Daniel Webster and John Greenleaf Whittier were contemporaries, moreover – both were involved into politics as well as social movements, so that Webster’s ‘7th of March Speech’ and Whittier’s ‘Ichabod’ and ‘The Lost Occasion’ are unquestionably close-knit and express the two opposing sides of the same problem – slavery and discrimination. First of all, let’s examine the social content in which both writers created their creative essays and poems and the degree of engagement of both ‘writing activists’ into the contemporary political process.
The first and foremost statement to be made is the fact of the development of secessionism, whose followers insisted on the division between South and North because of substantial difference between these regions – primarily because of the utilization of slave labor on the South and the avoidance of slavery in the northern states. “The clew to what actually happened in 1850 lies in the course of such an ardent Southerner as, for example, Langdon Cheeves. Early in the year, he was a leading secessionist, but at the close of the year a leading anti-secessionist.
His change of front, forced upon him by his own thinking about the situation was a bitter disappointment to himself. What animated his was a deep desire to take the whole South out of the Union” (Foster, 1922, p. 247). In fact, the political leader altered his course in order to adjust to the situation in Virginia, the center of political life, which dictated policies to the rest of the states: due to the fact that the most part of the state, including social movements, turned from secessionism to strict anti-secession philosophy, therefore imposing this approach to political regime to the most conscious and successful politicians (ibid).
Literally, an earthquake occurred in political circles, as searching for the compromise between their earlier political convictions and the demands of the new epoch, they needed new tools of influence on broader politically conscious community – Daniel Webster resolved his problem through writing his ‘7th of March Speech’ that clarified his views and offered additional means of unity and integrity.
Another purpose of the speech is much more ambiguous: looking into Webster’s biography, it is easy to notice that he was a statesman in 1941, but in 1943 the politician was forced to leave the cabinet – perhaps his speech was also was aimed at the reinforcement of his own position as a politician and the improvement of his political image.
Furthermore, after the war with Mexico that took place in 1845, the ‘writing politician’ was literally torn in two: on the one hand, he opposed the expansion of slavery, caused by the war, on the other hand, he recognized that the United states lacked factual unity and decided to act in support of federalism, finding therefore a peculiar balance between his beliefs in freedom and equality regardless of skin color and his strong aspiration to build the true union. Surprisingly, after this speech, his reputation was completely restored and Webster was named secretary of state in the same year.
“Webster’s anxiety for a conciliatory settlement of the highly dangerous Texas boundary situation (which incidentally narrowed slave territory was as consistent with the national union policy, as his desires for California’s admission as a free state and for prohibition of the slave-trade in the District of Columbia were in accord with his opposition to slavery” (ibid, p. 258). In fact, both secessionists and abolitionists were regarded his as notorious, so that their efforts to great extent interpreted by him as attempts to spread the influence of the Trojan horse of radicalism across the country (Peterson, 2000).
In his famous speech Webster charges both groups with the poor observance of their constitutional responsibilities (Webster, at jollyroger. com, 2000). Both abolitionists and secessionists mentioned disintegration and disunity as the tool of ending this political and military war between the North and South, but the actual message Webster wishes to convey is that this position is destructive, rather than constructive, as the United States had been struggling for their independence from the Old World and unity for more than a century- are these efforts in vain? (ibid).
Webster writes: “The Union…was through to be in danger, and devotion to the Union rightfully inclined men to yield…where nothing else could have so inclined them” (ibid), and in the following years to controlled the observance of the Fugitive Slave Act, the major point of the debate. According to Foster’s writing, “Webster’s stand alienated antislavery forces and divided the Whig party, but it helped to preserve the Union’ (Foster, 1922, p. 265). ‘Ichabod’ and ‘The Lost Occasion’ were the two responses created by Whittier with regard to the transformation of Webster’s worldview.
Whittier viewed Webster as a betrayer of abolitionism, whose conflict-mongering speech split antislavery movement and placed additional repressions of fugitive slaves. Whittier’s comments on the poems are full of sadness and disappointment: although he admires Webster as a talented politician, he recognizes himself incapable of admitting ‘7th of March Speech’ due to its accusations placed upon the Abolitionist movement, viewed by Webster as threatening to break the Union.
Importantly, Whittier followed antislavery course through his entire life span, first struggled for the improvement of slavery-related conditions and on the reduction of penalties for fugitive slaves, but after the creation of the speech he began to insist on the complete abolition of slavery as shameful and disgraceful phenomenon (Lancashire, 1998). In ‘Ichabod’ the poet probably depicted American nation, which had been glorious and pride a long ago, but finally lost its fame and honor (ibid).
The writer asserts that honor is a basic precondition for successful functioning – this statement is valid for both separate individual and American society in general, as the nation that uses slavery as major economic and political tool, is doomed to infamy, to ‘bad reputation’ label. An individual, who respects him/herself naturally has the same feeling for other, regardless of their race and skin color, but those dividing human-beings into ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ have no honor and ability to judge themselves appropriately (Peterson, 2000): “So fallen! so lost! the light withdrawn/Which once he wore!” (Whittier, at assumption. edu, 2001).
‘Ichabod’ is saturated with emotions, but after the years of considerations and reflections his rage subsided and Whittier understood he was to great extent unjust to Webster, who didn’t actually act in defense of slavery. “Those who read it should read also ‘The Lost Occasion’, written thirty years later, which Whittier placed next to ‘Ichabod’ in the final edition of his poems. So he tried to right a wrong (unfortunately after the victim was dead) by offering generous tribute to the statesman he had once misjudged” (Peterson, 2000, p. 186).
‘The Lost occasion’ appears a final apology addressed to the person, who will never hear it: ”And evermore that mountain mass/Seems climbing from the shadowy pass/To light as if to manifest/Thy nobler self, thy life at best! ” ( Whittier, at wikisource. org, 2002). Although the poem resembles an ode, it in fact disguises the author’s despair due to the inability to correct the mistake: describing Webster as Olympian, Whittier shows that he will never become truly equal to the person of such virtue and wisdom.
To sum up, John G. Whittier’s attacks on Webster’s political views finally turned out invalid and untrue, as the politician finally showed himself as humanist and outstanding statesman, and Whittier’s ultimate apology in ‘The Lost Occasion’ can serve as a brilliant example of the individual’s blindness and the need for multifacated and many-sided moral evaluation of the acts, conducted by the another person.