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This brief enumeration will of itself sufficiently show the extensive range of the subjects to which the attention of Mr. Webster was called, during the two years for which he filled the Department of State.
The published correspondence probably forms but a small portion of the official labors of the Department of State for the period during which it was filled by Mr. Webster. They constitute, nevertheless, the most important part of the documentary record of a period of official service, brief, indeed, but as beneficial to the country as any of which the memory is preserved in her annals. The administration of General Harrison found the United States, in the spring of 1841, on the verge of a war, not with a feeble Spanish province, scarcely capable of a respectable resistance, but with the most powerful government on earth. The conduct of our foreign relations was intrusted to Mr. Webster, as Secretary of State, and in the two years during which he filled that office controversies of fifty years' standing were terminated, new causes of quarrel that sprung up like hydra's heads were settled, and peace was preserved upon honorable terms. The British government, fresh from the conquest of China, perhaps never felt itself stronger than in the year 1842, and a full share of credit is due to the spirit of conciliation which swayed its counsels. Much is due to the wise and amiable minister who was despatched from England on the holy errand of peace; much to the patriotism of the Senate of the United States, who confirmed the treaty of Washington by a larger majority than ever before sustained a measure of this kind which divided public opinion; but the first meed of praise is unquestionably due to the American negotiator. Let the just measure of that praise be estimated, by reflecting what would have been our condition during the last few years, if, instead of, or in addition to, the war with Mexico, we had been involved in a war with Great Britain.
Mr. Webster resigns his Place in Mr. Tyler's Cabinet. — Attempts to draw public Attention to the projected Annexation of Texas. — Supports Mr. Clay's Nomination for the Presidency. — Causes of the Failure of that Nomination. — Mr. Webster returns to the Senate of the United States.— Admission of Texas to the Union. — The War with Mexico. —Mr. Webster's Course in Reference to the War. — Death of Major Webster in Mexico.— Mr. Webster's unfavorable Opinion of the Mexican Government. — Settlement of the Oregon Controversy. — Mr. Webster's Agency in effecting the Adjustment. — Revival of the Sub-Treasury System and Repeal of the Tariff Law of 1842. — Southern Tour. — Success of the Mexican War and Acquisition of the Mexican Provinces. — Efforts in Congress to organ ize a Territorial Government for these Provinces. —Great Exertions of Mr. Webster on the last Night of the Session. —Nomination of General Taylor, and Course, of Mr. Webster in Reference to it . — A Constitution of State Government adopted by California prohibiting Slavery. — Increase of Antislavery Agitation. — Alarming State of Affairs. —Mr. Webster's Speech for the Union. — Circumstances under which it was made, and Motives by which he was influenced. — General Taylor's Death, and the Accession of Mr. Fillmore to the Presidency.— Mr. Webster called to the Department of State.
Mr. Webster remained in the Department of State but a little over two years. His last act was the preparation of the instructions of Mr. Cushing, who had been appointed Commissioner to China. Difficulties had occurred the summer before, between President Tyler and some of the members of his Cabinet, and all of those gentlemen, with the exception of Mr. Webster, tendered their resignations, which were accepted. Hard thoughts were entertained of Mr. Webster in some quarters for continuing to hold his seat after the resignation of his colleagues. President Tyler, however, had in no degree withdrawn his confidence from Mr. Webster in reference to the foreign affairs of the country, nor interfered with the administration of his department, and Mr. Webster conceived that the interests involved in his remaining at his post were far too important to be sacrificed to punctilio. His own sense of duty in this respect was confirmed by the unanimous counsel of the Massachusetts delegation in Congress, and by judicious friends in all parts of the country. In fact, it will be remembered that when difficulties sprung up between Mr. Tyler and the Whig party in Congress, in 1842, the Whig press generally throughout the country called upon the members of the Cabinet appointed by General Harrison to retain their places till they should be removed by Mr. Tyler.
Mr. Webster remained in private life during the residue of President Tyler's administration, occupied as usual with professional pursuits, and enjoying in the appropriate seasons the retirement of his farm. He endeavored by private communications to arouse the feeling of the North to the projects which he perceived to be in agitation for the annexation of Texas but the danger was regarded at that time as too remote to be contended against. A short time only elapsed before the fulfilment of his anticipations was forced upon the country, with fearful urgency, and a train of consequences of which it will be left to a late posterity to witness the full development. Between the years 1843 and 1845 the fortunes of the United States were subjected to an influence, for good or for evil, not to be exhausted for centuries.
