It’s September 15th, 1847 in Mexico City, 18 months into the Mexican–American War.
American Major General John Quitman leads his troops through the streets of the Mexican capital and into an open plaza known as the Zócalo.
The square is littered with pockets of Mexican civilians who jeer at the Americans as they pass. But General Quitman wasn’t expecting a warm welcome today. After a brutal, week-long siege of the city, the Mexican army was forced to abandon their capital in a humiliating defeat. Now, General Quitman is here to formally take control on behalf of the United States.
Quitman and his fellow officers halt their horses as they arrive at the front steps of the national palace.
The general dismounts and stretches his back. He and his men are tired and bedraggled. Their uniforms are torn. Quitman’s boot has a torn sole that flaps when he walks. So he’s grateful the siege is over and that he and his men might finally be able to get some much-needed rest. But as the General makes his way to the front steps of the palace… a gunshot echoes through the plaza. Quitman instinctively ducks, but he quickly gathers his composure and stands tall again. He orders his men to hold their positions and prepare for combat.
One of Quitman’s officers points to a balcony, where a Mexican man reloads a smoking rifle. Quitman’s soldiers close in… kick down the door to the building and burst in to subdue the shooter. But in the same moment… a second shot rings out—this time from a different direction. Quitman ducks again and hugs close to his horse as his eyes scan the plaza. This time, his officer points to another house where there's movement on the roof.
But just as Quitman’s eyes focus on the second shooter… a third shot from a different direction and then another and another. General Quitman grits his teeth and prepares himself for a fight. He hoped that the capture of the capital would be a simple affair. But it seems that the “Battle for Mexico City” is not over yet.
Eventually, General Quitman and his troops subdue the last vestiges of resistance in the Mexican capital. Their victory heralds the end of the Mexican-American War on the battlefield but sets the stage for a new conflict in the halls of America’s government.
In the peace settlement that follows, the United States gains two territories: Alta California and Nuevo Mexico, as well as disputed territory in Texas. These territories incorporate all or parts of what is today California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. But these new lands provoke difficult questions about a controversial political issue: will these new territories, and the states that will later be carved from them, allow slavery? Southerners in both political parties largely support the expansion of slavery. Most Northerners oppose it.
But the division over this issue will cross-regional and political lines, drive a wedge through the heart of American government, and threaten to tear the country apart. In the midst of these escalating tensions, a group of political moderates will fight to keep the Union together, even if it means allowing the expansion of slavery. One of them, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, will put his own political career on the line when he advocates for compromise in one of the most significant political speeches in US history on this day, March 7th, 1850.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 7th, 1850: Daniel Webster Endorses the Compromise of 1850.
It’s March 1849 on Second Street in St. Louis, Missouri; one month after the official end of the Mexican–American War.
It’s a damp, drizzly day, but the rain has mostly subsided, and the streets are bustling. Two men—Francis Blair, a writer for the Missouri Republican, and his brother Montgomery—weave their way through the crowd with umbrellas in hand.
Francis whistles like he doesn’t have a care in the world while Montgomery shakes his head. His brother has no reason to be gleeful. Lately, Francis has been embroiled in a war of words with a writer named Loring Pickering of the Daily Union, a rival newspaper. The issue that divides them is one that’s causing friction all across the nation. Loring is in favor of slavery’s expansion. Francis is against it. But recently, their verbal sparring turned from the political to the personal. Both men used their papers to attack the other. The escalating insults got so extreme that Francis challenged Loring to a duel. Loring declined. But today, as the Blair brothers stroll through the streets, Montgomery spots a familiar face up ahead.
He clears his throat, nudges his brother pointing down the block to Loring Pickering who’s headed right for them. Montgomery tries to steer his brother clear of trouble, but Francis pushes his way right into Loring’s path. When Loring gets close enough, Francis intentionally bumps into his shoulder.
Soon enough, a crowd gathers as Francis steps forward and gets intimidatingly close to Loring. In return, Loring demands to know why Francis deliberately bumped his shoulder. Instead of giving an answer, in a swift and sudden move, Francis thrusts his umbrella like a saber, striking Loring in the face. Loring staggers backward and puts his hand to his eye, blood pouring through his fingers. But then Loring wields his own umbrella and fights back. The scuffle escalates and before long, the umbrellas are discarded for pistols. Seeing this, Montgomery pries the two bloodied newsmen apart to prevent further bloodshed.
