The “Deplorable” Daniel Webster by Jerry Salyer

To his critics he was an advocate of consolidated government and Northern business interests.  To his supporters, he was one of America's great statesmen, appropriately immortalized as the attorney who outplayed the Devil in Benét's fable.  Given current trends, however, what is perhaps most significant about Daniel Webster is that – like every other remotely interesting figure – he lies beyond the pale of acceptable discourse.  Unionists content to stand by while Confederate statues are torn down and Southern culture is demonized have their heads in the sand, insofar as they cannot recognize how the ravenous beast of political-correctness, seeking an ever-wider field of victims, will sooner or later come after Yankees like Webster, too.  

For even if he himself advocated emancipation, Webster committed the unpardonable sin of addressing  his pro-slavery opponents in tones of courtesy and respect; it is a simple matter of record that he preferred compromise on the slavery question over the destruction of the Union.  Rather like Donald Trump following the Charlottesville fiasco, Webster made the decidedly scandalous claim that there were “people of goodwill on both sides,” and here the difference between the boogeyman Trump and the widely-idolized Webster is worth highlighting:  Unlike Trump, Webster did not merely assert that there could be people of goodwill on both sides of a debate about a statue or the causes of the War Between the States; what Webster conceded was that there might be people of goodwill on both sides of the debate about slavery.  

During his speech on behalf of the Great Compromise, Webster reminded his fellow emancipationists that there were many in

the South, upon the other side, having been accustomed to this relation between the two races all their lives; from their birth, having been taught, in general, to treat the subjects of this bondage with care and kindness, and I believe, in general, feeling great kindness for them, have not taken the view of the subject which have mentioned.There are thousands of religious men, with consciences as tender as any of their brethren at the North, who do not see the unlawfulness of slavery [...]

Back in Webster's day, any Protestant seeking to establish some irrefutable, absolute truth had to be able to point for support to some clear, unambiguous passage of Holy Scripture.  So even if he shared the opinion of Northern churchmen, who saw slavery as a moral imperfection rendered unjustifiable by changed social conditions, Webster understood perfectly well why Southern clergy did not accept the idea that slavery was per se a violation of either divine or natural law:  “At the introduction of Christianity into the world,” Webster reflects, “the Roman world was full of slaves, and I suppose there is to be found no injunction against that relation between man and man in the teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or of any of his Apostles.” 

Even more inconveniently, perhaps, Webster goes on to acknowledge that there existed in the South 

more thousands, perhaps, that, whatsoever they may think of [slavery] in its origin, and as a matter depending upon natural rights, yet take things as they are, and, finding slavery to be an established relation of the society in which they live, can see no way in which, let their opinions on the abstract question be what they may, it is in the power of this generation to relieve themselves of this relation.

In other words, there were conservative Southerners who might have honestly regretted the persistence of slavery as an institution, even as they likewise doubted that said institution could in the near future be eliminated humanely, and without fatal blows to both the Constitution and civilization.  Of course such people are inconceivable to the respectable conservative establishmentarian, who dismisses any reference to them as part of a “Lost Cause mythology.”  Yet here is Daniel Webster himself admitting the existence of such people, long before the first shot of the Civil War was ever fired!  

Needless to say, such expressions of generosity and open-mindedness lies completely outside the Overton Window now.  Anyone who would echo Daniel Webster's sentiments must tread carefully, lest he be damned as “deplorable” by Ben Shapiro and the Fox News All-Stars no less than by Nancy Pelosi.  Indeed, Webster's testimony on behalf of the Southern planter's character is even more striking when set alongside his blunt repudiation of the incessantly-lionized abolitionist movement.   Admitting that their ranks contained “perfectly well-meaning men,” Webster went on to lament:  “I cannot but see what mischief their interference with the South has produced.”  

Prior to the onset of abolitionism, Webster continues, Southerners themselves were inclined to frank discussion regarding slavery, and a significant anti-slavery movement had begun to gain ground within the South itself.  But thanks to self-righteous outsiders who promoted civil unrest in communities where they had no personal stake, “public opinion, which in Virginia had begun to be exhibited against slavery, and was opening out for the discussion of the question, drew back and shut itself up in its castle.”  In light of Daniel Webster's judgment, we are free to ask whether abolitionists themselves mightn't have been partly to blame for the failure to achieve emancipation by peaceable means.  Sometimes the line between fanatics and saints is fine indeed.


