Calhoun Lectures Webster on the Union


“[Webster] had not been speaking long before a tall, emaciated figure, with deep, cavernous eyes and a thick mass of snow-white hair advanced with feeble step, and sank into a chair on the other side of the Chamber. Webster, who had not seen him enter…soon referred again to Calhoun. The latter nervously grasped the arm of his chair, his black eyes glared, and half-rising, he exclaimed in a feeble, sepulchral voice: “The Senator from South Carolina is in his seat.” Startled, Webster turned, bowed, smiled and continued his excoriation of disunion.

He turned to Calhoun and exclaimed with profound emotion: “Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility.” When Webster sat down the applause could not be stilled…But Calhoun checked the congratulatory chorus. In faltering tones he expressed vehement dissent.

“I cannot agree,” he shrilled, “with the Senator from Massachusetts that this Union cannot be dissolved. Am I to understand him that no degree of oppression, no outrage, no broken faith, can produce the destruction of this Union?”

“Why Sir,” he continued, if that becomes a fixed fact, it will itself become the great instrument of producing oppression, outrage and broken faith. No, Sir, the Union can be broken. Great moral causes will break it, if they go on, and it can only be preserved by justice, good faith and an adherence to the Constitution.”

As he took his seat, Webster arose to answer the question. “I know, Sir,” he said, “that this Union can be broken up – every government can be – and I admit that there may be such a degree of oppression as will warrant resistance and forcible severance. That is revolution – that is revolution! Of that ultimate right of revolution I have not been speaking. I know that the law of necessity does exist.”

(The Eve of Conflict, Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War, George Fort Milton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934, pp. 62-63)