Webster's Reply to Hayne

Faneuil Hall

Walking into the Great Hall one's eyes are immediately drawn to the painting on the far end of the room. Covering the center of the west wall, Webster's Reply to Hayne, draws many comments and questions. The most frequent question - "Is that here?" ("No, it's the old Senate Chamber in Washington, DC.") This is followed by "Who is that man standing?" The answer is Daniel Webster, one of the greatest orators in US Senate history, a successful attorney and Senator from Massachusetts and a complex and enigmatic man.

The scene depicted in the painting is Webster concluding his debate with Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina. Standing in the upper left corner of the scene is John C. Calhoun, Vice President under President Andrew Jackson and thus President of the Senate. The debate is concluding January 27, 1830, having begun six weeks earlier when Senator Foote of Connecticut proposed a bill curtailing the selling of cheap western lands. Senator Foote feared that mill workers in the young New England textile industry would avail themselves of the opportunity to own land and thus would leave the mills for the West.

Further complicating matters, the senator from South Carolina saw an opportunity to support the Western states in rejecting Senator Foote's proposal. South Carolina's agenda was to garner support for the repeal of the Tariff of 1828, also called by some The Tariff of Abomination. The tariff in question was designed to protect growing American industries. Just over fifteen years after the end of the War of 1812, the textile mills of the Northeast were growing, in part due to the tariff which protected them from the giant textile firms in Great Britain. South Carolina, however, sold her cotton to feed the mills of England's industrial midlands. The huge tariff (50% or more on manufactured goods) dramatically cut into South Carolina's profits.

In 1828 John C. Calhoun, secretly wrote a document called the South Carolina Exposition. In this document Calhoun asserted that the federal government had a compact with the states which gave a state the right to veto or nullify a federal law harmful to the state. During the debate Webster argued that the U S Constitution's Commerce Clause gave the federal government the right to pass and sustain such laws as the Tariff of 1828 and that the Supreme Court had the final say on the matter.

Although the debate began in December of 1829 with Senator Foote's resolution to stop selling inexpensive western land, Daniel Webster soon became the object of South Carolina's upset over the Tariff of 1828. Not only was Webster a New Englander representing the mill owners of the Merrimack and Blackstone Rivers, he also had a personal financial interest in the textile industry.

During the course of the debate Webster was vilified for his association with the Hartford Convention of 1814. The secret convention of New England states resulted from what many in the North (mainly Federalists) felt was an unfair advantage given to the Southern States in the U S Constitution. Thomas Jefferson's Embargo of 1807, stopping trade with Great Britain, was detrimental to the New England states and its repeal in 1809 did nothing to quell the negative feelings of the Northerners toward the Federal Government. During the War of 1812 against Great Britain, New Englanders were not pleased with the manner in which President Madison was prosecuting the war and Massachusetts even refused to place their local militias under federal control. So, in 1814, a secret convention was called in Hartford, Connecticut of representatives from the New England states to discuss their relationship with the federal government.

A moderate Federalist, George Cabot of Massachusetts, presided over the gathering. Over a two week period the delegates debated a number of issues, including seceding from the union. Calmer voices prevailed and the resolution to break away was voted down. Although a strong Federalist, Webster did not support the premises of the Hartford Convention. Although Webster was a strong unionist, during the debate, he was tarred with the same brush. Hayne accused him of being a "traitor" because of New England's strong feelings against the War of 1812.

When Webster stepped up in the Senate chamber to reply on January 27, 1830, he defended both the Union and New England. During the course of the reply Webster defended his region. New England had begun the War of Independence and ultimately New England, he believed, would be the last shelter for liberty. Liberty and Union, Now and Forever; One and Inseparable echoed through the crowded chamber in his conclusion. Thirty-one years later his assurance of New England's role as the last shelter of liberty would prove prophetic.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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