“Colossal Coward!”: Plymouth Protests the Compromise of 1850: Part One

In early 1850, tensions between the North and South regarding the issue of slavery had brought many politicians and American citizens to seriously consider dividing the Union. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay presented a series of bills known as the Compromise of 1850 which offered compromises between the free North and slave-owning south regarding newly acquired territory from the Mexican-American War. South Carolinian senator John C. Calhoun, on his deathbed, dictated his final Senate speech, read aloud in the Senate on 4 March 1850, in which he blasted the North and emphasized that compromise was unlikely. Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, a beloved and famed orator, announced he would reply to Calhoun’s speech. Webster’s response was highly anticipated, with the expectation that Webster would remain steadfast with his previous abolitionist support. Large crowds gathered in Washington D.C., hoping to witness Webster’s eloquent response. His three-hour speech, which became widely known as the “Seventh of March Speech”, shocked listeners by calling for a compromise between the North and the South on the issue of slavery for the sake of preserving the Union. Webster registered his support for the Compromise of 1850, and he listed numerous criticisms of the North that he shared with Calhoun. News of Webster’s speech instantly spread through the telegram and was printed and discussed across America. Reactions were swift and furious by Northerners, who felt betrayed. Webster’s reputation would never recover.

Webster’s Seventh of March Speech. Image courtesy of www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com

Webster argued that slavery was simply a fact of life in America:


“We must view things as they are. Slavery does exist in the United States.”

Webster noted a Southern complaint to be quite “just”: the reluctance of Northerners to capture and return fugitive slaves:

“In that respect, the South, in my judgment, is right, and the North is wrong. Every member of every Northern legislature is bound by oath, like every other officer in the country, to support the Constitution of the United States; and the article of the Constitution which says to these States that they shall deliver up fugitives from service is as binding in honor and conscience as any other article… That is my judgment. I have always entertained that opinion, and I entertain it now.”

Webster stated that he supported the Compromise of 1850 “to the fullest extent,” and called on:

“all sober-minded men at the North, of all conscientious men, of all men who are not carried away by some fanatical idea or some false impression, to their constitutional obligations. I put it to all the sober and sound minds at the North as a question of morals and a question of conscience. What right have they… to endeavor to get round this Constitution, or to embarass the free exercise of the rights secured by the Constitution to the persons whose slaves escape from them? None at all; none at all… when I speak here I desire to speak to the whole North, I say that the South has been injured in this respect, and has a right to complain; and the North has been too careless…”

Webster then attacked the abolitionists of the North:

“Then, Sir, there are the Abolition societies, of which I am unwilling to speak, but in regard to which I have very clear notions and opinions. I do not think them useful. I think their operations for the last twenty years have produced nothing good or valuable. At the same time, I believe thousands of their members to be honest and good men, perfectly well-meaning men. They have excited feelings; they think they must do something for the cause of liberty; and, in their sphere of action, they do not see what else they can do than to contribute to an Abolition press, or an Abolition society, or to pay an Abolition lecturer. I do not mean to impute gross motives even to the leaders of these societies, but I am not blind to the consequences of their proceedings. I cannot but see what mischiefs their interference with the South has produced.

Webster strangely even blamed abolitionists as the reason why Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s proposal for gradual emancipation in Virginia failed in 1832. Webster argued that “incendiary” abolitionist newspapers after 1835

“did arouse, a very strong feeling; in other words, they created great agitation in the North against Southern slavery. Well, what was the result? The bonds of the slave were bound more firmly than before, their rivets were more strongly fastened. 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. I wish to know whether any body in Virginia can now talk openly as Mr. Randoph, Governor [James] McDowell, and others talked in 1832 and sent their remarks to the press? We all know the fact, and we all know the cause; and every thing that these agitating people have done has been, not to enlarge, but to restrain, not to set free, but to bind faster the slave population of the South.”

Webster preposterously argued the abolitionists were to blame for the South being unwilling to end slavery. He believed the abolitionists were too passionate in their moralistic beliefs and goals, and argued that the truest moral goal should be to preserve the Union at all costs.

