“Mr. President,” said Mr. Webster as he rose in the Senate of the United States to reply to Mr. Hayne of South Carolina, in what is still remembered as the great debate of 1830, “when the mariner has been tossed for many days in thick weather and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glimpse of the sun, to take his latitude, and ascertain how far the elements have driven him out of his course. Let us imitate his prudence, and before we float farther on the wave of this debate, refer to the point from which we departed, that we may at least be able to conjecture where we now are. I ask for the reading of the resolution before the Senate.” Many have admired the oratorical skill of this opening sentence who have failed to detect the sincerity of the request, or the strict candor of the reflection as he added: “It will readily occur to any one that it is almost the only subject about which something has not been said in the speech running through two days,” inasmuch as it is difficult to find that the orator himself adhered more closely to the resolution than did his eloquent antagonist. “It is not to be denied,” said the same voice in the same place, twenty years later, in his equally memorable “7th of March speech,” “that we live in the midst of strong agitations and are surrounded by very considerable dangers to our government. The imprisoned winds are let loose. The East, the North, and the stormy South combine to throw the whole sea into commotion, to toss the billows to the skies and disclose its profoundest depths.” Continuing his nautical figure, which none knew better how to employ, he added: “I do not affect to regard myself, Mr. President, as holding, or fit to hold, the helm in the combat with the political elements; but I have a duty to perform, and I mean to perform it with fidelity, not without a sense of exciting dangers, but not without hope. I have a part to act, not for my own safety, for I am looking for no fragment on which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole and the preservation of all; and there is that which will keep me to my duty, during this struggle, whether the sun and stars shall appear or shall not appear for many days.”
The drift and danger, so vividly portrayed and with so much tact referred to, though hardly borne out by existing facts, the professed desire to find the true position and the purpose to stand in the breach at whatever hazard, represent none too forcibly or eloquently the condition of affairs which has since obtained, and the wisdom and patriotism which have so signally marked the decade of the nation’s history just closed. The storm of rebellion and war, of treason and its punishment, of the purpose to destroy, and “the uprising of a great people” to save the government, the struggle and strain required for that and for the reconstruction, now nearly accomplished, have more than realized what the orator only, or mainly, imagined. The nation has actually seen and felt the storm he painted. It has gone through the wild commotion produced by the loosened winds, as the East, the North, and the stormy South have stirred the sea of American thought and feeling, passion, prejudice, and purpose, tossing its billows to the skies and disclosing its profoundest depths. For four long years, with that hope deferred which makes the heart sick, the people waited, in weary vigils, for the war-clouds to disperse, so that the sun and stars might again appear. That fearful upheaving of everything political and pecuniary, social and religious, the fierce strifes of the field and of the forum, the unexpected though legitimate, results of a disturbance so deep and wide, the new under-currents in the popular mind and heart which have received motion and direction from those great events, have driven and drifted the ship of state from its former course, and rendered necessary new observations, new calculations, and a new departure.