What was the Hayne vs. Webster debate about in simple terms?

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larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In essence, the Hayne-Webster debate turned on a question which had troubled scholars and statesmen for many years: What was the true nature of the Union: was it a compact of the several States, or was it a compact of the people of the United States? More importantly, did a single state, in this case South Carolina, have the right to declare an Act of Congress unconstitutional? The Act of Congress in question was the Tariff of 1828 commonly known as the Tariff of Abominations.  The issue belied a more important issue. If the Union were comprised of the individual States than any State could leave the Union of its own volition; however if comprised of the people, it was inseparable.

During the debate, Hayne argued that the federal government was no more than an agent of the states; the states had the power to determine if and when their agent (the federal government) had exceeded its authority; and had possessed this power even before the Constitution was written. He relied on the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions to support his argument.

Webster argued that the Revolutionary War had been fought by united colonies, not each one individually; that sovereignty rested with the people of the United States; that the Supreme Court was the ultimate authority to decide issues of Constitutionality.

Although Hayne's argument was more sound, Webster was by far the better orator, and used his gifts in that regard to end his speech with a classic statement:

When my eyes shall be turned to behold, for the last time, the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious union…Let their last feeble and lingering glance, rather, behold the glorious ensign of the republic…blazing on all its simple folds, as they float over the sea and over the land…Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable."

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