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Don’t even think about it
"War and the dissolution of the Union are identical and inseparable," Henry Clay said. The senator from Kentucky spoke amid the debate over what would become the Compromise of 1850. He was nearing the end of a long career in public life, devoted above all to the preservation of the Union. The Union had never been more threatened. South Carolina's John Calhoun, Clay's longtime bete noire, was preaching secession unless the North yielded to the increasingly insatiable demands of Southern slaveholders. Northern abolitionists led by William Lloyd Garrison argued that the North should secede from the South, to end the complicity in slavery commanded by the Constitution.
Both sides spoke of secession as akin to divorce: unpleasant but not necessarily violent. Clay told them they were utterly wrong. Secession might begin peaceably, but it would not remain peaceable. "If possibly we were to separate by mutual agreement and by a given line, in less than sixty days after such an agreement had been executed, war would break out. Yes, sir, sixty days. In less time than sixty days, I believe, our slaves from Kentucky would be fleeing over in numbers to the other side of the river"—the Ohio River—"would be pursued by their owners, and the excitable and ardent spirits who would engage in the pursuit would be restrained by no sense of the rights which appertain to the independence of the other side of the river, supposing it, then, to be the line of separation. They would pursue their slaves; they would be repelled, and war would break out. In less than sixty days, war would be blazing forth in every part of this now happy and peaceable land."
In point of fact, the North would never agree to peaceable secession, Clay said. Northerners would not allow the Mississippi River to fall into the hands of foreigners. "My life upon it, sir; that vast population that has already concentrated and will concentrate upon the headwaters and tributaries of the Mississippi will never consent that the mouth of that river shall be held subject to the power of any foreign state whatever."
Clay could not stress his point strongly enough. "Dissolution of the Union and war are identical and inseparable," he reiterated. "Such a war, too, as that would be, following the dissolution of the Union! Sir, we may search the pages of history, and none so furious, so bloody, so implacable, so exterminating, from the wars of Greece down, including those of the Commonwealth of England and the revolution of France—none, none of them raged with such violence, or was ever conducted with such bloodshed and enormities as the war that shall follow that disastrous event—if that ever happens—of dissolution."
Daniel Webster was the only man in the Senate who could out-talk Henry Clay. They disagreed on many things, with Webster representing Massachusetts and New England and Clay Kentucky and the West. Yet they agreed on the absolute necessity of preserving the Union. Following Clay, Webster denounced the idea that the Union could be broken up without war. "Peaceable secession!" he thundered. "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 to see any such thing?"
Webster shook his massive head, with the brow that looked as though it had been chiseled from one of the granite mountains of New Hampshire, his birth state. "Peaceable secession!" he bellowed again. "Peaceable secession! The concurrent agreement of all the members of this great Republic 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 American? What am I to be—an American no longer? 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?"
The warnings of Clay and Webster succeeded sufficiently that the Compromise of 1850 received congressional approval. But the compromise failed to appease the most zealous on either side. Southern fire-eaters interpreted a new and more stringent fugitive slave law as merely their region's due, and took umbrage at the admission of California as a free state. Northern abolitionists inverted that interpretation, contending that California naturally should be free and that the Fugitive Slave Act showed that the slave holders were imposing their evil will on the entire country.
Clay and Webster died within a few years, and with them died the spirit of compromise that had given rise to the 1850 bargain. Abolitionists led by John Brown waged violent war against slavery as an institution, and slaveholders concluded that the safety of their peculiar institution required leaving the Union.
When they did leave, they confirmed the warnings of Clay and Webster. The boastful predictions of the secessionists that the North would not fight at all or would be swiftly defeated proved tragically mistaken. Not only did secession fail, at the cost of several hundred thousand lives, but it destroyed the institution the secessionists said they were trying to preserve.
The reverence of Clay and Webster— and Abraham Lincoln— for the Union reflected not some mystical sympathy for a republican ideal but a hard-headed realization that two countries in the middle of North America would be bound to fight sooner or later. They looked at Europe, whose countries had been at one another's throats for centuries, and wanted nothing like that for America. Better the bruised feelings of a political compromise than the mountains of corpses a war would produce.
We are not close to secession today. We are farther still from a war like that which ravaged our country in the 1860s. Yet the words of Clay and Webster are worth keeping in mind.
Peaceable secession? Not likely. And certainly not worth taking a chance on.