I hear with distress and anguish the word “secession,” especially when it falls from the lips of those who are patriotic, and known to the country, and known all over the world, for their political services. Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffing the surface! Who is so foolish, I beg every body’s pardon, as to expect to see any such thing?…There can be no such thing as peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility… I will not state what might produce the disruption of the Union; but, Sir, I see as plainly as I see the sun in heaven what that disruption itself must produce; I see that it must produce war, and such a war as I will not describe…

Residents of Webster’s state of Massachusetts were astonished and confounded by Webster’s speech. Webster lived on a grand estate in Marshfield, Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Plymouth County residents still admired and discussed his “Plymouth Rock Oration”, given in 1820 on the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, in which he said:

I deem it my duty on this occasion to suggest, that the land is not yet wholly free from the contamination of a traffic, at which every feeling of humanity must for ever revolt, – I mean the African slave-trade. Neither public sentiment, nor the law, has hitherto been able entirely to put an end to this odious and abominable trade… In the sight of our law, the African slave-trader is a pirate and a felon; and in the sight of Heaven, an offender beyond the ordinary depth of human guilt. There is no brighter page of our history, than that which records the measures which have been adopted by the government at an early day, and at different times since, for the suppression of this traffic; and I would call on all the true sons of New England to cooperate with the laws of man, and the justice of Heaven. If there be, within the extent of our knowledge or influence, any participation in this traffic, let us pledge ourselves here, upon the rock of Plymouth, to extirpate and destroy it. It is not fit that the land of the Pilgrims should bear the shame longer. I hear the sound of the hammer, I see the smoke of the furnaces where manacles and fetters are still forged for human limbs. I see the visages of those who by stealth and at midnight labor in this work of hell, foul and dark, as may become the artificers of such instruments of misery and torture. Let that spot be purified, or let it cease to be of New England. Let it be purified, or let it be set aside from the Christian world; let it be put out of the circle of human sympathies and human regards, and let civilized man henceforth have no communion with it.

However, in the thirty years since Webster’s speech at Plymouth, he had shown himself to be a flip-flopper on numerous issues as a politician, particularly when it came to North-South issues. A poem called “Daniel Webster”, written in response to the Seventh of March Speech, read:

Colossal coward! Thou hast bowed the knee

This once, at least, too low at Slavery’s shrine;

No more thy country shall put trust in thee,

Or feel a heart-throb at a word of thine.

The Liberator (Boston, Mass.) 29 March 1850, p. 4.

Webster’s hypocrisy damned him in the eyes of many Northerners. His support of the Compromise of 1850, and especially the proposed expanded Fugitive Slave Act was a step too far. Plymouth County residents determined to take action, and called for a public protest.

The Liberator (Boston, Mass.) 29 March 1850, p. 3.

PLYMOUTH COUNTY MASS MEETING. To the Citizens of the County of Plymouth:

The cause of liberty is of no party or sect. Whenever that cause is betrayed or compromised, it becomes the imperative duty of its friends, especially in a great national crisis like the present, to rally to its defence. Believing that a serious injury has been inflicted upon that cause by the Hon. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, in his recent speech in the United States Senate, and that the nature and gravity of the offence are such as to call for a PUBLIC PROTEST on the part of the people of this Commonwealth, in order that the Slave Power of the South may derive no encouragement from it; therefore, We, the undersigned, cordially unite, without distinction of party, and with no other object in view than the honor of Massachusetts and the welfare of the country, in calling a Convention of the people of Plymouth county, to be held in Plymouth on SATURDAY, the 30th day of March instant, to bear a strong and unequivocal testimony –

1st. Against the avowed determination of Mr. Webster to register his vote in opposition to the Wilmot Proviso, as applied to New Mexico and California, on the specious pretence that slavery is necessarily excluded from those territories by the law of God and the fiat of Nature;

2d. Against a similar determination, on his part, to ‘support to the fullest extent’, the bill introduced to the Senate by Mr. [James Murray] Mason of Virginia [the Fugitive Slave Act], whereby the liberty of persons, arrested as fugitive slaves, is to be made dependant on the decision of any ‘judge, commissioner, clerk, marshal, postmaster, or collector, as the case may be, either by oral testimony, or affadavit taken before and certified by any person authorized to administer an oath under the laws of the United States or of any State’;

and 3d. Against the declaration of Mr. Webster, that it is the duty of the States, acting through their legislatures and executive orders, to cause the fugitive slave to be delivered up to his claimant; thereby distinctly opposing and going beyond the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.

