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War between the States
"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 Massachusetts."

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 Union." 

'Hear me for my cause."

  Return to Civil War Index


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