The Hayne-Webster Debate

by Hal Morris - Copyright 1996. May be copied, but not in any way sold without the author's permission. Comments welcomed:

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  • *** [ Important Note on { ¶ }, ...: The following Outline, Paraphrase, and Full Text, are extensively cross-linked, using the symbols {o} for "jump to the same point in the outline", { ¶ } for "jump to ... paraphrase", and {#} for "jump to ... Full Text". This permits a variety of strategies such as:
  • Introduction

    The Hayne-Webster Debate was an unplanned series of speeches in the Senate, during which Robert Hayne of South Carolina interpreted the Constitution as little more than a treaty between sovereign states, and Daniel Webster expressed the concept of the United States as one nation.

    The debate cemented the image of Daniel Webster, as a legendary defender of Constitution and Union. It was the subject of great popular paintings, showing Webster in the golden glow of the Senate dome, his glowering eyes fixed on John C. Calhoun, who besides being a more prominent advocate of Hayne's doctrine, was the president of the Senate at the time.

    Many of the 4-page weekly newspapers of the day for weeks printed little but excerpts from the debate. Niles Weekly Register, typically around twenty pages, printed it in its entirity, crowding out most other items for a month. Some papers apologized for not having printed it sooner than they did.

    What did this debate mean to 19th century Americans? The modern ear cannot easily hear what it was that made Webster's oratory "godlike", yet histories of the U.S. in the early 1830s speak of it as a great event. Must we take their words for it? Or can we get some feel for it ourselves?

    This work is partly an attempt to demonstrate the impact that online media - particularly the "Web", can have on the physical and conceptual accessibility of rare old texts.

    A New Connection Between Original and Secondary Texts

    It is easy to see what a few hours or days of scanning can do for the availability of particularly rare documents.

    But I also claim, and hope to demonstrate, that when authors learn the art of using online media, it will change the way history is experienced by the reader. When reading secondary sources, those who wish will immediately glance at the source material which the author has cited, thus benefit from a specialist's reflections on the material, without spending hours trapped in the author's head. One can go out; walk around in the original text, and breath, and think, freely. One can say "I see what he/she means, but I would read it a little differently." Reading can become an active, creative, thought process.

    The item by item paraphrase of the debate (see below), is an attempt to present a sample of that experience. It aims to provide a basic grasp, in something like an hour, of what was said in the course of several days. You can then develop a "birds eye view" of, the hundred pages or so of the actual text, while remaining as closely in touch with the original as you wish to be. At any time, you have only to "click on" a paragraph marker to enter into the actual text, developing your own sense of what was said.

    This is a special case, in which the interpretive work is a very direct reflection of the original text. More typical interpretive works perform a synthesis from dozens or hundreds of sources. It would be truly exciting, I believe, if such work were done after the fashion of this work. But that can happen only when a large portion of the texts to be referenced are already online.

    What Was The Debate About?

    A debate had been going on for several days, concerning the public lands, or lands owned by the Federal government. The debate specifically concerned the resolution of Samuel Foote (of Connecticut), calling for:

    During the debate, Thomas Hart Benton, of Missouri, treated the resolution as a scheme by the northeast to restrain westward emigration, so as to retain a poor population who would work for low factory wages.

    A portion of this public lands debate, consisting of two speeches each by Robert Hayne and Daniel Webster, became known as the Hayne-Webster Debate.

    The coalition that supported Andrew Jackson for president had a large faction of advocates of state sovereignty; i.e. the interpretation of the Constitution as a pact between soverign states; such states having the sovereign right each to interpret the Constitution, or even to withdraw from the Union. This implied, for example, that the Supreme Court was not the arbiter of the meaning of the Constitution.

    It is clear whose view eventually prevailed. Daniel Webster might have approved of the "Pledge of Allegiance", which says we are "one nation under God, indivisible". Hayne would have been appalled by it (it was written in the 1890s).

    The American System and the Tariff

    The unionist philosophy had become associated with the American System, advocated by Henry Clay and the last president, John Quincy Adams. It combined a strong sense of America as a "nation", with a policy of national internal improvements - of striving as a nation to improve the roads, canals, harbors, navigability of rivers, and, visible on the horizon, railroads. It also favored a fully diversified economy; the equal of any industrialized nation; whereas the U.S. currently lagged far behind England and the rest of Europe.