The precise details of what transpired in March of 1849 between Francis Blair and Loring Pickering will be disputed for years to come. But this much is certain. In early March, in front of a slew of witnesses, the two prominent Missouri newspapermen wielded their umbrellas and exchanged blows.
Six days later, as Francis Blair is leaving a meeting at the courthouse in St. Louis, a strange man steps out from the shadows and greets Francis loudly and aggressively. Francis brushes him off and keeps walking, but the stranger follows. A gunshot rings out, and then another. Francis pulls a pistol and returns fire as the failed assassin runs away into the darkness.
An investigation reveals the identity of the shooter, Loring Pickering’s assistant editor, and subsequently, Loring and his accomplice are indicted for assault. But both men are acquitted. Francis is indicted himself for the attempted duel, which violated Missouri Law. He pleads guilty and is sentenced to one minute in jail and a one-dollar fine.
But the feud between Francis Blair and Loring Pickering is demonstrative of a political reality in 1840s America: slavery is tearing the country apart. Francis and Loring are both from Missouri. Both were, at one point, members of the same political faction: the Democratic Party. But they find no common ground on the issue of slavery’s expansion. Francis Blair himself was once a slaveholder, but over the years his views began to evolve. Ultimately, he came out against slavery’s expansion and officially left the Democrats.
By the late 1840s, members of both major political parties—the Democrats and the Whigs—are beginning to realize that the issue of slavery is the challenge of the time pitting Democrat against Democrat, Whig against Whig. Tensions have been simmering for decades. But now, in the wake of the Mexican-American War, the question is unavoidable.
In the last presidential contest, the election of 1848, Whig President Zachary Taylor mostly avoided the issue of slavery during the campaign. His “silence is golden” strategy was effective enough to put him in the White House, but President Taylor has accomplished little in the way of easing the growing sectional tensions across the country.
But now, no politician can remain silent on the issue. And in fact, one man decides to speak up as loudly as he can: a prominent northern Whig from Massachusetts, Senator Daniel Webster. About one year after Francis Blair and Loring Pickering attacked each other in the streets of St. Louis, Senator Webster will try to ease tensions by delivering a famous speech that will become a rallying call for those who think the preservation of the Union should take priority over everything else, including the future of slavery.
It’s March 7th, 1850, one year after Francis Blair and Loring Pickering’s feud turned violent.
Senator Daniel Webster rises to his feet, straightens his tie, and takes a deep breath. He may be 68 years old, but the veteran politician knows he will be on his feet in the Senate Chamber today for a long time. The speech he’s about to make is Webster’s attempt to break a deadlock that could tear his country apart.
Recently, a southern Whig from Kentucky, Senator Henry Clay, introduced what will come to be known as the Compromise of 1850. In its final form, the compromise is a series of five bills. The first admits California as the state of the Union without slavery. The second and third bills draw boundaries for New Mexico and Utah, admitting both those territories under a political principle called “Popular Sovereignty”, which leaves the question of slavery to the people, not the federal government. The fourth bill outlaws slave auctions in Washington DC. The last bill though is the most controversial of all. The so-called Fugitive Slave Act gives southern slave owners the power to retrieve escaped slaves who fled north.
Clay hoped that enough Congressmen would back the entire package, even if they opposed individual bills. But three days ago, an influential South Carolina Democrat, John C. Calhoun, wrote a blistering criticism of Clay’s compromise. Calhoun threatened that if the Compromise were to be enacted, South Carolina would secede from the Union.
Now, Senator Daniel Webster takes the floor to offer his opinion on Clay’s compromise. As a figure with as much influence as Calhoun, Webster hopes his voice will be enough to stave off the growing unrest.
Senator Webster clears his throat and begins his speech in a conciliatory tone, saying “I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American.” Webster slowly and patiently works his way through each of Clay’s proposals—and comes down in support of every single one.
Webster calls on northerners not to worry about the expansion of slavery into new territories. He reminds the men in the chamber that the arid landscape of the southwest means that cotton and tobacco plantations will never flourish there. But Webster also explains that slavery is a fact of life in America. The institution is so ingrained in the South, he says, that Northerners should not try to interfere with it. Instead, they should respect a slaveholder’s right to retrieve their slaves if they escape north, putting his stamp of approval on the fifth and most controversial bill. Three and a half hours pass before Webster eventually finishes speaking and takes his seat.
His “Seventh of March” speech, as it’s called, will go down as one of the most consequential in the history of the US Congress. Thanks to the recent introduction of the telegraph machine, Webster’s words are distributed and printed in newspapers far and wide. The Senator receives praise and accolades from political moderates all across the country.
