Some Damn Fine Oratory From ‘Black Daniel’ Webster

I picked up a book called The Revolutionary Age of Andrew Jackson by Robert V. Remini which I read in the sauna at the gym.

It profiles all the picturesque characters of the age: Martin Van Buren (the Little Magician), Henry Clay (Harry of the West), James Calhoun (the Cast Iron Man), John Quincy Adams (the gloomy misanthrope) and “Black Daniel” Webster.

Webster was very swarthy – hence the name – and the great John Stark once said, “Daniel, your face is pretty black, but it isn’t so black as your father’s was with gunpowder at the Bennington fight.” High praise indeed. Stark defeated a foraging party of “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne at that battle, which made possible the great victory at Saratoga.

Anyway, Calhoun, the Cast Iron Man, was vice president, and when he found out he wouldn’t be Jackson’s successor, he started making trouble, advancing the doctrine of “nullification” which allowed states to invalidate federal legislation if they didn’t like it. The doctrine was first used against tariffs, but clearly it would apply to restrictions on slavery as well.

There was a big showdown in the Senate in 1828 where Calhoun’s representative, Robert Hayne of South Carolina, in a “closely argued and meticulously constructed speech” defended state sovreignty and nullification as the only way to preserve the Union.

Webster’s friends wondered how he would respond to Hayne’s carefully crafted arguments. “I will grind him to powder,” Black Daniel told them, “and blow him away.”

And he did: “I go for the Constitution as it is,” he said, “and for the Union as it is. It is, Sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.”

“While the Union lasts,” he went on, “we have high, exciting, gratifying prospects spread out before us, for us and our children. Beyond that I seek not to penetrate the veil. God grant that in my day, at least, that curtain shall not rise!

“God grant that on my vision never may be opened what lies behind! When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood!

“Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored througout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted nor a single star obscured, bearing for its motto no such miserable interrogatory as ‘What is all this worth?’ nor those other words of delusion and folly, ‘Liberty first and Union afterwards.’

“But everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and on every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart — Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”