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In Defense of Daniel Webster

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To build on Rob’s post below, Quiggin’s argument is extremely lazy. It’s one thing to blame Calhoun for contributing to the Civil War, but Clay and Webster? Rob took care of the Clay argument. Webster’s a complicated guy and I’m not going to defend much of what he did, particularly laying the groundwork for the rise of the Gilded Age plutocrats. But Webster also at least softly opposed slavery. Webster took the lead in fighting South Carolina’s nullification efforts in the late 1820 and early 1830s, most notably in the 1830 Webster-Hayne debate, where he defended Massachusetts interests against nullification and the growing slave power. His interests were New England-centric to be sure, even if he used nationalist language. Webster opposed the annexation of Texas and the slave power supported Mexican War. Abolitionists were furious with Webster for supporting the Compromise of 1850, but it’s not like Webster wanted to compromise with southern interests and, as Rob said below, trying to prevent the nation from falling apart is not something I want to criticize Webster for. He does deserve criticism for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act while Secretary of State, but he was trying to keep the union together.

And as an aside, one huge thing in favor of the Compromise of 1850 is that the Union would have had much more difficulty defeating the Confederacy in 1850 than a decade later. Another decade of industrialization, railroad building, and immigration probably made an enormous difference against a South that was changing at a much slower pace. It’s also possible that the Confederacy would have had a more difficult time pulling the upper South. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln was president in 1861 and Millard Fillmore in 1851.

Quiggin’s argument is obviously a throw-away, made precisely to elicit outraged remarks. Nonetheless, it’s also kind of dumb and shows little understanding of the times and the individuals involved. This is like blaming all leading political figures in 2003 for the Iraq War, even Democrats who voted against the war. You can trash the political class of entire generation, but reality is more complicated, both in 2003 and 1850.

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