But not in New England. There, his speech is met with derision. One writer bemoans, “Let Mr. Webster, for decency's sake shut his lips once and forever...” Webster’s support of the compromise, and in particular the Fugitive Slave Law, permanently damages his reputation in New England; especially in Boston, a city at the heart of the anti-slavery movement.
The pushback is severe and soon, Webster’s political career is in shambles. Left with little choice, Webster will eventually be forced to resign from the Senate. But he can't be counted out yet. Soon, the death of a prominent politician will give Webster a second chance to push the compromise over the line.
In the summer of 1850, President Zachary Taylor passes away from a stomach virus. And on July 9th, 1850, Millard Filmore, a Whig from New York, becomes the 13th president of the United States, and the second Vice President in American History to succeed the office. At the time of his inauguration, the task before Filmore is daunting. To keep the country united, the new president will try to walk a delicate line in order to forge consensus between the two warring political factions. To help him accomplish this, Filmore turns to Daniel Webster.
In late July, Fillmore appoints Webster his new Secretary of State. Together, Fillmore and Webster work behind the scenes, making carrot-and-stick promises of Federal funding to get anti-Compromise Congressman on board. In the end, their efforts pay off. Enough northern whigs who oppose the expansion of slavery abstain from voting to get the Compromise bills through Congress and onto President Fillmore’s desk.
By the end of September, with Fillmore’s signature, the Compromise of 1850 is now law. Fillmore and Webster are ready to declare victory, and to proclaim the Compromise the “final answer to the question of slavery”. But in the end, the bills do little to ease the tensions growing across the country. The United States remains united, but at a terrible cost, and not for long.
It’s February 15th, 1851 at a coffeehouse in Boston, Massachusetts; five months after the Compromise of 1850 was adopted by Congress.
Shadrach Minkins, a 33-year-old former slave, pulls a cloth from his apron and wipes down a dirty tabletop. Nine months ago, Shadrach was enslaved in Norfolk, Virginia. But he escaped and came here to Boston securing a job as a waiter in this coffeehouse. Now, as Shadrach wipes down this table, he’s grateful to be a free man. But he knows he’s not entirely free from danger.
Among the provisions of the recently passed Compromise of 1850 was the new Fugitive Slave Law that compelled every American to aid law enforcement in the capture of escaped slaves, even in free states like Massachusetts. But the law is extremely unpopular in the north, especially here in Boston. But it is still the law.
When Shadrach finishes wiping down the table, he heads for the kitchen. But he never makes it. As he passes by a table of customers, he feels a hand grab him by the arm. Thinking at a bit of a rude way to get a waiter's attention, Shadrach turns to the customers but then realizes he is not a customer at all. He holds a marshal’s badge and tells Shadrach he is under arrest.
Within hours, Shadrach is led to a courtroom in Boston. His attorneys file a writ of habeas corpus, seeking to have him released, but the judge denies the request. Under the Fugitive Slave Law, Shadrach must remain in custody.
But the judge’s pronouncement is interrupted when a group of men barge into his courtroom carrying pistols and clubs, their faces hidden by hats pulled low and coats buttoned high. They demand that Shadrach be handed over to them. And the judge is ultimately powerless to stop them from hustling Shadrach out of the courtroom.
Shadrach is terrified. He fears his captors are going to hang him without a trial. When he was a slave, he saw plenty of such summary justice. But then, Shadrach notices several of his captors have dark skin. In this moment, he realizes that these men aren’t here to lynch him but to rescue him.
Shadrach is hidden in the attic of a nearby house belonging to a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, an anti-slavery group. When darkness falls, Shadrach is sprinted out of Boston and on to a new life in Canada.
In the end, the Fugitive Slave Act fails to achieve its purpose. According to some historians, in all, several hundred formerly enslaved persons are returned to bondage under the law. But as many as 100,000 escape this fate by fleeing to Canada or Mexico.
The rest of the compromise measures are equally ineffective. Instead of keeping the country together, the Compromise of 1850 widens the divide in the government and increases tensions among the people, ultimately resulting in violence and bloodshed. Just over a decade after the adoption of the Compromise of 1850, the United States devolves into Civil War; an outcome that was, perhaps, inevitable, despite the hopes of moderates like Daniel Webster who delivered his famous speech in favor of the controversial compromise on this day, March 7th, 1850.
Next on History Daily. March 8th, 2014. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 loses contact with air traffic control, veers off course, and mysteriously disappears.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.