratorical fame during his nearly ten years in the Senate.

After the War of 1812, manufacturing interests in the Northeast increased pressure on Congress to enact tariff legislation that would protect their products against foreign competition. This came at a time when the South was beginning to perceive that its economic future lay not in manufacturing goods but in supplying raw materials--particularly slave-cultivated cotton. Thus, as the northern states moved toward embracing protective tariffs, the South was moving away from them. This shift guaranteed sectional confrontation in the national legislative arena.

Protectionism and sectional discord reached a high point in 1828 with passage of the so-called Tariff of Abominations. The 1828 tariff led John C. Calhoun to assert the right of states to nullify unpopular laws, borrowing arguments from the 1798 Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and from New England's opposition to the Embargo Act of 1807.

The first session of the Twenty-first Congress, meeting from December 7, 1829, until May 31, 1830, during the first year of Andrew Jackson's presidency, produced a political sea change and renewed intense debate on the proper role of the federal government. On December 29, 1829, Connecticut Senator Samuel Foot sparked a session-long forensic explosion with his proposal to limit western land sales. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a vigorous defender of western interests, swiftly attacked the proposal as a diabolical plan to safeguard cheap labor in the Northeast by shutting off opportunities for that region's oppressed labor force to escape to the developing West. Benton devised a strategy to link the South and West in common alliance against domination by northeastern interests. He believed that the South would cooperate in return for western votes to repeal the Tariff of Abominations.

Robert Y. Hayne, in his January 19 address, called for an end to land sales by the federal government--a policy he viewed as enriching the national treasury to the North's corrupt benefit while draining wealth from the West. He argued that the states should have the power to control their own lands and to set aside federal laws they believed were not in their best interests.

Webster's relatively brief response on January 20 confronted Hayne's states' rights theme and succeeded in shifting the debate from the narrow issues of the tariff and public land policy to the more cosmic concerns of slavery and the very nature of the Union. Recognizing the West's discomfort with slavery and its need for a stable union to promote regional development, Webster directed his oratorical blows toward dividing the two regions. He cast New England as the West's ally, noting that Nathan Dane, a New Englander, had written the Ordinance of 1787 that established a government for the Northwest Territory and outlawed slavery there. He attacked Hayne for his apparent willingness to preserve the Union "while it suits local and temporary purposes" and to dissolve it "whenever it shall be found to thwart such purposes."

The thirty-eight-year-old Hayne entered the packed Senate chamber on January 21 to launch his reply to Webster. Appearing boyish in a suit of coarse homespun, Hayne spoke for several hours and then, following a long weekend, concluded his remarks. Responding in a tone of "scarcely suppressed bitterness and rage," he received perpetual encouragement and handwritten notes from Vice President John C. Calhoun, who was presiding over the Senate. Daniel Webster sat impassively nearby, making notes and predicting to his allies that when the time. came for his response, he would "grind [Hayne] as fine as a pinch of snuff."

Hayne charged that the North was seeking to destroy the South through its recent conversion to high protective tariffs and its increasingly vocal opposition to slavery. He attacked Webster's inconsistency on the tariff and reminded his listeners that the doctrine of nullification counted among its advocates Madison and Jefferson, as well as Webster and those in New England who supported the Hartford Convention during the War of 1812. Hayne argued that the South, which had "everything to lose and nothing to gain," fought the war for "the protection of Northern shipping and New England seamen," while Webster's allies, "the war party in peace, and the peace party in war," sought to escape the burdens of that conflict.

Hayne's political theory stressed the sovereignty of the individual states, which had voluntarily ceded limited power to the central government. He believed that when the government unconstitutionally encroached on a state's sovereignty, that state could legitimately oppose the action until three-quarters of the states ratified a clarifying amendment to the Constitution. Although the subsequent course of American history has sustained Webster's nationalist arguments, the Hayne-Calhoun states' rights doctrine assumed great significance during the three decades that followed the Webster-Hayne exchange.

In December 1832, as the issues of nullification and states' rights assumed crisis proportions, Hayne resigned from the Senate, permitting Calhoun to trade the silence of the vice presidency for the unfettered oratorical license available to a United States senator. Hayne served as governor of South Carolina until 1834; as Charleston's first mayor, from 1835 to 1837; and as president of a local railroad until his death in 1839 at the age of forty-seven.


Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994.

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