Principle, Prudence and the Seventh of March

Greg Weiner is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Assumption University. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a regular contributor for The Constitutionalist.

When Daniel Webster rose in the Senate to defend what would become the Compromise of 1850, his stirring opening words, destined to descend to generations as one of his finest orations—“Mr. President, I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States”—belied the controversy that was to ensue. It was March 7, 1850. On its anniversary nearly 175 years later, the address, known by that date, still teaches a great deal.

Webster had been known as an anti-slavery Whig and a stalwart against the South’s persistent habit of threatening disunion, or the purportedly legal equivalents of it, when the “peculiar institution” was so much as criticized. Yet in the Seventh of March Speech, Webster—presaging the tightrope Lincoln would walk in a few years—arguably went further than necessary to defend the union. He endorsed the acute cruelty of the Fugitive Slave Law, which took upon federal law the constitutional requirement of returning to their bonds those who had escaped enslavement. On that point, “the South, in my judgment, is right, and the North is wrong.” Webster denounced northern abolitionists.

And yet: His defense of union was unparalleled. Anticipating Lincoln again, Webster declared that a physical separation of two regions of the country that were economically, socially, historically and geographically intertwined was “an impossibility”: “There are natural causes that would keep and tie us together, and there are social and domestic relations which we could not break if we would, and which we should not if we could.”

The speech destroyed Webster’s reputation among abolitionists. Ralph Waldo Emerson averred: “The word ‘Liberty’ in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word ‘love’ in the mouth of a courtesan.” Webster became Secretary of State, less for the promotion than because of his political collapse, which would have driven him from his beloved Senate.

There are at least two ways of looking at the speech. One is that it was the price of union—that moral purity is the luxury of those who do not bear moral responsibility. The second is that it was objectively immoral—that it helped to perpetuate the union on the backs of Black Americans who paid that price with their bodies and freedom.

The lesson the Seventh of March Speech teaches today is the awful but inescapable fact that both are true. One indicator of political prudence is the ability to hold contradictory yet true ideas in one’s mind at the same time. Political life cannot be confined within the neat lines of moral principle. But neither can the statesman escape moral accountability for even necessary accommodations to immoral things. That is the statesman’s burden: Necessity does not absolve responsibility. 

It need hardly be said that Webster’s defense of the South was indefensible. He did not stoop to defend enslavement itself, but he portrayed enslavers as wronged, even by abolitionist criticism. The speech all but excuses enslavers as trapped by their own history. He says they were schooled in “kindness” to enslaved people. It is true that Webster’s summary of the Northern position—“that slavery is a wrong; that it is founded merely in the right of the strongest; and that is an oppression, like unjust wars, like all those conflicts by which a powerful nation subjects a weaker to its will”—was self-consciously more rousing than his meek and sterile apology for the South. But it is also true that he exceeded the requirements of necessity. A reluctant acknowledgment of necessity—this is awful, but it must be done—is different from a seeming endorsement of it.

At the same time, the Compromise of 1850 preserved the union, and the union would be the instrument for ending enslavement in America. Was there nobility as well as depravity in surrendering his historical reputation—or at least its untainted nature—for the cause of union, which Webster knew to be a necessary predicate to abolition?

Lincoln would later navigate these troubled waters. In his debates with Stephen Douglas, he disclaimed a belief in racial equality. In his First Inaugural, he denied any desire to abolish enslavement where it existed. Early in the war, Lincoln reversed an emancipation order by Union General John Fremont that he believed was premature. Yet Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that eventually actually worked. He midwifed the Thirteenth Amendment. Had Lincoln refused to veer from the high road, he would have traveled it alone—perhaps satisfied with his purity, but not his impact. Enslavement might well have survived in an independent South into the 20th century.

Therein lies one lesson of the Seventh of March Speech for its contemporary readers. Dogmatic purity has become of price of political entry for the hardened left and right. Neither side brooks complexity or compromise, so neither achieves anything of importance.

But another lesson, equally powerful, is that moral responsibility entails moral accountability. Great figures usually have both great virtues and great sins. History must weigh them in the balance. But that does not mean Webster or Lincoln or others can be let off the hook. An honest accounting does not dismiss sins simply because virtues outweigh them.

There is this too: A republic needs the voices of purity alongside the counsels of prudence. The pure push and galvanize and hold accountable those who carry the burdens of action. A simultaneous reading of two of America’s great texts—Lincoln’s Lyceum Address of 1838 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail—illustrates the point. Lincoln, operating from within the corridors of power, could demand of his listeners a blood oath against any lawbreaking under almost any circumstances. King, standing outside the political system yet holding it to account, could say that civil disobedience could be permissible because “there are two types of laws: just and unjust.” A republic needs both.

King’s reconciliation of lawbreaking with law helps to demonstrate the mutual necessity of protest and prudence, as well as the moral cost of statesmanship: “One who breaks the law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” One who breaks an unjust law is still engaged in lawbreaking; hence the requirement of accepting punishment. Similarly, a statesman who engages in necessary immorality is still behaving immorally. That is the price of responsibility. The willingness to pay it is part of both the statesman’s greatness and his or her corruption of soul.

Pure hagiography obscures these distinctions. In that sense, it robs statesmen of their full greatness, which includes the prices they pay. Lincoln’s Dilemma, a powerful documentary series produced by journalist Jelani Cobb for Apple TV, strikes the balance that both accurate history and contemporary challenges demand. It also shows how the tradeoffs look, as they both do and should, different for those who bear their burdens.

Webster, again, may well have exceeded the bounds of necessity. But the necessity of union—not only as a moral good in itself but also as a predicate to enduring absolution—was no less necessary. March 7 is a fitting day to remember that prudence imposes costs, and that they are no less costly for being necessary to pay.

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