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.