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The Webster-Hayne Debate

Rachel Venter, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Rachel Venter

    Rachel Venter is a recent graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver. She has a BA in political science. She has worked as a university writing consultant for over three years.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the Webster-Hayne debate. Understand the 1830 debate's significance through an overview of issues of the Constitution, the Union, and state sovereignty. Updated: 05/03/2022

The Webster-Hayne Debate

The Webster-Hayne debate was a series of spontaneous speeches presented to the United States Senate by senators Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina. The debate, which took place between January 19th and January 27th, 1830, encapsulated the major issues facing the newly founded United States in the 1820s and 1830s; the balance of power between the federal and state governments, the development of the democratic process, and the growing tension between Northern and Southern states.

More specifically, some of the issues facing Congress during this period included:

  • The methods by which the federal government earned its revenue
  • The federal government's surveying and selling of land west of the Mississippi River
  • The issue of slavery, which was beginning to divide the Northern and Southern states
  • The balance of power between federal and state governments

The Debaters: Robert Y. Hayne and Daniel Webster

Robert Y. Hayne served as Senator of South Carolina from 1823 to 1832. Before his term as a U.S. senator, Hayne had served as a state senator, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, South Carolina's Speaker of the House, and Attorney General of South Carolina. After his term as a senator, he served as the Governor of South Carolina. An accomplished politician, Hayne was an eloquent orator who enthralled his audiences. Hayne began the debate by speaking out against a proposal by the northern states which suggested that the federal government should stop its surveyance of land west of the Mississippi and shift its focus to selling the land it had already surveyed.

Daniel Webster stood as a ready and formidable opponent from the north who, at different stages in his career, represented both the states of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He was a lawyer turned congressional representative who eventually worked his way to the office of U.S. Secretary of State. At the time of the debate, Webster was serving his term as Senator of Massachusetts. Webster spoke in favor of the proposed pause of federal surveyance of western land, representing the North's interest in selling the western land, which had already been surveyed. An equally talented orator, Webster rose as the advocate of the North in the debate with his captivating reply to Hayne's initial argument.

Issues of the Webster-Hayne Debate

The specific issue that sparked the Webster-Hayne debate was a proposal by the state of Connecticut which said that the federal government should halt its surveying of land west of the Mississippi and focus on selling the land it had already surveyed to private citizens. Representatives of the northern states were concerned by the rapid growth of the nation; just 27 years earlier, the Louisiana Purchase had nearly doubled the size of the nation, and the newly elected President Andrew Jackson was hungry for more territory. Connecticut's proposal was an attempt to slow the growth of the nation, control westward expansion, and bolster the federal government's revenue.

To Southerners, Connecticut's proposal was viewed as an affront to Southern states, which were concerned that the proposal would grant the federal government too much power by boosting its revenue and giving it control over the price of western land. At this time, the majority of the Southern population believed that state governments should be the primary governing bodies of the United States, and that the federal government should remain small and subservient to the states. Additionally, the South sought to expand its agricultural economy westward, and viewed Connecticut's proposal as a hindrance to this goal.

The debate over Connecticut's proposal represented just a sliver of the growing conflict between Northern and Southern interests pre-Civil War. Leaders of the era were trying to strike a balance between federal and state power and put the newly adopted Constitution into practice. Up to this point, the federal government had very little power, and the Southern states intended to keep it that way. The South viewed the Constitution as a treaty between sovereign states rather than the supreme law of the land. They believed that states should have the power of nullification, the power to override and disobey federal law. They viewed the growth of the Federal Government and it's revenue as a threat to the rightful sovereignty of the states. Northerners were starting to advocate for a more united nation bound by a more powerful federal government, arguing that the Constitution represented a binding agreement between the states rather than a treaty between sovereign powers.

Part of the conflict over the power of the federal government concerned the ways by which the federal government earned its revenue. At the time, the federal government collected most of it's revenue through protective tariffs, particularly high taxes on imports and exports on particular goods, paid by foreign nations, intended to protect American economic interests. Southern states saw these taxes and tariffs as tyrannical infringement on their sovereignty, while Northerners saw them as an opportunity to fund a unifying federal force. The other method by which the federal government collected revenue was through the sale of federal land to private citizens, hence the North's suggestion that federal government should focus on selling it's land to bolster revenue, and the South's opposition to the idea for fear of an overly powerful federal government.

The Webster-Hayne Debate

I love a good debate. Who doesn't? The action, the drama, the suspense…who needs the movies? I'm imagining that your answer is probably 'I do.' Well, you're not alone. But still, throughout American history, several debates have captured the nation's attention in a way that would make even Hollywood jealous. One of those was the Webster-Hayne debate, a series of unplanned speeches presented before the Senate between January 19th and 27th of 1830.

The debaters were Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina. In a time when the country was undergoing some drastic changes, this debate managed to encapsulate the essence of the growing tensions dividing the nation. See what I mean? Drama, suspense, it's all there. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll hopefully stay awake until the end of the lesson. What can I say? Historians love a good debate.

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The Debate Background

Let's start by looking at the United States around 1830. What was going on? Well, it's important to remember that the nation was still young and much different than what we think of today. President Andrew Jackson had just been elected, most of the states got rid of property requirements for voting, and an entire new era of democracy was being born. Besides that, however, the federal government was still figuring out its role in American society. Most people of the time supported a small central government and strong state governments, so the federal government was much weaker than you might have expected. Enveloping all of these changes was an ever-growing tension over the economy, as southern states firmly defended slavery and northern states advocated for a more industrial, slave-free market.

