In July of 1850, at the height of his nineteen-year Senate career, Daniel Webster viewed the future with a sense of dread. At the age of sixty-eight, the Massachusetts senator believed he would never achieve his lifelong desire to become president of the United States. Death had claimed his first wife and four of his five children. Chronic alcoholism was destroying his liver, just as bitter disputes over the issue of slavery were threatening to destroy the nation.
In an effort to ward off a fatal split between the North and South, Webster had delivered a major Senate speech several months earlier. In that oration, known as his Seventh of March Address, he contended that it was pointless to argue about the continuation of slavery where it already existed—it was not going away—or to worry about extending slavery into the arid lands of the southwest, where plantation agriculture stood no chance of flourishing. Asserting that slaveholders were entitled to the protection of their property, Webster urged strengthening of laws to capture runaway slaves. He exhorted senators to set aside the slavery issue for more pressing matters, such as tariff reform.
Webster’s conciliatory remarks played well everywhere but New England. Many in Massachusetts believed he had cut a deal with southern leaders to win their support for his presidential ambitions.
Then, in July 1850, President Zachary Taylor died unexpectedly. When his successor, Millard Fillmore, offered Webster the post of secretary of state, Webster worried that this would force him to give up the lucrative law practice he maintained while a senator. To replace that much-needed outside income, a group of international bankers—happy to be on good terms with the secretary of state—set up a $20,000 fund for Webster’s personal use.
Knowing that his support of fugitive slave legislation made him unelectable in any future Massachusetts Senate race and believing that he could more effectively advance the cause of national union—and his own quest for the presidency—from the State Department, Webster resigned his Senate seat on July 22, 1850.
In his final speech to the Senate, the Massachusetts senator set aside moral concerns on slavery to urge preservation of the Union at all costs.
Denied his party’s presidential nomination in 1852, Daniel Webster died later that year, despairing of the nation’s future.
Portrait of Daniel Webster