The Fleming Foundation

9 Responses

  1. Raymond Olson says:

    I am immediately reminded of the reaction to Webster’s vote for the Compromise of 1850, “Ichabod”, by the ostensibly gentle Quaker bard, John Greenleaf Whittier:

    So fallen! so lost! the light withdrawn
    Which once he wore!
    The glory from his gray hairs gone

    Revile him not, the Tempter hath
    A snare for all;
    And pitying tears, not scorn and wrath,
    Befit his fall!

    Oh, dumb be passion’s stormy rage,
    When he who might
    Have lighted up and led his age,
    Falls back in night.

    Scorn! would the angels laugh, to mark
    A bright soul driven,
    Fiend-goaded, down the endless dark,
    From hope and heaven!

    Let not the land once proud of him
    Insult him now,
    Nor brand with deeper shame his dim,
    Dishonored brow.

    But let its humbled sons, instead,
    From sea to lake,
    A long lament, as for the dead,
    In sadness make.

    Of all we loved and honored, naught
    Save power remains;
    A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
    Still strong in chains.

    All else is gone; from those great eyes
    The soul has fled:
    When faith is lost, when honor dies,
    The man is dead!

    Then, pay the reverence of old days
    To his dead fame;
    Walk backward, with averted gaze,
    And hide the shame!

    Political correctness is not a new phenomenon. On the other hand, “Telling the Bees” and “Snow-Bound” are among the greatest American poems of the nineteenth century.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    What a terrifying condemnation of American poetry!

  3. Arthur Livingston says:

    The last time I picked up a piece of Whittier poetry, if that is the correct word, was about sixty years ago. You have given strong evidence for waiting another sixty before I try again.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    There is a lot to know about telling bees that has been forgotten or never realized since simply discounted as superstition but as for the poem itself in all of of it’s Puritan gloom, I can never enjoy it without thinking of Belloc’s comments on the Albigensian heresy. It is one of the oldest heresies in its basic structure and substance known to mankind. It rises and fades throughout our long history and is usually associated with gloom among the perfect and the pure. I still feel it when visiting that part of the country but more so in winter than summer. The old slavery may be gone but as Covid 19, real or imagined has revealed, the wage slave is everywhere and there are still a few good owners on both sides of the aisle.

  5. Raymond Olson says:

    What’s gloomy about recalling when your family was shut-in by snow? The family enjoys its own company. It doesn’t maunder or sit in the ashes tearing its garments.

    And what’s gloomy about recalling a loved one on the anniversary of her death?

    Further, recalling the Albigensian heresy in response to the poems strikes me as perverse and impertinent. Whittier wasn’t even a Puritan, let alone a Cathar.

  6. Robert Reavis says:

    I was referring to the poem “Telling the Bees” and perhaps gloom is not the best choice of words. I think there is a common thread that runs through the Maniceans, the Carthi or Albigensians snd Puritans and even the more decadent dualists of Star Wars fame. Take the poets suggestion about Dan Webster and feel sorry for me, say a prayer for me or hold me in quiet contempt but I believe it and it is more than a impulsive reaction to this vale of tears.

  7. Raymond Olson says:

    Thanks, Robert.

    I agree with you that there is that common thread of dualism running through the Manicheans, Cathars, Albigensians, and Puritans, one that many see manifested by Augustine, who is often said to be its father within Christianity. But it’s not in Whittier. The reason I cited “Ichabod” was that it is a flaming example of political correctness, in its case the p.c. of an abolitionist for whom a single “error” by Webster was enough to damn him. Whittier was a Quaker and no dualist as well as no gnostic.

  8. Robert Reavis says:

    I owe you the intelligent effort of knowing the difference between Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, Pilgrims and Puritans and will do so in the future but honestly did not know all the distinctions when I posted. But have learned some of them since so thanks for fighting back a bit and correcting my ignorance

  9. Raymond Olson says:

    Robert–I refuse to hold you in any kind of contempt. I like you too well.

    And, of course, no one has to like Whittier.