[People’s Tribune correspondent and independent scholar Chris Mahin writes about history so that we can learn from it. The fight against slavery has a lot to teach us today about the property relations under which we live. The article challenges us to think about what being “moderate” in today’s world means. LR]
The Compromise of 1850:
Learn from the uncompromising spirit of the abolitionists!
BY CHRIS MAHIN
He spoke to a packed chamber, in 100-degree heat, for three hours and 11 minutes, barely using his few notes. Afterward, a leader of the fight against slavery declared that the oration had transformed the man who delivered it from a lion into a spaniel. One of the country’s most talented writers composed a famous poem likening him to Satan. A prominent New England minister compared him to Benedict Arnold.
This month marks the anniversary of the day that U.S. Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts gave his notorious “Seventh of March” speech in the U.S. Senate. On March 7, 1850, Webster used his considerable eloquence to support the “Compromise of 1850,” a series of measures designed to appease the slaveholding South. The events of 1850 are worth examining because that political crisis has much to teach us about how the fight against unjust property relations unfolds – and who can be trusted in such crises (and who can’t).
The crisis of 1850 had been brewing for a long time. While the United States was founded on slavery, by the middle 1800s, the population and economic capacity of the free North was surpassing that of the slaveholding South. The defenders of the slave system desperately needed to expand slavery into the West. When the settlers of California petitioned Congress for admission into the Union late in 1849, the stage was set for a showdown. Admitting California to the Union as a free state would tip the balance of power in Congress in favor of the free states. To prevent that, representatives of the slave states threatened to secede from the Union.
In response, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay crafted a series of proposed laws. While described as a “compromise,” they were heavily weighted in the South’s favor. California would be admitted into the Union as a free state, but slavery would not be banned in the rest of the vast territory seized from Mexico in the war of 1846-1848. While the slave trade would be banned in the District of Columbia, slavery itself would remain legal there. The “compromise” also included a new, stronger Fugitive Slave Act requiring the free states to send runaway slaves back to slavery.
Clay’s “compromise” outraged not just those people who advocated the immediate abolition of slavery throughout the United States, but also those who accepted slavery in
the South but were opposed to slavery being spread elsewhere. Daniel Webster had been on record since 1837 as opposing the extension of slavery into the territories. Yet, on March 7, 1850, he vigorously supported Clay’s proposals. Webster argued that preserving the Union was more important than anything else.
Webster’s speech split the country. Shortly after the speech, the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator published an eight-column analysis refuting Webster’s arguments. Within days of the Massachusetts senator’s appearance on the Senate floor, a mass meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston condemned Webster’s speech as “unworthy of a wise statesman and a good man,” and resolved that “Constitution or no Constitution, law or no law, we will not allow a fugitive slave to be taken from the state of Massachusetts.”
In his speech, Webster had denounced the abolitionists, referring to them contemptuously as “these agitating people,” and declaring that they had contributed “nothing good or valuable.”
“At the same time,” he declared – with great condescension – “I believe thousands of their members to be honest and good men. … They have excited feelings; … they do not see what else they can do than to contribute to an Abolition press, or to an Abolition society, or to pay an Abolition lecturer.”
Webster specifically condemned the abolitionists for fighting to convince people that the question of slavery was a moral question. He argued that by posing the slavery question that way, the abolitionists treated morality as if it had the certainty of mathematics and made compromise impossible.
By the end of September 1850, all the different pieces of the “Compromise of 1850” had been passed by the U.S. Congress – but civil war was only postponed, not averted. The new Fugitive Slave Law allowed slave catchers easier access to their prey – even in Boston, the city where the killing of a runaway slave by British troops had begun the American Revolution.
For 10 years after the compromise which was supposed to settle the slavery question in the United States “forever,” the abolitionists hammered home their message about the immorality of slavery. It was not Webster’s willingness to compromise his principles that helped push history forward; it was the abolitionists’ unwillingness to compromise theirs. Today, the world needs revolutionaries willing to be as uncompromising as the advocates of the immediate abolition of slavery were in the 19th century, and willing to proclaim their message as forthrightly as those abolitionists did.[
As we fight an unjust set of property relations today, we should strive to use the revolutionary press and the speaker’s platform as skillfully as the abolitionists did then. Like the abolitionists, we should be bold and insist on describing the existence of massive wealth alongside massive poverty as a moral question – because it is one. If we do that, we will pay the best tribute that can possibly be paid to those “agitating people” of the 19th century with their abolition presses and lecturers and societies, people who – Daniel Webster notwithstanding – contributed something very good and valuable to society indeed.
[This article originally appeared in the March 2000 edition of the People’s Tribune. We encourage reproduction of articles from the People’s Tribune, so long as you credit the source. Copyright © 2019 People’s Tribune. Visit us at http://peoplestribune.org.
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