“To the New York Committee for the Celebration of the Birthday of Washington” by Daniel Webster (February 20, 1851)


In this letter, dated February 20, 1851, Secretary of State Daniel Webster declines a New York group’s invitation to join them in celebrating George Washington‘s birthday. He uses the letter to accuse of treason those Boston abolitionists who helped in the escape five days earlier of the fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins.


Washington, February 20, 1851

Gentlemen, — It is a source of deep regret to me, that my public duties absolutely prohibit me from having the pleasure of accepting your invitation, in behalf of the Union Safety Committee, to attend a public dinner on the Twenty-second, in honor of that auspicious day. Auspicious indeed! All good influences, all omens of independence, liberty, free government, the creation of a nation, its prosperity, happiness, and glory, hung over the hour when the eyes of Washington first opened to the light.

You say truly, Gentlemen, that the present moment admonishes us to rally in support of his principles, to express anew our admiration of his character, and our gratitude for his parting lessons of patriotism and wisdom.

You say truly, Gentlemen, that the great duty devolving on us is that of regarding the Union as the foundation of our peace and happiness, and the Constitution as the cement of that Union. So Washington regarded them; so he conjured his fellow-citizens, in all generations, to regard them; and whenever his Farewell Address to his country shall be forgotten, and its admonitions rejected by the people of America, from that time it will become a farewell address to all the bright hopes of human liberty on earth.

Gentlemen, the character of Washington is among the most cherished contemplations of my life. It is a fixed star in the firmament of great names, shining without twinkling or obscuration, with clear, steady, beneficent light. It is associated and blended with all our reflections on those things which are near and dear to us. If we think of the independence of our country, we think of him whose efforts were so prominent in achieving it; if we think of the Constitution which is over us, we think of him who did so much to establish it, and whose administration of its powers is acknowledged to be a model for his successors. If we think of glory in the field, of wisdom in the cabinet, of the purest patriotism, of the highest integrity, public and private, of morals without a stain, of religious feelings without intolerance and without extravagance, the august figure of Washington presents itself as the personation of all these ideas.

You do well, Gentlemen, at this interesting hour, to invoke his example, to spread over all the land a knowledge of his principles among the rising generation, and fervently to pray Heaven that the spirit which was in him may also be in us.

When Washington, in behalf of the convention, presented to the old Congress and to the country that Constitution which was the production of their patriotic and assiduous labors, he made this most important declaration: “In all our deliberations npon this subject, we kept steadily in our view, that which ap pears tons the greatest interest of every true American the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence. This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds, led each State in the convention to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude than might have been otherwise expected; and thus the Constitution which we now present is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.”

And when his public career was drawing to a close, he left to his country, as his last, best gift, his most earnest and affectionate exhortation, to uphold that Union as the main pillar of independence, and to frown indignantly upon the first dawning of any attempt to dissolve it .

The advice is heeded now, and will be heeded hereafter. But, nevertheless, there are some among us on whom it is no injustice that those frowns of indignation should fall. There are those who are altogether for abandoning the Union, and alienating one portion of the country from the rest. They avow their wishes, they disclose their purposes. They open their hearts, and in those hearts there is found no pulsation for that Union which makes all Americans one people. All is but the ebbing and the flowing of the dark, unwholesome, troubled current of secession, schism, and separation.

We have seen propositions for secession formally brought forward, and solemnly discussed in the legislatures and conventions of several of the States. Other conventions are soon to be holden, under regular legislative provisions, to consider the same subject. In one important State, recent elections show that there prevails among the people almost an entire unanimity of sentiment in favor of breaking up the Union; and this dissolution of the Union, it is supposed, may not take place without conflict in arms. Munitions of war are therefore provided, schools of instruction in military tactics established, and an armed air and attitude assumed. These apprehensions of conflict, in case secession be attempted, are not only well founded, but, in my judgment, certain to be realized. Secession cannot be accomplished but by war. I do not believe those who favor it expect any other result Their hope is, that their cause and its objects may spread; and that other States, by local sympathies, or a supposed common interest, may be led to espouse it; so that the whole country may come to be divided into two great local parties, and as such to contend for the mastery.

