Ridicule Heaped on Daniel Webster for Supporting Slave Catchers
One bad speech cannot destroy a great legacy, but it certainly can damage a reputation. Abolitionists recoiled when Senator Daniel Webster delivered his infamous “Plea for Harmony and Peace” speech before the U.S. Senate on March 7, 1850. Webster was convinced that unless the Compromise of 1850 was passed, the issue of slavery would tear the Union apart. Trying to placate the South, his speech insisted that the U.S. Constitution protected the rights of slave owners to capture fugitive slaves and mandated that all citizens aid in the capture.
At the time of his March 7th speech, Webster was a respected and leading politician admired for his intelligence and remarkable oratorical skill. After that speech, however, the great man began to suffer ridicule. The following sarcastic piece was printed in the May 23, 1850, issue of the Vermont Gazette (Bennington, Vermont):
Webster and Winthrop Chasing Down Fugitive Slaves
The Rev. Theodore Parker, of Boston, in a lecture before the anti-slavery Lyceum, referring to what Mr. Webster had said concerning fugitive slaves, gets up a first rate scene.
Suppose, said he, that a slave girl – if you please with a white skin, even whiter than Mr. Webster’s, and that would by no means be improbable – should make her escape from Washington, N.C., in a vessel bound to Boston, and landing at the foot of Long Wharf, should make her way up State street and meet Mr. Webster coming down; what should he do in accordance with the declaration in his speech? Should he not attempt to deliver up the fugitive? And would it not be a very interesting sight to see him giving chase to the woman; and just then to see Mr. Winthrop, also, running down Flagg Alley, “to head her off,” as we say; and soon to find the two coming up with and catching her just under the eaves of Faneuil Hall?
Readers in 1850 would have been aware of the significance of the many references in this short piece. For example, the allusion to Mr. Webster’s skin: he was known for having a dark complexion. The fictional slave girl escapes from Washington, North Carolina; that city, established in the year of the Declaration of Independence, 1776, was the first city named after George Washington. The reference to Mr. Winthrop is Robert Charles Winthrop, a friend of Webster’s with whom he had studied law; Winthrop, a congressman from Massachusetts, was disliked by abolitionists who resented his lukewarm support for their cause. He was appointed to replace Webster in the Senate when the latter resigned to become Secretary of State in July of 1850, but was defeated by abolitionist forces when he ran for the Senate on his own merits in 1851. Finally, the piece ends with the slave girl’s capture next to Faneuil Hall; this famous building, a meeting hall since 1742, had been the site of many rousing speeches during the days when America broke with Great Britain and declared its own freedom.
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