The “Union” an 1852 engraving by Henry S. Sadd after a painting by Tomkins Harrison Matteson. This print was issued to commemorate the Compromise of 1850. That political consensus was seen by many as the resolution of the tempest over the contentious issue of free and slave states that had been tearing the country apart. Matteson’s image was a celebration of this compromise which it was hoped would save the Union.
In Matteson’s painting the individuals involved in the compromise are shown seated in a formal setting. The two major protagonists, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, along with “The Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay are most prominent, shown surrounding a bust of Washington, the former two with their hands on a copy of the United States Constitution. Arrayed around them are other important participants in the compromise, including Lewis Cass, Winfield Scott, Sam Houston and Millard Fillmore.
The symbolism of the print is extensive. Liberty blesses the group from above, while in the background the American eagle helps to part curtains to reveal the Utopia that the strengthened Union was seen as now proceeding towards. In the lower right corner Fillmore is shown holding an American shield above the ‘thrown down’ royal crown and scepter, a symbol of America’s struggles of the past. This is a wonderful print celebrating this important agreement in American history.
Alas, despite the print’s hopeful prognosis, the Compromise of 1850 was ultimately a failure, for the issue of slavery and its extension to new states continued to fester, leading within a decade to the secession of 11 states and then in April 1861, the fall of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War. This was followed by a swell of enthusiasm in the North for the Union; a popular wave that print publishers were quick to try to ride.