Thursday, November 1, 2012

Both Sides of an Argument: Significant Debates in Massachusetts History

Last week saw the third and final presidential debate before the 2012 November elections.  As the debates are still lingering fresh in our collective mind, now is a great time to dip back into history and take a look at some notable hot-button issues and persuasive arguments delivered by Massachusetts legislators and other well-known figures.

One significant debate, which examined the nature of the Union, largely took place between legislators Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, a Federalist, and Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina, a Republican and advocate for state sovereignty.  The argument, which came to a head in January of 1830 while on the topic of protectionist tariffs and public land, stemmed from the 1787 Constitutional Convention’s debate on the nature and purpose of the federal government.  As a solution to the 1787 question, a new Constitutional ratification positioned the government as “central to the structure of American politics.”  However, the debate of 1830 brought accusations of a federal government and Union in ruins, ultimately revealing fiery sectional discord that was seething below the surface of the political climate.  The unplanned debate between Webster and Hayne lasted from January 19th to the 27th, and Webster’s second speech in reply to Hayne is considered one of the most eloquent to ever have been delivered in Congress.  During and after the Civil War, many viewed this debate as having foreshadowed the subsequent violence that erupted between the north and south.

Another important debate was held on March 19th, 1919 in Boston’s Symphony Hall between U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, with an introductory address by then-Governor Calvin Coolidge.  The debate focused on the issue of a League of Nations as proposed in the Covenant of Paris, which both men agreed was in need of ratification, and whether the U.S. should or should not participate in such an organization.  Lodge, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, was not supportive of U.S. involvement in the proposed League and felt that it would only serve to engender friction between nations; instead, he called for a league that would seek general disarmament and aim to “secure the future peace of the world”.  Lowell argued that nations should work together and form a greater understanding of one another, which would therefore decrease friction.  It was believed that both sides were in close enough agreement that, once ratifications were made to the covenant, the U.S. would eventually join the League.  However, the United States did not participate in an international organization until the formation of the United Nations at the conclusion of WWII in 1945.

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department