    The protective tariff played a key role in the American System. It was supposed to protect developing industries from overseas factories, which were well-established, and drew on a poorly paid work force.

    The tariff was also a major source of Federal revenue (the only other one being land sales) for subsidizing transportation works. Water had always been the only inexpensive means of moving goods. But during the War of 1812, ships could not move up and down the coast safely; forcing even coastal areas to use the terrible roads of the time to obtain necessities.

    A transportation network would allow the foodstuffs of the new western farmlands to be exchanged with the manufactured goods of the east, giving both a stake in a vigorous national economy. The west would then become an integral part of a great unified nation, rather than an scattering of lonely outposts. The American System thus had a strong following in the west among men who favored any kind of progress.

    The economies and interests of eastern port cities were changing rapidly; with the exception, that is, of southern port cities like Charleston, South Carolina. In pre-industrial times, port cities were dominated by mercantile interests; i.e. shipping and trading, as opposed to manufacturing. The trade had mostly been of American raw materials: cotton and sugar in the south especially, for manufactured and luxury goods from overseas.

    As American factory interests grew, particularly in the northeast, there were more voices in favor of protective tariffs, to help American manufactures sell by making the foreign goods more expensive.

    The mercantile interests of upper New England were somewhat slow to give way to the manufacturing interests, leaving Daniel Webster vulnerable to the charge of having recently opposed the tariff, which he now defended.

    Charleston, SC, and the Nullification Movement

    Charleston was the great port city of South Carolina, and dominated the state to an unusual degree. Though it had some manufacturing; it was still largely a mercantile port city. It was not surrounded by factory towns, as were the port cities of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania.

    The life of South Carolina, and of Charleston itself was heavily dominated by the planters; owners of large slave-based enterprises who wished to sell cotton and sugar to the large markets of Europe, in exchange for goods that Europe had to offer. The fact that many such European goods fell under the tariff was depressing the trade of Charleston, and made life more expensive for the planters.

    The anti-tariff sentiment had reached a very high pitch in South Carolina. At one time, U.S. cotton growth was mostly for domestic use, and cotton growers called for protection against cheaper cotton from India, but Indian cotton was no longer the planters' great concern. With American cotton flooding the market, largely from the newer southwestern states, and the fertility of southeastern soil declining, South Carolinians was in an economic vise, and wanted some kind of relief.

    Senator Robert Y. Hayne, who represented South Carolina in the Senate, was intimately involved with a particular offshoot of the state sovereignty philosophy -- the nullification movement. The state had recently held a special convention whose resolution made a radical reinterpretation of the Constitution. It outlined a set of procedures by means of which a state could declare a federal law, such as the tariff law, "null, and no law", and procede to disregard it.

    The legal scholar who wrote the rationalle for nullification was John C. Calhoun. As Vice President, of the U.S., he played an ever-present role as President of the Senate. Indeed the habit in those days was to speak as if directly to him, as "Mr. President". Calhoun's authorship of the nullification manifesto, known as the Exposition and Protest, was supposedly a secret, and it was at odds with his strong nationalistic views of a few years ago. Webster says at one point:

    thus making a clear jibe at the poorly kept secret of Calhoun's role as constitutional theorist of the nullification movement.

    A useful introduction to the topic is William W. Freeling's 1965,6 study Prelude to Civil War.

    Robert Y. Hayne and Daniel Webster


    Robert Hayne had been in the Senate since 1823, having entered at the age of 32. His record there shows him constantly on guard against threats and perceived threats to the institution of slavery; including denunciation of the American Colonization Society. He said that it depressed the slave market by casting doubt on its future [Road to Disunion, p160]. He and other Jacksonians also opposed U.S. participation in a conference of the Americas, largely because it would mean dealing with black Haitian representatives as peers.

    Previously, he studied law under the celebrated Langdon Cheves, had achieved captains rank in the War of 1812, and become state quartermaster general; served in the state legislature, becoming speaker, and served as Attorney General of SC from 1818-1822 .