Then, in January of 1830, a senator from Connecticut introduced a proposal to the Senate stating that the federal government should stop surveying the lands west of the Mississippi River. Why? So they could finish selling the lands already surveyed. In 1830, the federal government collected few taxes and had two primary sources of revenue. One was through protective tariffs, high taxes on imports and exports. The taxes paid by foreign nations to export American cotton, for example, generated lots of money for the government. The other way was through the sale of federally-owned land to private citizens. That's what was happening out West.

Connecticut and other northeastern states were worried about the pace of growth and wanted to slow this down. Well, the southern states were infuriated. To them, this was a scheme to give the federal government more control over the cost of land by creating a scarcity. To them, the more money the central government made, the stronger it became and the more it took rights away from the states to govern themselves. The debate was on.

The Debate Itself

The Webster-Hayne debate, which again was just one section of this greater discussion in the Senate, is traditionally considered to have begun when South Carolina senator Robert Y. Hayne stood to argue against Connecticut's proposal, accusing the northeastern states of trying to stall development of the West so that southern agricultural interests couldn't expand. Hayne was a great orator, filled with fiery passion and eloquent prose.

The next day, however, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster rose with his reply, and the northern states knew they had found their champion. Webster was eloquent, he was educated, he was witty, and he was a staunch defender of American liberty. For the next several days, the men traded speeches which contemporaries of the time described as the greatest orations ever delivered in the Senate. In fact, Webster's definition of the Constitution as for the People, by the People, and answerable to the People would go on to form one of the most enduring ideas about American democracy.

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Video Transcript

The Webster-Hayne Debate

I love a good debate. Who doesn't? The action, the drama, the suspense…who needs the movies? I'm imagining that your answer is probably 'I do.' Well, you're not alone. But still, throughout American history, several debates have captured the nation's attention in a way that would make even Hollywood jealous. One of those was the Webster-Hayne debate, a series of unplanned speeches presented before the Senate between January 19th and 27th of 1830.

The debaters were Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina. In a time when the country was undergoing some drastic changes, this debate managed to encapsulate the essence of the growing tensions dividing the nation. See what I mean? Drama, suspense, it's all there. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll hopefully stay awake until the end of the lesson. What can I say? Historians love a good debate.

The Debate Background

Let's start by looking at the United States around 1830. What was going on? Well, it's important to remember that the nation was still young and much different than what we think of today. President Andrew Jackson had just been elected, most of the states got rid of property requirements for voting, and an entire new era of democracy was being born. Besides that, however, the federal government was still figuring out its role in American society. Most people of the time supported a small central government and strong state governments, so the federal government was much weaker than you might have expected. Enveloping all of these changes was an ever-growing tension over the economy, as southern states firmly defended slavery and northern states advocated for a more industrial, slave-free market.

Then, in January of 1830, a senator from Connecticut introduced a proposal to the Senate stating that the federal government should stop surveying the lands west of the Mississippi River. Why? So they could finish selling the lands already surveyed. In 1830, the federal government collected few taxes and had two primary sources of revenue. One was through protective tariffs, high taxes on imports and exports. The taxes paid by foreign nations to export American cotton, for example, generated lots of money for the government. The other way was through the sale of federally-owned land to private citizens. That's what was happening out West.

Connecticut and other northeastern states were worried about the pace of growth and wanted to slow this down. Well, the southern states were infuriated. To them, this was a scheme to give the federal government more control over the cost of land by creating a scarcity. To them, the more money the central government made, the stronger it became and the more it took rights away from the states to govern themselves. The debate was on.

The Debate Itself

The Webster-Hayne debate, which again was just one section of this greater discussion in the Senate, is traditionally considered to have begun when South Carolina senator Robert Y. Hayne stood to argue against Connecticut's proposal, accusing the northeastern states of trying to stall development of the West so that southern agricultural interests couldn't expand. Hayne was a great orator, filled with fiery passion and eloquent prose.

The next day, however, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster rose with his reply, and the northern states knew they had found their champion. Webster was eloquent, he was educated, he was witty, and he was a staunch defender of American liberty. For the next several days, the men traded speeches which contemporaries of the time described as the greatest orations ever delivered in the Senate. In fact, Webster's definition of the Constitution as for the People, by the People, and answerable to the People would go on to form one of the most enduring ideas about American democracy.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What position did Senator Daniel Webster take about nullification?

Daniel Webster argued against nullification (the idea that states could disobey federal laws) arguing in favor of a strong federal government which would bind the states together under the Constitution. Post-Civil War, as the nation rebuilt and reconciled the balance between federal and state government, federal law became the supreme law of the land, just as Webster desired.

What did Senator Webster maintain in the famous Hayne-Webster debates?

Webster stood in favor of Connecticut's proposal that the federal government should stop surveying western land and sell the land it had already surveyed to boost it's revenue and strengthen it's authority. Webster believed that the Constitution should be viewed as a binding document between the United States rather than an agreement between sovereign states.

What is the significance of the Webster-Hayne debate in the Senate?

The Webster-Hayne debate laid out key issues faced by the Senate in the 1820s and 1830s. Webster's argument that the constitution should stand as a powerful uniting force between the states rather than a treaty between sovereign states held as a key concept in America's ideas about the federal government.

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