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CHAPTER XXXVI. THE SEVENTH OF MARCH SPEECH.
Were I to undertake a complete account of Mr. Webster’s public acts during the last ten years of his life, I should require to write a volume upon this part of his life alone. This does not enter into my plan. I aim only to give my young readers a general idea of the public and private life of the great statesman, and must refer them for particulars to the valuable Life by George Ticknor Curtis, already more than once referred to.

Mr. Webster was strongly opposed to the annexation of Texas, foreseeing that it would justly be resented by the people of the North as tending to increase “the obvious inequality which exists in the representation of the people in Congress by extending slavery and slave representation.”

Slavery was the one great flaw in our otherwise glorious system of government. It was a standing reproach among the European nations that a government which claimed to be free held in forcible subjection three million slaves. It sowed dissension between the North and the South, and seemed to be the entering wedge destined ere long to split asunder the great republic. There were men on both sides of Mason and Dixon’s line who openly favored separation, but Mr. Webster was not one of these. His ardent devotion to the union we have already seen in the glowing peroration to his memorable speech against Hayne. He watched with an anxiety which he did not attempt to conceal the growing exasperation of feeling between the two sections. Though he took the Northern view, he saw that there must be mutual concessions or the union would be dissolved. He did not wish that event to come in his time, and it was in this frame of mind that he made his last great speech in the Senate—what is known as the seventh of March speech.

It was a strong and temperate statement of the existing condition of affairs, and of the necessity of compromise. In making this speech Mr. Webster was fully aware that he was hazarding his popularity—nay, was sure to lose it—that he would grieve his best friends, and excite a storm of indignation at the North. He was not mistaken. The minds of men were in no mood for temperate counsels. They were in no mood to appreciate the patriotic motives which actuated the great statesman. He was charged with falling from honor and making undue concessions to slavery. Upon this last point I shall express no opinion. I only claim that Mr. Webster’s motives were pure, and that though he may have gone too far in his concessions, he was influenced thereto by the depth of his devotion to the union. There were not wanting those who charged him with making in his speech a bid for the Presidency, forgetting that he could not have injured his chances more effectually than by stirring up against himself his warmest political friends.

That Mr. Webster had an honorable ambition to serve his country in that great office—the greatest in its gift—no one will dispute. He knew his own fitness, and would have rejoiced to crown a life of high service with this elevated trust. But I have said elsewhere that it is only in an ideal republic that the greatest citizens reach the highest posts, and our republic is not an ideal one.

In the light of our present experience we can see that Mr. Webster was wrong in supposing that the republic could go on indefinitely with slavery as its corner-stone. Any compromise could be only for a time. But he was an old man—sixty-eight years of age—grown cautious and conservative with advancing years, and he could not see through the clouds that gathered before him.

With this brief vindication of his motives I proceed to give an extract from his last great speech:

“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 ruffling the surface! Who is so foolish—I beg everybody’s pardon—as to expect any such thing? Sir, he who sees these States now revolving in harmony around a common center, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next moment to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck of the universe! There can be no such thing as a peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an impossibility. Is the great Constitution under which we live, covering this whole country, is it to be thawed and melted away by secession, as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun, disappear and run off? No, sir! No, sir! 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 must produce; I see that it must produce war, and such a war as I will not describe in its two-fold character.

“Peaceable secession! Peaceable secession! The concurrent agreement of all the members of this great government to separate! A voluntary separation with alimony on one side, and on the other! Why, what would be the result? Where is the line to be drawn? What States are to secede? What is to remain America? What am I to be? An American no longer? Am I to become a sectional man, a local man, a separatist, with no country in common with the gentlemen who sit around me here, or who fill the other House of Congress? Heaven forbid! Where is the flag of the republic to remain? Where is the eagle still to tower? or is he to cower, and shrink, and fall to the ground? Why, sir, our ancestors, our fathers, and our grandfathers, those of them who are still living among us with prolonged lives, would rebuke and reproach us; and our children and our grandchildren would cry out shame upon us, if we of this generation should dishonor these ensigns of the power of the government and the harmony of the union which is every day felt among us with so much joy and gratitude. What is to become of the army? What is to become of the navy? What is to become of the public lands? How is each of the thirty States to defend itself?

“I know, although the idea has not been stated distinctly, there is to be, or it is supposed possible that there will be, a Southern confederacy. I do not mean, when I allude to this statement, that any one seriously contemplates such a state of things. I do not mean to say that it is true, but I have heard it suggested elsewhere that the idea has been entertained that, after the dissolution of this union a Southern Confederacy might be formed. I am sorry, sir, that it has ever been thought of, talked of or dreamed of, in the wildest flights of human imagination. But the idea, so far as it exists, must be of a separation, assigning the slave States to one side, and the free States to the other. Sir, I may express myself too strongly, perhaps, but there are impossibilities in the moral as well as in the physical world, and I hold the idea of a separation of these States, those that are free to form one government, and those that are slaveholding to form another, as such an impossibility. We could not separate the States by any such line if we were to draw it. We could not sit down here to-day and draw a line of separation that would satisfy any five men in the country. There are natural causes that would keep and tie us together, and there are social and domestic relations which we could not break if we would, and which we should not if we could.”

In describing the consequences of secession it must be admitted that Mr. Webster spoke like a true prophet. All the evils that he predicted—the war such as the world had never seen—came to pass, but out of it the union emerged stronger than ever, with its chief burden and reproach thrown overboard. Much as the war cost, we feel to-day that we are the better off that it was fought. Let us not blame Mr. Webster that he could not penetrate the future, and strove so hard to avert it. Probably his speech postponed it, but nothing could avert it. Can we doubt that if the great statesman were living to-day he would thank God that He had solved the great problem that had baffled the wisdom of the wisest, and brought substantial good from fratricidal strife?

Among those who listened with rapt attention to Mr. Webster was John C. Calhoun, his great compeer, who had risen with difficulty from the bed where he lay fatally sick, to hear the senator from Massachusetts. “A tall, gaunt figure, wrapped in a long black cloak, with deep, cavernous black eyes, and a thick mass of snow-white hair brushed back from the large brow,” he seemed like a visitant from the next world. It was his last appearance in the Senate. Before March was over he had gone to his rest!


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