Daniel Webster: Masterful Orator
Daniel Webster’s infamous March 7th “Plea for Harmony and Peace” speech, in which he claimed the U.S. Constitution protected the rights of slave owners to capture fugitive slaves and mandated that all citizens aid in the capture, dismayed abolitionists everywhere -- many of them colleagues of his in the Senate. Webster was defending the strengthened Fugitive Slave Act, which was a key component of the Compromise of 1850 he supported.
Though his speech appalled many listeners, its rhetorical flourishes confirmed his standing as the great orator of his day. Here is the opening of that speech, as reported in the March 11, 1850, issue of the Daily Atlas (Boston, Massachusetts):
It is not to be denied that we live in the midst of strong agitations, and are surrounded by very considerable dangers to our institutions of government. The imprisoned winds are let loose. The East, the West, the North, and the stormy South, all combine to throw the whole ocean into commotion, to toss its billows to the skies, and to disclose its profoundest depths. I do not affect to regard myself, Mr. President, as holding, or as fit to hold the helm in this combat of the political elements; but I have a duty to perform, and I mean to perform it with fidelity – not without a sense of surrounding dangers, but not without hope. I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole, and the preservation of the whole; and there is that which will keep me to my duty during this struggle, whether the sun and stars shall appear, or shall not appear, for many days. I speak today for the preservation of the Union.
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