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Speech Costs Senator His Seat

March 7, 1850

Ask anyone familiar with the Senate's history to name a famous floor speech that is commonly identified by the date on which it was given and you will almost certainly receive one answer, "The Seventh of March Speech."

On March 7, 1850, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster (pictured) rose in the Senate Chamber to stake his career, his reputation, and perhaps the nation's future on the success of a speech that he hoped would unite moderates of all sections in support of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay's proposed "Compromise of 1850."

He began his "Seventh of March" address with the immortal lines, "Mr. President, I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States.…I speak for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause." The Massachusetts statesman then spoke for three and a half hours—a relatively brief performance for one known to have given an after dinner speech lasting five hours.

Webster contended that it was pointless to argue about the continuation of slavery where it already existed—it was not going away—or to worry about extending slavery into the arid lands of the southwest, where plantation agriculture stood no chance of flourishing. Asserting that slave holders were entitled to the protection of their property, he urged strengthening of fugitive slave statutes.

Thanks to the recently introduced telegraph, Webster's address quickly appeared in newspapers throughout the nation. Nearly everywhere but in his native New England, Webster won high praise for moral courage. It was said that his speech slammed into New England with the force of a hurricane. Many there believed that he must have cut a deal with Southern leaders to win their promised support for the presidency. Horace Mann called it a "vile catastrophe," that Webster, who had walked with the gods had now descended to consort with "harlots and leeches." Ralph Waldo Emerson cried, "'Liberty! Liberty!' Pho! Let Mr. Webster, for decency's sake shut his lips for once and forever on this word. The word 'Liberty' in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word 'love' in the mouth of a courtesan."

His political base in ruins, Webster soon resigned from the Senate and finished his public career as Secretary of State.

Portrait of Daniel Webster