Geoffrey R. Kirsch is a Ph.D. candidate in the Harvard University Department of English, where he focuses on 19th and early 20th century American literature and its intersections with legal and political history. His writing has appeared in American Literary Realism; Law, Culture and the Humanities; the Los Angeles Review of Books; The New England Quarterly; and the Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Journal. He previously earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and practiced law in Boston before returning to academia. He is a native of Concord, NH.
The long and storied Senate career of New Hampshire’s favorite political son came to an ignominious end with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. After Daniel Webster endorsed the notoriously harsh law as part of a broader compromise meant to forestall civil war, his constituents turned on him as a modern-day Lucifer. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who formerly admired Webster as “the completest man” and “the conscience of the country,” now accused Webster of having “no moral sentiment” and lamented that he had “betrayed the North to please the South.” And after the fugitives Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns were arrested in Boston and forcibly returned to slavery under federal protection, Emerson, like many once-reluctant northerners, embraced radical, militant abolitionism, replacing Webster with John Brown in his pantheon of American heroes. This presentation uses the reactions of Emerson and other contemporaries as a lens through which to view Webster’s downfall, and addresses the following questions: Why did Webster support the Fugitive Slave Act as a means of preserving the Union, and why did it backfire? How does the explosion of antislavery sentiment after 1850 parallel the political polarization and social justice activism of 2020? And how, ultimately, should we assess Webster’s legacy at our own politically fraught moment?
New Hampshire Humanities programs are made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this these programs do not necessarily represent those of the NEH or New Hampshire Humanities.