Questions of party have, as a rule, found but little place in the constitutional assemblies of Massachusetts. This was peculiarly the case in 1820, when the old political divisions were dying out, and new ones had not yet been formed. At the same time widely opposite views found expression in the convention. The movement toward thorough and complete democracy was gathering headway, and directing its force against many of the old colonial traditions and habits of government embodied in the existing Constitution. That portion of the delegates which favored certain radical changes was confronted and stoutly opposed by those who, on the whole, inclined to make as few alterations as possible, and desired to keep things about as they were. Mr. Webster, as was natural, was the leader of the conservative party, and his course in this convention is an excellent illustration of this marked trait in his disposition and character.
One of the important questions concerned the abolition of the profession of Christian faith as a qualification for holding office. On this point the line of argument pursued by Mr. Webster is extremely characteristic. Although an unvarying conservative throughout his life, he was incapable of bigotry, or of narrow and illiberal views. At the same time the process by which he reached his opinion in favor of removing the religious test shows more clearly than even ultra-conservatism could, how free he was from any touch of the reforming or innovating spirit. He did not urge that, on general principles, religious tests were wrong, that they were relics of the past and in hopeless conflict with the fundamental doctrines of American liberty and democracy. On the contrary, he implied that a religious test was far from being of necessity an evil. He laid down the sound doctrine that qualifications for office were purely matters of expediency, and then argued that it was wise to remove the religious test because, while its principle would be practically enforced by a Christian community, it was offensive to some persons to have it engrafted on the Constitution. The speech in which he set forth these views was an able and convincing one, entirely worthy of its author, and the removal of the test was carried by a large majority. It is an interesting example of the combination of steady conservatism and breadth of view which Mr. Webster always displayed. But it also brings into strong relief his aversion to radical general principles as grounds of action, and his inborn hostility to far-reaching change.