Hayne-Webster Debate

The Hayne-Webster Debate was a series of speeches in the senate, during which Robert Hayne of South Carolina interpreted the Constitution as little more than a treaty between sovereign states, and Daniel Webster expressed the concept of the United States as one nation. The debate confirmed the image of Daniel Webster, as a legendary defender of Constitution and Union. It was the subject of great popular paintings, showing Webster in the golden glow of the Senate dome, his eyes fixed on John C. Calhoun, who besides being a more prominent advocate of Hayne's doctrine, was the president of the Senate at the time. Many of the 4-page weekly newspapers of the day for weeks printed only excerpts from the debate. Niles Weekly Register, usually around twenty pages, printed the debate in its entirety, leaving out most other items for a month. This debate had the importance of headline news on our "CNN" that we watch today.

A debate had been going on for several days, concerning the public lands, or lands owned by the Federal government. In this public lands debate, there were two speeches each by Robert Hayne and Daniel Webster. This became known as the Hayne Webster debate. The debate consisted of several issues. State sovereignty, being the interpretation of the Constitution as a pact between sovereign states; such states having the sovereign right each to interpret the Constitution, or even to withdraw from the Union. This implied that the Supreme Court was not the arbiter of the meaning of the Constitution. There was also the "American System" in conjunction with the unionist philosophy. It combined a strong sense of America as a "nation", with a policy of national internal improvements- of striving as a nation to improve the roads, canals, harbors, navigability of rivers, and railroads. It also represented a fully diversified economy. The "protective tariff" played a key role in the American System. It was supposed to protect developing industries from overseas factories, which were well-established, and drew on a under paid work force. The tariff was also a major source of Federal revenue (the only other one being land sales) for subsidizing transportation works. Water had always been the only inexpensive means of moving goods. But during the War of 1812, ships could not move up and down the coast safely; forcing even coastal areas to use worse roads of the time to receive necessities. A transportation network (such as the railroad) would allow the food products of the new western farmlands to be exchanged with the manufactured products of the east, giving both a chance in a vigorous national economy. The west would then become an integral part of a great unified nation, rather than an array of lonely outposts. The American System thus had a strong following in the west among men who favored any kind of progress.

The economies and interests of eastern port cities were changing rapidly; with the exception, that is, of southern port cities like Charleston, South Carolina. In pre-industrial times, port cities were dominated by mercantile interests; i.e. shipping and trading, as opposed to manufacturing. The trade had mostly been of American raw materials, such as cotton and sugar in the south especially, for manufactured and luxury goods from overseas. As American factory interests grew, particularly in the northeast, there were more voices in favor of protective tariffs, to help American manufactures sell by making the foreign goods more expensive. The life of South Carolina, and of Charleston itself was dominated by the "planters"; owners of large slave-based enterprises who wished to sell cotton and sugar to the large markets of Europe, in exchange for goods that Europe had to offer. The fact that many such European goods fell under the tariff , was depressing trade of Charleston, and made life more expensive for the "planters".

Senator Robert Y. Hayne, who represented South Carolina in the Senate, was intimately involved with a particular offshoot of the state sovereignty philosophy, the nullification movement. The state had just held a special convention whose resolution made a radical reinterpretation of the Constitution. It outlined a set of procedures by means of which a state could declare a federal law, such as the tariff law, and proceed to disregard it. Robert Hayne had been in the Senate since 1823, having entered at the age of 32. His record there shows him constantly on guard against threats and perceived threats to the institution of slavery; including denunciation of the American Colonization Society. He said that it depressed the slave market by casting doubt on its future. As a Senator, Hayne was long on record as opposing the constitutionality of a protective tariff. He would remain a Senator until 1832, when he resigned to serve as Governor of South Carolina during the winter of 32-'33, when the nullification crisis reached its peak.