But Providence has not forsaken us. This object, I believe, has been defeated by the measures of adjustment adopted by Congress at the last session, and by the spirit, ability, and success with which the friends of the Union have resisted it in the South. Nor have the efforts of your association, Gentlemen, been either unimportant or unavailing. Your voices have been heard throughout the whole land, and no man can doubt how the great commercial metropolis of the country feels and acts, or hereafter will feel and act, on questions involving public interests of such indescribable magnitude.

We have recently been informed, Gentlemen, of an open act of resistance to law, in the city of Boston; and if the accounts be correct of the circumstances of this occurrence, it is, strictly speaking, a case of treason. If men combine and confederate together, and by force of arms or force of numbers effectually resist the operation of an act of Congress, in its application to a particular individual, with the avowed purpose of making the same resistance to the same act in its application to all other individuals, this is levying war against the United States, and is nothing less than treason. Now, I understand that the persons concerned in this outrage in Boston avow openly their full purpose of preventing, by arms, or by the power of the multitude, the execution of process for the arrest of an alleged fugitive slave in any and all cases whatever. I am sure, Gentlemen, that shame will burn the cheeks, and indignation fill the hearts, of nineteen twentieths of the people of Boston, at the avowal of principles and the commission of outrages so abominable. Depend upon it, that, if the people of that city had been informed of any such purpose or design as was carried into effect in the court-house in Boston, on Saturday last, they would have rushed to the spot, and crushed such a nefarious project into the dust. The vast majority of the people of Boston must necessarily suffer in their feelings, but ought not to suffer at all in their character or reputation for loyalty to the Constitution, from the acts of such persons as composed the mob. I venture to say, that when you hear of them next,you will learn that, personally and collectively, as individuals, and also as represented in the city councils, they will give full evidence of their fixed purpose to wipe away, and obliterate to the full extent of their power, this foul blot on the good name of their city.

And now, Gentlemen, when projects of dissolution have taken so much of form and pressure in public bodies in the South, when lawless violence, trampling on the public authorities, stalks forth so boldly in the North, you will see that your work, highly prosperous thus far, is nevertheless not yet concluded. It is wise and patriotic, therefore, that you commemorate your love of country, strengthen your resolution to maintain the Constitution, the Union, and the laws, by uniting to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the great Father of his Country. You do well to call to memory his services, to revive in your own bosoms his love of liberty and order, and to draw in patriotic inspirations from his principles and his example. For these principles and this example, there will be found respect and admiration everywhere, where there is a true love for the institutions of the country. And every American may well doubt the patriotism of his own heart, when he finds that in that heart veneration for Washington begins to be languishing and dying away.

Gentlemen, the path of duty before you, and before me, is plain and broad; it is to do our duty and our whole duty, thoroughly and fearlessly; it is to embrace the free institutions of our country; and to hold them up, with all our might, as if it were our last struggle upon earth. And then, if the blood of civil war shall flow, it will not stain our garments. If disgraceful outrages, gaining strength by indulgence and temporary success, shall proceed from stage to stage, till they destroy the lives of men, women, and children, pull down and demolish the temples of justice, and even wrap cities in flames, you and I, and our character and memory, both now and with posterity, will at least escape the consuming conflagration of reproach. I am, Gentlemen, your much obliged servant,

Daniel Webster.

February 20, 1851
Secretary of State Daniel Webster writes a letter declining a New York group's invitation to join them in celebrating George Washington's birthday. He uses the letter to accuse of treason those Boston abolitionists who helped in the escape of the fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins.
APA Citation:
Webster, Daniel. “To the New York Committee for the Celebration of the Birthday of Washington” by Daniel Webster (February 20, 1851). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Webster, Daniel. "“To the New York Committee for the Celebration of the Birthday of Washington” by Daniel Webster (February 20, 1851)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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