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Classic Senate Speeches

Daniel Webster by James Henry Wright

Daniel Webster
Second Reply to Hayne

January 26 and 27, 1830

In his third year in the U.S. Senate at the time of the debate with Robert Hayne, the forty-eight-year-old Daniel Webster was already renowned as an orator. In his dual careers as lawyer and politician, he had demonstrated his skill with commemorative addresses, speeches in the House of Representatives, and arguments before the Supreme Court. While Webster could touch the emotions of an audience, his orations were also carefully reasoned arguments. Webster prepared carefully for his speeches, speaking mainly from memory, guided only by brief notes.

On January 26, spectators eager to hear Webster respond to Hayne crowded the galleries and even the Senate floor, perceiving the debate as a personal contest between the two men. Isaac Bassett, the young son of a Senate messenger who later served for more than six decades as a Senate employee, was present in the Senate that day. Years later, he recalled that "it was not long before friend and foe alike were carried away with the power of his eloquent oratory." As the speech progressed, he wrote, "In one corner of the gallery I noted several men wiping the tears from their eyes when Mr. Webster was speaking of his own state; I thought they must be from Massachusetts."

Bassett described Webster's habitual manner when speaking:

He was so conscious of his power and had all of his mental resources so well in hand that he never was agitated or embarrassed; his garments in the Senate chamber were unsurpassed. Before delivering a speech, he often appeared absent minded. Rising to his feet he seemed to recover perfect self-possession which was aided by thrusting the right hand within the folds of his vest, while his left hung gracefully by his side. His dark complexion grew warm with inward fire."

A Kentucky lawyer, who observed the speech from the Senate gallery, later recalled Webster's demeanor, as he attacked his opponent:

with the most [clever] satire and . . . cutting sarcasm, refuting his facts and . . . subverting his arguments. His manner and countenance now sickening as from disgust and contempt, now smiling in ridicule, [then] fired by his subject, his countenance brightened while his attitude and voice rose with [moving] eloquence.

Although Webster spoke only from some twelve pages of notes, the subject was one about which he had been speaking, writing, and thinking for some time. Webster had honed the views expressed in the reply to Hayne in such court cases as McCulloch v. Maryland, as well as in numerous private conversations.

Webster began by recalling to his audience how far Hayne had strayed from the original topic, asking the clerk to read the resolution under consideration--the proposal to consider whether sales of public lands should be curtailed and some land offices closed. Although he considered slavery a moral and political evil, Webster asserted that the North had never attempted to claim that Congress could abolish slavery, in spite of the South's unjust suspicions. Nor had the North, he said, made any attempt to slow the movement of settlers to the West. Webster also defended his support for internal improvements, such as roads, canals, or educational institutions, which worked for the common good of all states.

On the issue of nullification, the doctrine supported by Hayne and Calhoun that a state could annul an act of Congress if it believed the national government had over-stepped its authority, Webster pointed out that chaos could result if other states supported the law in question. For this reason, the Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, gives the judicial branch the power to decide all disagreements between states. Throughout the speech, he repeatedly sought to enlist the audience's support by portraying himself as the calm and deliberative senator and Hayne as the violent hothead. Webster concluded with the stirring words of his famous peroration stressing the dangers of discord and dissolution and the need to preserve the Union.

Webster's speech lasted for several hours, stretching over two days, and ultimately had an impact that reached far beyond the Senate chamber. The editor of Webster's papers has written that, until 1830, the United States was "a loosely-knit confederation of states, the division of power between them still unclear despite the valiant efforts of Chief Justice John Marshall. After January 27 the United States was a nation, no longer a plural but a singular noun." While many historians would contend that such a result was only achieved by the Civil War, Webster may have planted a seed that bore fruit later. At any rate, the speech significantly advanced Webster's political career, making him "one of the three or four leading statesmen of the nation."

At Webster's request, editor and publisher Joseph Gales himself recorded the speech in shorthand, but it did not appear in the pages of Gales' and William W. Seaton's National Intelligencer until a month later. During the intervening weeks, Webster rewrote, edited, and polished the oration into the form in which it became an American icon, the peroration of which was memorized by generations of schoolchildren. That is the version reproduced here. Thousands of copies of the speech were printed and distributed widely in pamphlet form.

The story of Webster's revision of this particular speech is unusually well documented, because Gales' shorthand notes and the transcription have survived, together with Webster's revisions and the final printed version. Bound together, all four are preserved in the archives of the Boston Public Library. The editors of The Papers of Daniel Webster decided to publish both the reported version from the shorthand notes and Webster's final corrected text because, although the subject matter was the same, they differed "so widely in form that it is impossible to collate the two, or even to match them for side-by-side reproduction." In making his changes, Webster was consciously turning what had been an example of effective spoken oratory into a document that would be persuasive to readers nationwide. Techniques and phrases that can be impressive to listeners in the presence of a gifted speaker often fall flat when viewed on a printed page.


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


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