Monday, July 4, 2011

Of Webster and Whittier

I don't know how many blog posts that I have started with, "I recently finished reading," but it happens...a lot. Sorry for that, it's just that when I find things interesting I want to share my newly acquired knowledge. So, here goes...

I recently finished reading, At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Nation, by Robert V. Remini, and I am currently reading Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen, by Gary Collison. In these books the authors explained that after Henry Clay had proposed his packaged 1850 compromise, Daniel Webster (who along with Clay and John C. Calhoun made up the "Great Triumvirate") realized the significant importance of the compromise and thew his support behind Clay. Webster made a dramatic oration on the floor of the senate in attempt to assure its passage.

Webster (pictured above) started his March 7, 1850 speech by stating that he came that day, not as "a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American." During the speech Webster explained his support for Clay's compromise and that in particular he approved of a strengthened fugitive slave law. Webster said that he saw that Southerners had a real grievance in that northern states were not holding up their constitutional obligations by returning fugitive slaves to their southern masters. He saw that if this was not remedied this issue could lead to continued strained relations between the sections and that the issue might bring on the worst thing possible...civil war.

Webster's Senate declarations were not well received by northern abolitionists, who, though small in percentage of the northern population, were quite vocal and had excellent access to the press and publications.

One of those disturbed by Webster's remarks was poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Soon after hearing about Webster's speech Whittier wrote "Ichabod," by which he meant "inglorious," or "the glory has departed."

Whittier gave the following explanation for writing the poem:

"This poem was the outcome of the surprise and grief and forecast of evil consequences which I felt on reading the seventh of March speech of Daniel Webster in support of the `compromise,' and the Fugitive Slave Law. No partisan or personal enmity dictated it. On the contrary my admiration of the splendid personality and intellectual power of the great Senator was never stronger than when I laid down his speech, and, in one of the saddest moments of my life, penned my protest. I saw, as I wrote, with painful clearness its sure results, -- the Slave Power arrogant and defiant, strengthened and encouraged to carry out its scheme for the extension of its baleful system, or the dissolution of the Union, the guaranties of personal liberty in the free States broken down, and the whole country made the hunting-ground of slave-catchers. In the horror of such a vision, so soon fearfully fulfilled, if one spoke at all, he could only speak in tones of stern and sorrowful rebuke.

But death softens all resentments, and the consciousness of a common inheritance of frailty and weakness modifies the severity of judgment. Years after, in The Lost Occasion, I gave utterance to an almost universal regret that the great statesman did not live to see the flag which he loved trampled under the feet of Slavery, and, in view of this desecration, make his last days glorious in defence of "Liberty and Union, one and inseparable."

Ichabod

So fallen! so lost! the light withdrawn
Which once he wore!
The glory from his gray hairs gone
Forevermore!
Revile him not, the Tempter hath
A snare for all;
And pitying tears, not scorn and wrath,
Befit his fall!
Oh, dumb be passion's stormy rage,
When he who might
Have lighted up and led his age,
Falls back in night.
Scorn! would the angels laugh, to mark
A bright soul driven,
Fiend-goaded, down the endless dark,
From hope and heaven!
Let not the land once proud of him
Insult him now,
Nor brand with deeper shame his dim,
Dishonored brow.
But let its humbled sons, instead,
From sea to lake,
A long lament, as for the dead,
In sadness make.
Of all we loved and honored, naught
Save power remains;
A fallen angel's pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.
All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!
Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame!


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