In 1853 the Massachusetts legislature elected Everett to the U.S. Senate. He spoke against the Kansas-Nebraska Bill but was absent when the vote on it was taken. Though he pleaded illness, his constituents were outraged, and Everett resigned, having served but fifteen months of his six-year term. For the rest of the 1850s, Everett was cast in the politically futile role of a moderate in a time of polarization. A Burkean conservative dedicated to balance and harmony, he felt the Union was being torn apart by ideological extremism. Holding no office, Everett traveled about the country giving speeches designed to foster nationalist sentiments, the most famous of them being "The Character of Washington," which he delivered 135 times. In 1860 Everett was the vice presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union party, the last gasp of the Whigs, though he entertained no illusions about his chance of winning. The Constitutional Union ticket, headed by John Bell of Tennessee, ran fairly well in the South, where it provided an acceptable vehicle for southern Whigs, but most northern Whigs had by this time transferred their allegiance to the new Republican party.
Once Fort Sumter had been fired upon, Everett ceased to be a moderate of any sort; his nationalism now dictated strong support for the war effort. Accordingly, the elder statesman embarked on another round of speech making, rallying northern public opinion.