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Morrill had shared in every stage of the struggle. Webster had been the idol of his youth; and he never found another to replace him. In recalling these events at a later period he said:
.. Webster was not a man who diminished when you came close to him. He remains in my memory as the strongest embodiment of noble appearance, as well as noble intellect and accomplishments. At the time I speak of he had made his 7th of March speech, committing himself to the compromise measures. Though it was near the end of his life, I saw no sign of physical decay. He would perhaps drink too much wine, as was the habit with a good many of our public men in those days, yet there was something antique and Roman about him, even when you could see the signs of indulgence.
I first saw him in the Senate in 1836, again in 1840 and 1848, and several times in succeeding years, but never was so fortunate as to hear him speak there at length. On one occasion, at an allnight session at which I was present, Webster, tired and sleepy, sat resting his head on his hands, and a fellow Senator signaled him out for praise. Webster still sat bent over his desk, but when he heard himself pronounced a statesman, an orator, a philosopher, a poet, he half raised his head and in a low, gruff voice interjected, “Enough! enough!” and so we all thought....I heard him make a speech in the campaign of 1840 at Orford, New Hampshire. He was ill, and spoke very briefly, and, as I remember, said in conclusion that the election of General Harrison was as certain as any event could be not yet determined. I heard him also once in Baltimore and years later in Faneuil Hall, Boston. Here it was like Burke's appeal from the New to the Old Whigs — an elaborate personal vindication for remaining in the Cabinet of John Tyler.
The Baltimore Convention nominated General Scott and adjourned; Webster's hopes were shattered: the delegates returned to their homes, and the election followed, bringing so crushing a defeat to the Whigs that they never rallied. So overwhelming was the disaster that even New England voted Democratic, only Vermont and Massachusetts sup
porting the Whig ticket. Morrill never forgot it, and all his life labored to avert dissension in the Republican Party.
By this time he had come to a place of trust and confidence in the councils of the Whigs of his district. Though he was yet but little known in the State at large, his reputation had crossed the mountains, and as early as 1852 his friend E. P. Walton, editor of the “Montpelier Watchman,” wrote him, “When we get a Western Governor you are to be Lieut. I have settled that." His labors, first as a member of the County Committee, then as a member of the State Committee, his long services on innumerable committees on resolutions, his steady, enthusiastic support of the party nominees at election after election without a thought of office or reward, had given him such prestige and weight that when an emergency occurred he was the natural choice to meet it.
In 1853 Walton again approached him, this time with the suggestion of the Senatorship. To this he replied on March 14th:
Your letter of the 12th inst., opening with the question, “Are you a candidate for U.S. Senator next fall,” has just come to hand. Frankly and at once I am not. Therein I hold myself lucky, as I shall not tax the wind of my friends to blow me up, nor the gas of my enemies to do that same in a less gracious manner. Having disposed of myself I will say this much about others: Judge Collamer I have no question would, if the case could reach him judiciously, punish as a very audacious and heinous offense any attempt to bring forward a candidate against him.”...
In 1854 the Honorable Andrew Tracy, member of Congress for the Second — Morrill's — District, on the eve of the local convention, after only a single term, declined to run again. The decision seems to have come as a complete surprise to the party leaders, and they turned spontaneously to Morrill. He has told the story himself:
In 1854, when I was forty-four years old, some of my friends came to me to say that I might go to Congress if I desired. I replied that if my county was solid for me I would enter the canvass, but otherwise I would not, as I did not want any struggle. The leaders, at a meeting held at the court-house, agreed to stand by me, and I went into the convention and was nominated with practical unanimity. I was a candidate on the regular Whig ticket, but there was a rival candidate, who as a “freesoiler," took away many votes from me and I squeezed through by a narrow margin of less than one hundred votes. In fact, his actual plurality was only fifty-nine!
It is safe to say that no party to the transaction nominators, candidate, or voters — had the least idea that they were starting a career in any way notable — least of all that it was destined to outlast all similar careers in American legislative history.
ELECTION TO CONGRESS
THE election was not without its surprises. Hitherto as a rule, the nomination of the dominant party — always, whatever its name, the conservative party — had been tantamount to election, as, in fact, it has remained in Vermont politics to the present day. But 1854 was a year of political upheaval. The Whig Party was in the throes of dissolution; the blow it had received at the Baltimore Convention in 1852 by the acceptance of the 1850 Compromise was a fatal one; the Nebraska Bill brought forward by Douglas in 1854 gave it the coup de grâce. That disclosure of the unscrupulous disposition of the Southern leaders destroyed the last hope of accommodation; it crystallized the anti-slavery sentiment of the North; it inflamed the struggle in Kansas, which in turn set the Free-Soil enthusiasm ablaze and forged the weapons for the Republican Party which was about to enter the lists.
Meantime the position of the Whigs was precarious; their ship was going down before the new vessel which was to save them was launched. To prudent, far-seeing men the FreeSoil organization seemed merely a temporary expedient that lacked the essentials of a solid or permanent party. They waited for a solution. Although Maine gave a lead when Whigs, Free-Soilers, and anti-slavery Democrats united to elect Fessenden to the Senate, New England Whigs as a rule continued undecided — a perilous position which resulted generally in party defeat. How hazardous it was appears from Morrill's experience. He had entered the canvass on the understanding that there should be no struggle for the
nomination. Every effort had been made to secure unity and agreement. His nomination by the Whig Convention on the 4th of August was greeted with general approval; an article in the “Montpelier Watchman” shows how attractive a candidate he was and how he appeared to some of his contemporaries:
A few words as to Justin S. Morrill. He is our friend; we have known him long and intimately and known him always, not merely as one of the best Whigs and the best of men, but as a Whig whose heart was always right on the slavery question. His letter below contains nothing new to us on this subject and nothing new to those who have known him well. But more. Justin S. Morrill is a genuine specimen of the Green Mountain Boys, the son of humble but honest and intelligent parents; by his own integrity and intelligence, he early won the confidence of the Honorable Jedediah H. Harris, of Strafford. By him brought up for the mercantile business, he has long been ranked among the most honorable, accurate, and successful business men of Vermont. With a rare taste for literature, his literary acquirements are excellent. Few men are better fitted for public service by acquaintance with history, especially political; and rarely have we found one so rich in quotations or so felicitous in illustrations. As a speaker, he is good, though little practiced; as a politician, liberal, honorable, and modest, always preferring to help his friends rather than himself; as a man, upright; in his habits, pure; in his manners, a gentleman; and withal, one of the cleverest fellows in the world.
But it was soon made plain that the fierce Free-Soil sentiment was not to be placated: his nomination was followed by a demand for a statement of his views on slavery.
On August 29, 1854, S. Smith, of Hartford, wrote Morrill as follows:
In behalf of the men of all parties who earnestly desire to have the anti-slavery sentiment of this district combined and who are willing to waive all their party preferences and all their objections to the exclusive party character of your nomination and give you their cordial support provided that they can be assured