The nomination of Mr. Clay to the Presidency in' 1844 was cordially supported by Mr. Webster. He to6k the field, as in the summer of 1840 in favor of General Harrison. The proofs of the untiring zeal with which he entered into the canvass, and of the great power and fertility with which he discussed the various topics of the day, will be seen in the second volume of the present collection. It has, however, been found impossible to insert more than a selection of the speeches made by him during the campaign. Others not inferior in merit and interest were made by him in the course of the summer and autumn of 1844.
It is well known that the result of this election was decisive of the question of the annexation of Texas. The opinions expressed by Mr. Van Buren against the immediate consummation of that project had prevented his receiving the nomination of the Baltimore Convention. Mr. Clay was pledged against the measure, and Mr. Polk was selected as its sure friend. If in 1844 the friends of Mr. Van Buren, instead of giving in their adhesion to the Baltimore nomination (which was in fact turning the scale in favor of Texas), had been prepared, as in 1848, to support a separate nomination, or even if the few thousand votes cast by the "Liberty party" against Mr. Clay had been given in his favor, he would have been chosen President of the United States, to the indefinite postponement of the annexation of Texas and the Mexican war, with all their consequences. But in great things as in small, men throw away the substance while they grasp at the shadow.
At the first session of the Twenty-ninth Congress (1845-46), Mr. Webster took his seat as the successor of Mr. Choate in the Senate of the United States. The question of the admission of Texas was decided at the very commencement of the session. It was opposed by Mr. Webster. To all the other objections to the measure in his mind was added that of unconstitutionally. The annexation was now brought about simply by a joint resolution of the two houses, after it had been found impossible to effect it by treaty, the only form known to the Constitution by which a compact can be entered into with a foreign power. Mr. Jefferson was of opinion in 1803, that even a treaty with France was not sufficient for the annexation of Louisiana, but that an amendment of the Constitution was necessary for that purpose. In 1845 the executive and a majority of Congress, having failed to carry the ratification of a treaty of annexation by the constitutional majority, scrupled not to accomplish their purpose by a joint resolution of the two houses; and this measure was effected under the lead of statesmen who claim to construe the Constitution with literal strictness. Events like these furnish a painful illustration of the frailty of constitutional restraints as a barrier against the consummation of the favorite measures of a dominant party.
The great event of the administration of President Polk was the war with Mexico. The time has not yet arrived when the counsels under which this war was brought about can be fully unfolded. On the 2d of December, 1845, in his first annual message, having communicated to Congress the acceptance by Texas of the terms of annexation offered by the joint resolution, President Polk thus expressed himself: —
"This accession to our territory has been a bloodless achievement. No arm of force has been raised to produce the result. The sword has had no part in the victory. Wo have not sought to extend our territorial possessions by conquest, or our republican institutions over a reluctant people. It was the deliberate homage of each people to the great principle of our federative Union."
The proffered annexation of Texas had been declined both Vol. i. m
by General Jackson and Mr. Van Buren, on the ground that, unless made with the consent of Mexico, it would involve a war with that power. That this would be the effect was not less certain on the 2d of December, 1845, when Congress were congratulated on the "bloodless" acquisition, than it was when, on the 13th of January following, General Taylor was instructed to occupy the left bank of the Rio del Norte. In fact, in the very message in which President Polk remarks to Congress "that the sword had had no part in the victory," he gives them also the significant information, that, upon the earnest appeal both of the Congress and convention of Texas, he had ordered "an efficient military force to take a position between the Nueces and the Del Norte."
This force, however efficient in proportion to its numbers and in virtue of the gallantry and skill of its commander, was found to be inadequate to sustain the brunt of the Mexican arms. Rapid movements on the part of Generals Ampudia and Arista, commanding on the frontier, seriously endangered the safety of General Taylor's force, and it became necessary for Congress to strengthen it by prompt reinforcements. In this way the war was commenced. No formal declaration had taken place, nor had it been in the power of Congress to make known its will on the subject, till an absolute necessity arose of reinforcing General Taylor, and the subject had ceased to be one for legislative discretion.
Under these circumstances it was of course impossible for Mr. Webster to approve the war. It had been brought on by the executive will, and without the concurrence of Congress till Congress had ceased to have an option, and its well-known ulterior objects were such as he could not but contemplate with equal disapprobation and alarm. Still, however, in common with the body of his political friends, in and out of Congress, he abstained from all factious opposition, and all measures calculated to embarrass the government. The supplies were voted for by him, but he never ceased to urge upon the President to pursue a magnanimous policy toward the distracted and misgoverned country with which we had been brought in collision. Nor did his opinions of the character of the war lead him to discourage the inclination of his younger son, Mr. Edward Webster, to accept a commission in the regiment of Mas