These immortal words from Daniel Webster emerged during America’s Antebellum period. This statement has been one of the most striking that I have heard while studying American history. In fact, I have a poster of these words hanging in my dorm room here at Messiah, but I’ve never fully known the back story to this powerful statement. In a speech given to Congress during what has come to be known as the Webster-Hayne Debate, Webster and Robert Hayne were discussing the future of the land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. This debate, in particular, focused on whether or not slavery would be allowed in the West. Robert Hayne, a Senator from South Carolina and a firm believer in states’ rights, in a step towards unifying the South and the West, took the stance that this decision should be left up to the states themselves; that the federal government should not be making this decision for the states. Hayne puts forth the idea that states should have more power than the federal government, which is an idea at the heart of the Civil War.
At this point, Daniel Webster, a Senator from Massachusetts and well-known orator, steps up and states that the North has always supported the West, and shifts the debate to a broader one between states’ rights and the federal government. Webster introduces the idea that the only interest the South had in the West was for economic gain, thus their assertion that slavery should be allowed in the West. Through this, Webster is able to twist the debate into one on the idea of the role of the federal government. Hayne then took over and reasserted his idea that the states should have the right to make their own decisions, even if it means defying an act of Congress, a blatant threat against his own fellow Congressmen.
After a break of a few days, Webster returned to the debate with his now famous “Second Reply to Hayne.” You can read the full speech here. Webster, effectively ending the debate, states that the nation is not made up of sovereign states, but a “popular government erected by the people; those who administer it responsible to the people; and itself capable of being amended and modified, just as the people may choose it should be.” Webster is showing Hayne that the people chose to be a part of this government, and as a true Democratic government, the people do have the power, not the states. Closing out the speech, Webster utters those words that students following the war had to memorize and continue to strike many today: “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”