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On Liberty and Union: Moral Imagination and Its Limits in Daniel Webster’s Seventh of March Speech

Scott M. Reznick is a doctoral candidate in English, Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467 ([email protected]).

I would like to thank John Burt, James Wallace, Chris Wilson, Mary Bilder, Vlad Perju, Matthew Clemente, Will Hendel, and the fellows at the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy for their stimulating conversations and insightful remarks on earlier drafts of this essay. I would also like to extend my gratitude to the four anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful criticisms, which undoubtedly helped improve this essay.

Daniel Webster’s speech before the Senate on March 7, 1850, in support of the measures that would ultimately constitute the Compromise of 1850 has long been denounced for its avoidance of moral principle, as Webster, many argue, opted for “union” instead of “liberty.” Yet Webster refers to morality repeatedly throughout this speech. This essay revisits the broader corpus of Webster’s thought in order to explore his conception of moral experience in democratic life—what I call, following David Bromwich, “moral imagination”—and how it informed Webster’s speech. It positions Webster in a dialogue about moral and political thought that stretches back to G. W. F. Hegel and forward to thinkers such as Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, and Charles Taylor and argues that it was, ironically, Webster’s articulate embrace of liberty that placed the strictest limits on his capacity to imagine the ethics of democracy.