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On This Day: Daniel Webster Endorses Compromise of 1850 in 3-Hour Speech

Written By Erin Harris
Last updated: February 15, 2023

On March 7, 1850, U.S. nationalist and statesman Daniel Webster delivered a three-hour speech on the issue of states’ rights to permit slavery. Five months later, Congress approved the Compromise of 1850 in order to preserve the Union.

Compromise Generates Criticism

Following the Mexican-American War and the annexation of Texas, Congress wondered whether or not new U.S. western territories would permit slavery. In 1849, California’s request to join the Union as a free state threatened to upset the balance between free and slave states in the Senate.

Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay proposed a solution that called for the admission of California as a free state, the abolition of slave trade in the nation’s capital, and the amendment of the Fugitive Slave Act.

South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun challenged the compromise, but Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts stood behind Clay.

In a famous three-hour speech to the U.S. Senate, Webster claimed that slavery could not be eradicated where it already existed, but argued that it should not take root in new U.S. territories. However, he insisted that citizens abide by the Fugitive Slave Act and return escaped slaves to their Southern owners.

While Webster’s speech won him praise from moderates on both sides, he faced outrage from Northern abolitionists and lost the public support of many of his New England colleagues.

The Senate debated Clay’s proposal for seven months. The Compromise of 1850 was finally enacted in September, at which point it also established a territorial government in Utah and New Mexico and settled a boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico.

It failed to provide a permanent solution to the issue of slavery, however, and disagreements between the North and South divided the Union in the following decades.

Background: Slavery in the Western States

Sources in this Story

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 chartered a government for the Northwest Territory, and allowed the United States to expand westward toward the Pacific. Notably, it granted new states in the territory civil liberties and forbade slavery.

Congress settled a similar slavery rights conflict in 1820 by issuing the Missouri Compromise, another one of Henry Clay’s proposals. In an attempt to maintain the balance of slave and free states in the Senate, Congress allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine to enter as a free state.

Also, hoping to prevent future arguments over slavery, it established the Missouri Compromise line, above which all states would be admitted as free and below which all states would be admitted as slave states.

Biography: Daniel Webster (1782–1852)

Sources in this Story

  • PBS: The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act
  • Our Documents: Compromise of 1850
  • National Center: John C. Calhoun on the Clay Compromise Measures
  • U.S. Senate: Classic Senate Speeches
  • Library of Congress: Northwest Ordinance
  • Ohio History Central: Missouri Compromise
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: Daniel Webster Biography

Born in 1782, Daniel Webster grew up in New Hampshire and attended Dartmouth College. He began his political career 1812 as a New Hampshire state congressman before becoming a U.S. representative and senator from Massachusetts. A distinguished lawyer, he also argued and won several notable Supreme Court cases in his career.

He was recognized in the Senate as one of America’s great orators and leading advocates of nationalism. After unsuccessful bids for the presidency, he was nominated a secretary of state, serving from 1841 to 1843 before returning to the Senate.

His endorsement of the Compromise of 1850 angered many of his constituents; knowing that he would likely be voted out of office, he accepted President Millard Fillmore’s offer to become secretary of state in July 1850. He made a final bid for the presidency in 1852, but could not secure the Whig Party’s nomination. He died later that year on Oct. 24.

Reference: The Compromise of 1850 and Webster’s Speech

Our Documents contains a transcript of the original compromise, as proposed by Clay on Jan. 29, 1850, as well as a handwritten copy of the draft.

Source: Our Documents

go to site »

Dartmouth College has transcribed Webster’s entire speech, which he delivered to the U.S. Senate over the course of three and a half hours.

Source: Dartmouth College

Charles Eames

Erin has been with findingDulcinea since June 2008. An avid food-lover, she launched the site’s “What’s Fresh” series. Previously she worked as a writer for Café Abroad, a print magazine and online network for students studying overseas. Erin has studied and taught English in Italy and France, and is working toward completing a B.A. in psychology at New York University.

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