Daniel Webster, though a relative newcomer to the Senate, was nationally known as a great orator. He was called at times "Godlike Dan Webster", and at other times "Black Dan" for his swarthy appearance and his flaws as a human being. His flaws included a strong vanity, as well as a willingness to be helped out of financial difficulties by parties, like the Bank of the United States, who needed a certain legislative outcome. He pled hundreds of cases before the Supreme Court, helping establish some of the greatest legal precedents of the era. Daniel Webster was a statesman, lawyer, and orator, and was his era's foremost advocate of American nationalism. A farmer's son, he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1801. After a legal apprenticeship, Webster opened a legal practice in Portsmouth, N.H., in 1807. Webster was elected (1812) to the U.S. House of Representatives because of his opposition to the War of 1812, which had crippled New England's shipping trade. After two more terms in the House, Webster left congress in 1816 and moved to Boston. Over the next six years, he won major constitutional cases before the Supreme Court, and established himself as the nation's leading lawyer and an outstanding orator. In 1823, Webster returned to Congress from Boston, and in 1827 he was elected senator from Massachusetts. New circumstances enabled Webster to become a champion of American nationalism. With the Federalist party dead, he joined the National Republican party, allying himself with westerner Henry Clay and endorsed federal aid for roads in the west. In 1828, the dominant economic interests of Massachusetts having shifted from shipping to manufacturing, Webster backed the high-tariff bill that year. Angry southern leaders condemned the tariff, and South Carolina's John C. Calhoun argued that his state had the right to nullify the law. Replying to South Carolina's Robert Hayne in a Senate debate in 1830, Webster triumphantly defended the Union.

In Hayne's first speech: He makes an overture to westerners who resent federal lands within their boundaries. His main point is they should make their arguments in terms of state sovereignty, thus allying themselves with those of the south, who oppose the tariff for the same reason. Webster's reply in his first speech was the public lands are being sold as fast as they can be settled. To sell them cheaper would simply put them in the hands of speculators, and very likely retard their settlement. New England is the west's true friend, having given the northwest, at least, a rational system of land sales, and having kept slavery out of the northwest territory. New England has voted for all western measures, while the south has voted against them. In citing what the Northeast has done for the west, he blandly includes the keeping of slavery out of the northwest, as if everyone would see this as a great thing. This might have been to draw Hayne into a "labored defense of slavery". Hayne responds in his second speech by accusing Webster of inconsistency about whether the public lands should be used to generate revenue or not. He does defend slavery and attacks its enemies. Webster's second speech describes the origins of the American System and how South Carolina was at first strongly behind it. He defends his consistency on the tariff and accuses the south of inconsistency. He describes a scenario of Hayne and the militia trying to stop the customs, and argues how it would lead to civil war. He then paints a frightful and dramatic picture of what will happen if the Union falls apart, and indeed it did.

Here are two quotes from "American Rhetorical Discourse",second edition. Ronald F. Reid. Robert Y. Hayne: an excerpt from his second speech. "If the Federal Government in all or any of its departments is to prescribe the limits of its own authority, and the States are bound to submit to the decision and are not to be allowed to examine and decide for themselves when the barriers of the Constitution shall be overleaped, this is practically "a government without limitation of powers." The States are at once reduced to mere petty corporations, and the people are entirely at your mercy."

Daniel Webster: an excerpt from his second speech. "I have not accustomed myself to hang over the precipice of disunion to see whether, with my short sight, I can fathom the depth of the abyss below; nor could I regard him as a safe counselor in the affairs of this Government, whose thoughts should be mainly bent on considering not how the Union should be best preserved, but how tolerable might be the condition of the people when it shall be broken up and destroyed. While the Union lasts 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 may 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 throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured, bearing for its motto no such miserable interrogatory as, "What is it all 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 land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart--Liberty and Union, now and forever one and inseparable!"

The closing passage of Webster's second speech, I believe took him beyond anything that that Robert Hayne could say in rebuttal. "Liberty and Union, now and forever one and inseparable!"

David J. Spears, DJS2855