War between the
"Hear me for my cause"
Through the winter of 1849--50 tension
mounted in the country. The national legislative machinery stood still while the
house battled through sixty-three ballots before a Speaker was chosen. Publicists in
both North and South struck hard blows for their respective sections. William
Gilmore Simms with secessionist talk in the south and Horace Greeley in New York warning
against compromise in the Territories. Orators whipped up the crowd's fierce
emotions. Wendell Phillips, with two fugitive slaves on the platform of famed
Faneuil Hall, told his cheering audience that congress might pass its petty laws in
Washington but "Faneuil Hall repeals them in the name of humanity of
Ill feeling in the South was intensified
by the collapse of cotton prices from sixteen cents a pound in 1845 to four and half cents
in 1849. Southern disunionists were planning a convention in Nashville.
President Taylor sternly warned against secession at the same time favoring
California's entry into the Union as a free state and organization of New Mexico and Utah
as territories without mention of slavery.
Into this feverish atmosphere the
calming presence of popular Henry Clay came as a cooling breeze. Though now
seventy-two, and not strong, his mind was sharp, his silvery voice still held his audience
captive. In the crowded, red-carpeted Senate chamber, Clay spoke impressively for
his beloved Union, urging the North to be magnanimous and the South to banish thoughts of
disunion. Secession would mean war and that war, he prophesied correctly would be
"furious, blood, implacable and exterminating." Clay urged that a group of
separate measures, originally sponsored by Douglas, be joined together for action by
Congress: 1. admission of California as a free state; 2. establishment of slavery; 3.
adjustment of the Texas-New Mexico boundary; 4. assumption by the national government of
the public debt of Texas; 5. prohibition of the domestic slave trade in the District of
Columbia; 6. enactment of a new and more binding fugitive slave law. The nation was
in great danger, said Clay, noting that he had never spoken to an assembly "so
oppressed, so appalled or so anxious".
Calhoun, the South's chief spokesman
prepared to answer though as he told Rhett, a worshipful disciple, "My career is
nearly done. The great battle must be fought by you younger men." The
ghost-like Calhoun, sat with his cloak wrapped around him while his friend, Senator Mason
of Virginia, read the Southern oracle's address. Responsibility for preserving the
Union lay with the North, said Calhoun. The North must permit the South to take the
slaves to California and Territories, Northern States must arrest fugitive slaves because
of an alleged imbalance of power between the sections, a constitutional amendment should
be adopted to restore the former equality, (the proposal seemed to involve a dual
executive, each having a veto), and finally, the North must "cease the agitation of
the slave question." if the North refused to meet the ultimatum, Calhoun urged
seccession, preferable peaceful, but if need to be at the cost of a civil war.
As the debate grew hotter, Webster
entered the fray, but his heart was heavy. "I am nearly broken down with labor
and anxiety, but I know not how to meet the present emergency or with what weapons to beat
down the Northern and Southern follies now raging in equal extreme". But
Webster's tired spirit and eloquent voice rose to the occasion on the seventh of March
with one of the greatest speeches in his life. "I wish to speak today, not as a
Massachusetts man, not as a Northern man, but as an American, ---I speak to preserve the
'Hear me for my cause."
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