Date of Award

Spring 5-16-2020

Degree Type


Degree Name

MA English




Russell Sbriglia, PhD

Committee Member

Mary M Balkun, PhD


Daniel Webster, Emerson, Stowe, Moral Sentiment


Daniel Webster, one of the most prominent politicians and orators in American history, effectively ended his political career on March 7th,1850. Webster’s support of the Compromise of 1850 included the Fugitive Slave Law, which forced Northern complicity in the return of captured fugitive slaves. Webster supported the legislation because he interpreted the law based on precedent and a notion of “natural law” determined by geography rather than morality. In this thesis, I look at how two writers of the American Renaissance, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, used literature to critique the understanding of law promoted by Webster in his “Seventh of March” speech. Both Emerson and Stowe rejected Webster’s framing of the law through precedent and nature, instead advocating for laws to be based on the “higher law” of sympathy or moral sentiment. However, these authors took different rhetorical approaches to protesting Webster’s speech. Emerson took his protest to the lectern and delivered speeches that fought Webster intellectually on his interpretation of the law. For Stowe, as Uncle Tom’s Cabin testifies, the novel was the genre she felt most effective for moving people to feel the injustices of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. In her novel, Stowe dramatizes Emerson’s claims about the higher law and shows how sympathy and moral sentiment always trumps the “positive law” of man. In the end, both Emerson and Stowe attempt to make the higher law of sympathy the law of the land as opposed to Webster’s “natural law,” and only through this framing can the law reject statutes that perpetuate the institution of slavery.