    In 1822, when he was a general (colonel?) of state militia, he directly encountered, and squelched, a well organized plan for a slave revolt in Charleston, organized by a free black artisan named Denmark Vesey. The depths of hatred of their owners by Vesey's co-conspirators shocked Carolinians. Many southerners viewed free criticism of slavery in Congress, as a dangerous incitement to slave revolts. The Vesey plot seemed to confirm that idea, since it occurred soon after very heated congressional debates, widely reported in the newspapers, over the admission of Missouri to the union as a slave state.

    As a Senator, Hayne was long on record as opposing the constitutionality of a protective tariff. He would remain a Senator until 1832, when he resigned to serve as Governor of South Carolina during the winter of '32-'33, when the nullification crisis reached its peak.


    Daniel Webster, though a relative newcomer to the Senate, was nationally known as a great orator. Called, at times "Godlike Dan Webster", and at other times "Black Dan" for his swarthiness and his flaws as a human being. His flaws included a strong vanity, as well as a willingness to be helped out of financial difficulties by parties, like the Bank of the United States, who needed a certain legislative outcome.

    He pled hundreds of cases before the Supreme Court, helping establish some of the greatest legal precedents of the era. His reputed invincibility was still well remembered in 1939 when Stephen Vincent Benet, in the story The Devil and Dan Webster, had him convincing Beelzebub and a score of lesser devils to release a man who had bargained his soul away.

    Webster was carrying some unfortunate baggage. He had belonged to the Federalist Party up to its bitter end, and this party had fallen into contempt for opposing and sometimes obstructing the War of 1812. The Hartford Convention, in late 1814, had gathered representatives from all over New England, mostly Federalists, to discuss extreme measures for relieving New England from the burden of the war. Webster had no part in this, but he had been a very vocal critic of the war.

    In 1825, when the four way presidential election produced no majority (but a very strong plurality for Jackson), the House of Representatives had to choose between Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford, and John Quincy Adams. Webster and Henry Clay were both in the House at that time, Clay being both the Speaker of the House and the fourth-place candidate for president (only one of the top 3 could be selected by the house). Both men threw their weight heavily behind Adams, and were probably critical in securing his election,

    This produced widespread indignation. When Clay was made Secretary of State (then considered the main stepping stone to presidency) Jackson called him the "Judas of the West". A united anti-Adams movement coalesced, putting its weight behind Andrew Jackson, and obstructing most of Adams' legislative program.

    Clay, after four years in the administration was exhausted and without office, but in less than two years he would enter the Senate and run an unsuccessful campaign against Andrew Jackson in 1832.

    From Clay's entry to the Senate, til around 1850, Webster, Clay, and John C. Calhoun made up what Merrill D. Peterson called The Great Triumvirate. They lead an anti-Jackson coalition in the last years of his presidency (except that Webster supported his unionism), and often greatly overshadowed the presidents of the period.

    Matthew Carey's Olive Branch

    Robert Hayne's second speech looks as though he stayed up all night picking out passages from Matthew Carey's Olive Branch, a very curious book.

    It was first printed in early 1815, and went into 10 printings in 3-1/2 years. Quotes extolling its merits said it was as great as Thomas Paine's Common Sense, or should be purchased by anyone who can afford one more book than the Bible.

    The full title was The Olive Branch, or, Faults on Both Sides, Federal and Democratic. A Serious Appeal on the Necessity of Mutual Forgiveness and Harmony. [N.B. I am using the 10th edition; an academic reprint from the Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, NY 1969.]

    As an appeal to a strong unionism, it contradicted Hayne's philosophy. But it was full of harsh words for New England Federalists, and especially for the Hartford Convention, which Hayne would use against Webster and New England.

    Besides the blasts at Federalism, Hayne uses Carey's attacks on the antislavery forces of New England - for their supposedly unfair attacks on the south.

    A Brief Summary of the Debate:

    You can support this site at no cost if you make an Amazon purchase using this link to get to Amazon: Thanks
      For a new printing of the whole debate, and more: Webster and Hayne's celebrated speeches: in the United States Senate, on Mr. Foot's resolution of January, 1830 : also Daniel Webster's speech in the ... 7, 1850, on the slavery compromise.
      You may also be interested in: Webster-Hayne Debate: An Inquiry into the Nature of Union -- as the title implies it analyzes the debate in terms of what it says about America as a nation, vs America as a compact of the individual states from which any might withdraw, or decide to "nullify" some federal law.