We welcome a guest post today from Matthew Mason, author of Apostle of Union: A Political Biography of Edward Everett. Known today as “the other speaker at Gettysburg,” Edward Everett had a distinguished and illustrative career at every level of American politics from the 1820s through the Civil War. In this new biography, Matthew Mason argues that Everett’s extraordinarily well-documented career reveals a complex man whose shifting political opinions, especially on the topic of slavery, illuminate the nuances of Northern Unionism.
In today’s post, Mason discusses parallels between modern and antebellum religious leaders. This article was originally published at common-place.org.
Angry voices rising at the intersection of morality and politics. Boycotts of businesses, localities, and even whole states led by passionate supporters of one side of the issue. Talk of nullification as an acceptable tactic given the apocalyptic stakes involved. This could be the 1850s and the issues surrounding slavery. It is also the 2010s and issues surrounding hot-button topics like immigration and LGBT rights. As groups ranging in size from congregations to the nation grapple with how to preserve community as totalizing rhetoric flies around and within them, there are contrasts and parallels with the American sectional conflict that may prove instructive.
One moral of the story of attempted compromises in the past is that the path of the moderate is certainly not that of least resistance. In polarizing times, there is a price to be paid—at the polls and otherwise—for attempting to chart a middle path. The career of Edward Everett may prove an apt case study. A man of deep moral conviction who sought to chart a middle path on the tortuous issue of slavery across four decades at every level of American political life, Everett left his position as a Unitarian minister in the 1820s and served as a representative and senator in Congress, as Massachusetts’ governor, as U.S. minister to Great Britain, and as secretary of state. He pursued cultural and political means toward national reconciliation in this fractured era, notably by his nationwide speaking tour to hold up George Washington as a unifying figure while raising money to purchase Mount Vernon as a national shrine of Union. A confirmed Whig dedicated to the ethic of Improvement, he sought to balance his commitment to reform and to constitutional Union through a conservative antislavery position that at different moments emphasized “conservative” or “antislavery.” As such he rallied great masses, especially with his Mount Vernon campaign in the late 1850s, but he also exasperated hardcore antislavery and proslavery men and women. His career in formal politics thrived during times of relative sectional quietude, but his very health (alongside his political prospects) suffered greatly during times such as the sectional hurricane sweeping the nation while he was senator during the Kansas-Nebraska debates.
The crisis that produced and surrounded the Compromise of 1850 proved especially wrenching for Everett. Gathering as much information about debates in Washington as he could from his semi-private position as recently retired president of Harvard, Everett expressed unequivocal fear for the Union’s survival. But in March 1850, when his close friend and political ally Daniel Webster came out in favor of Southern-friendly compromise measures including a harsh new Fugitive Slave Act (FSA), Everett experienced wrenching indecision. When he received an incomplete early version of Webster’s highly anticipated Seventh of March speech explaining his position, Everett felt he could support its overall tenor. On March 11, he recorded in his diary that it was “an exposition of great ability, well calculated if moderate counsels prevail to pilot the country through the broken & stormy sea: – but _____.” The dissent with parts of the discourse that Everett could not bring himself to register even in his diary emerged slowly in the coming weeks. When he read a fuller version, he was mortified especially by its passage supporting the fugitive bill. To oppose Webster was no small step, so he initiated a confidential correspondence with friend and congressional leader Robert C. Winthrop to talk through how to deal with the matter. “I always support him at the expense of my own” judgment, Winthrop responded, “when my conscience will allow me.” But this was not such an occasion, in part because the FSA was so gratuitously pro-Southern. Everett responded that his own reaction had been precisely the same: “habitual deference” to Webster’s “authority” coming face to face with massive qualms about the FSA. The old law had been “against the feeling of the People,” and this new one was even worse. “I could not vote for it, were I a member of Congress; nor as a citizen would I perform the duty which it devolves ‘on all good citizens.’” By March 22, Everett decided he had to send Webster a modified retraction of his assent to the speech. He found he had “misgivings” about the new FSA, for two basic reasons. One was that it was manifestly inhumane. Another, stronger reason from a political point of view was because runaway slave renditions were “the incident of Slavery . . . which is most repugnant to the Public Sentiment of the Free States.” In this and a follow-up letter in April, Everett wished “it were possible to arrange some extradition bill that would be less likely to excite the North.” “Southern gentlemen, who wish the Union preserved, must make that allowance for Northern feeling, which they claim for Southern feeling.”
In anguished expressions such as this, Everett offered an insight that would benefit modern would-be moderates: for a compromise to take hold, it has to be a true compromise.Continue Reading Matthew Mason: Morality, Politics, and Compromise: The Plight and Prospects of the Moderate, Then and Now