And we do hereby invite the citizens of the county generally to assemble on the day aforesaid, at 11 o’clock, A.M., in the Green Church in Plymouth, then and there to take such action as the cause of human liberty and the honor of our Commonwealth shall require.

Incredibly, almost 150 Plymouth County residents of all political persuasions publically signed their names to this protest announcement, in the hopes of encouraging all citizens to join in the protest. They argued that while their political differences often caused disputes between them, the issue of slavery was so egregious that they would join together despite their differences to protest Webster’s support of the Compromise of 1850, which would expand slavery in the United States and force Northerners to capture fugitive slaves and fine and imprison those who refused.

Plymouth [22]. [First Church – Unitarian] Rev. George Ware Briggs (1810-1895). [Universalist] Rev. Russell Tomlinson (1808-1878). Charles May (1791-1880). Samuel Barnes (1803-1896). John Washburn (1801-1860). Justus Harlow (1811-1860). Thomas B. Sherman (1793-1861). Dr. John Cook Bennett (1804-1867). Charles Bartlett Irish (1800-1888). Edmund Robbins (1809-1884). Bartlett Ellis (1795-1883). William Harvey Spear (1805-1873). Isaac Brewster (1812-1894). Sylvanus Harvey (1812-1871). James Spooner (1802-1884). Micah Richmond (1803-1855). Samuel Sherman (1791-1857). Elisha Nelson (1802-1878). Samuel Gardner (1815-1862). Leander Lovell (1799-1879). Nathaniel M. Perry (1816-1877). Joab Thomas Jr. (1815-1896).

Kingston [19]. Seth Drew (1778-1854). [Baptist] Rev. Thomas E. Keely (1812-1880). Uriah Bartlett (1789-1883). Henry Soule (1808-1889). Henry Hunt (1804-1892). John Fuller (1774-1860 or 1801-1878). George Faunce (1816-1901). Alexander Bradford Foster (1814-1869). Francis Washburn (1802-1888). Cornelius Adams Bartlett (1811-1880). Job Washburn Drew (1811-1869). Joseph Stetson (1802-1884). Josiah Fuller (1783-1868). Nathan Brooks (1798-1882). Horace Holmes (1809-1855). Charles Everson (1821-1872). Nathaniel D. Drew (1810-1879). Ebenezer P. Richardson (1807-1892). Nathaniel Thomas Willis (1799-1872).

Duxbury [15]. Gershom Bradford Weston (1799-1869). Luther Faxon Weston (1820-1853). Henry Simmons (1811-1892). George Bradford (1819-1899). Ralph Partridge (1783-1869). Ezra Tainter (1803-1876). Allen Prior (1813-1890). Joshua G. Brewster. Weston Freeman Jr. (1808-1896). Nelson Stetson (1814-1890). Dura Wadsworth (1788-1881). Joshua Winsor Hathaway (1798-1882). George Loudon (1809-1900). John C. Lewis (1804-1885). Thomas N. Bartlett (1806-1888).

Marshfield [17]. Nathaniel H. Whiting (1808-1889). Lemuel Packard (1806-1875). Elijah Ames Jr. (1816-1899) Edward P. Little (1791-1875). Charles Winslow Thomas (1814-1900). Barker Sprague (1828-1917). Warren Hall (1813-1902). Benjamin Healy Clark Jr. (1806-1863). Harrison Sampson (1826-1908). John P. Bradley (1810-1897). George Martin Baker (1820-1911). Joseph Baker Jr. (1827-1880). John Baker (1815-1892 bur). James Sprague (1792-1881). Benjamin Baker (1803-1877). Warren Kent (1823-1891). Artemas Baker (1801-1889).

