Today in history, on March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster delivered a famous oratory endorsing the Compromise of 1850, known as the “Seventh of March Speech.”
He lauded the settlement as an impressive stride of concession between Whig and Democrat factions within the federal Congress, and described the compromise as an undertaking that would eliminate the prospect of civil war in the United States.
Under the compromise, California was admitted as a free state, New Mexico and Utah could decide whether to permit slavery on the basis of popular sovereignty, the slave trade was abolished at the seat of the general government, and a new Fugitive Slave Act was adopted.
In totality, the terms of settlement were perceived as the 19th century version of the Munich Agreement, and was alleged to have brought peace to the republic in the midst of sectional friction.
In fact, this series of settlements prolonged the extension of slavery at a federal level, despite the national celebration Webster prompted. While many believe federal action worked to erode and curtail slavery, in reality it did much to strengthen the practice.
Those interested in extending slavery into the territories had no problem getting federal government to be complicit with these aims through the passage of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the historically groundless opinion in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, and the treacherous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Some states responded to the new Fugitive Slave Act by nullifying the law and acting to obstruct its enforcement, using the state’s authority as a bulwark to impede the usurpation of power. Wisconsin, for example, consciously decided that it would not comply with the law in 1854. Michigan passed a resolution disallowing its jails to be used to return freed men. Vermont’s Habeas Corpus Act even penalized individuals and state officials that helped assist the federal government with enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act.
These “Personal Liberty Laws,” as they would be called, effectively used state authority to counteract pernicious law and preserved the liberty of runaway slaves.
Advocates of nullification are today portrayed as radical extremists, but historically the strategy was used by its proponents as a moderate course of action – a judicious middle ground between secession on one hand, and the passive acceptance of federal usurpations on the other.
Websters was right to give acclaim to the temporary aversion of bloodshed, but the actions of the federal government throughout the early-mid 19th century did more to protect and to extend slavery than to eradicate it.