The January 1830 exchanges between Senators Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts were part of a larger discussion over specific federal policies that soon raised fundamental constitutional questions. This development is understandable, given that in 1828, Vice President John C. Calhoun published the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, maintaining that the Constitution was a compact among sovereign states and that a state convention could nullify a federal law it deemed unconstitutional, preventing its operation in that state. In 1830, South Carolina radicals were threatening to do just that.
Hayne charged that the Northeast supported federal land and tariff policies harmful to the South and West to benefit northeastern capitalists. Webster denied it and, attempting to draw Hayne into a direct confrontation, disparaged slavery and attacked the constitutional scruples of southern nullifiers and their apparent willingness to calculate the Union’s value in monetary terms. In response, Hayne defended slavery and maintained that the South had consistently promoted the true interests of the union, while New England had repeatedly threatened its integrity in pursuit of narrow sectional goals. He then endorsed nullification, attacked New England’s own disunionist past, and praised the South for remaining squarely within the revolutionary tradition of protecting liberty and resisting usurpation.
Webster eagerly took up Hayne’s challenges to New England. He advocated as beneficial to the entire nation government-sponsored internal improvements, the tariff, and other components of the “American System” supported by northeastern capitalists. He also vindicated New England’s past behavior, minimizing the section’s resistance to national policies and giving New Englanders the pivotal role in American history for nurturing liberty and defending it during the Revolution.
Webster concluded with an exegesis of the Constitution. At issue were not just past policies and sectional malfeasance, but the very nature of the union itself. Acknowledging the right of revolution, Webster denied states any constitutional right to nullify federal laws. The Constitution derived its authority from the sovereign people and was therefore the supreme law of the land; nullification of a federal law was not a legitimate option. Should a state consider a federal law unconstitutional, it must appeal to the proper tribunal, the federal judiciary. At a time when most Americans thought the Constitution was a compact among the states, this vision of a perpetual union under the Constitution, to which the people, not the states, were parties, earned Webster his reputation as “Defender of the Union.” Senators continued to debate the issues Hayne and Webster raised well into May, rehearsing positions that remained relevant throughout much of the nineteenth century, such as the perpetuity of the union, the parties to the constitutional compact, and the locus of sovereignty. But it is largely for Webster’s nationalist explication of the Constitution that the Webster-Hayne debate is remembered today.
Merrill D. Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Harlow W. Sheidley, “The Webster-Hayne Debate: Recasting New England’s Sectionalism,” New England Quarterly 67 (March 1994): 5–29; and U.S. Congress, Register of Debates in Congress, 21st Cong., 1st Sess. (1829–30): 31–93.