[South] Scituate [Norwell] [6]. [Unitarian] Rev. Caleb Stetson (1793-1870). David Torrey (1787-1877). George Parsons Fogg (1821-1901). Anson Robbins (1781-1866). George Howard Torrey (1819-1894). Abner Stetson (1808-1883).

Hanover [2]. Isaac Mann Wilder (1805-1879). John Butler Studley (1813-1858).

Abington [4]. Isaac Hersey (1807-1869). Zenas Jenkins 2d (1813-1894). Rev. Horace Dean Walker (1815-1885). Nathaniel Beal (1807-1872).

Hingham [3]. Rev. John Lewis Russell (1808-1873). John O. Lovett (1807-1885). Rev. Oliver Stearns (1807-1885).

Plympton [11]. [Congregational] Rev. Elijah Dexter (1786-1851). Eben Lobdell (1786-1861). Zacheus Sherman (1794-1859). Martin Hayward (1784-1869). Dr. Josiah S. Hammond (1810-1886). James Churchill Ellis (1806-1875). Deacon Cephas Bumpus (1785-1865). Thomas Ellis Loring (1806-1882). William Hudson Soule (1801-1871). Zenas Bryant (1787-1872). Erastus Leach (1803-1875).

Middleborough [14]. Horatio Gates Wood (1789-1861). Amasa Lamb (1806-1872). George Soule (1806-1874). Daniel Atwood (1806-1888). George Bailey (1806-1864). Peter Hoar Peirce (1788-1861). Edmund Haskins (1818-1889 bur. Lakeville). Nathan B. Dunbar (1808-1901). Nathaniel Eddy (1785-1869). Joseph T. Wood (1818-1890). Job Peirce Nelson (1806-1862). Henry D. Bassett (1817-1891). William H. Wood (1812-1883). Otis Soule (1799-1871).

North Bridgewater [27]. Jesse Perkins (1791-1857). Joseph O. Bennett (1810-1851). Nathaniel Cross (1827-1861). Elisha Howland Joslyn (1811-1892). Benjamin Gardner Stoddard (1804-1857). Ambrose Hayward (1810-1870). Charles Addison Hunt (1823-1884). Levi Wild Holbrook (1807-1888). Jacob Weed Crosby (1810-1891). Martin Beal (1805-1876). William Bartlett (1814-1895). Alpheus Holmes (1814-1892). Benjamin Southworth (1820-1883). Edward Ells Bennett (1804-1887). Ruel Richmond (1808-1882). Charles B. Crocker (1818-1882). Thomas Drew Stetson (1827-1916). Alexander Mark Leavitt (1817-1886). Lyman Clark (1807-1885). Robert Smith (1812-1877). Arnold Hunt (1798-1863). George Washington Easton (1821-1882). Stafford Drake (1802-1876). Charles Sexton Peirce (1823- 1867). Caleb Jefferson Holbrook (b. 1806). John Tilden (1798-1874). Benjamin P. Lucas (1811-1876).

South Bridgewater [6]. Philo Leach (1797-1853). Abram Washburn 2d (1795-1881). William Henry Adams (1803-1876). Benjamin Crocker (1807-1875). Lewis Holmes (1806-1893). Samuel Leonard (1797-1867).

Researching the list of citizens, all men, who signed this letter revealed a wide range of ages, classes, and occupations. Organized in part by the Old Colony Anti-Slavery Society (a largely white abolitionist organization), all of the men in this list were white, with the exception of the multiracial George Washington Easton of North Bridgewater (now Brockton), the grandson of black Revolutionary War soldier and entrepeneur James Easton.

Up Next: What Happened At The Plymouth Protest? “To compare Daniel Webster with Benedict Arnold is too feeble, to compare him with Judas Iscariot is better”: Plymouth Protests the Compromise of 1850: Part Two


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