American statesman and lawyer
1782 - 1852
Daniel Webster, American statesman and lawyer, was born in Salisbury (area now in Franklin), New Hampshire, January 18, 1782. His parents were rugged New England farming people. Daniel was the delicate one of the family, and not particularly inclined to farm work. From childhood, however, he loved out-of-door life, was exceedingly fond of hunting and fishing, and unusually skillful at them, and this taste, which became strong in his youth, clung to him through all his long career.
His early schooling was primitive. But he had a passion for books of all sorts. Bits of the poets and illustrations from the great historians were always ready to his hand when he needed them and came out with singular appropriateness in later years. It has been suggested that he was indolent. So was Sir Walter Scott. But Scott could do more work in a day than other men in a week; and so could Webster. His mind seized the essence of things.
These intellectual gifts were so manifest that Webster's father made great sacrifices to send the boy to Phillips Academy, Exeter, and then to Dartmouth College. His college record was good, but not remarkable; like many men of genius, he preferred other things to the appointed task. It is said that in the early days he was reluctant to speak in public, but toward the end of his college career he was known as something of an orator and debater, and when he was 18, a year before his graduation in 1801, he was invited to deliver the Fourth of July address for the town of Hanover. Some of these early speeches have been preserved, and while crude, they suggest what was to come.
With a mind like Webster's the law seemed the inevitable vocation, and the little teaching he did was merely a means to an end. As was the custom in those days, he went into the office of a practicing lawyer in Boston, and the invaluable training of Christopher Gore no doubt went far in making his pupil the great lawyer that he later became. He was admitted to the bar in 1805, and in 1807 settled into practice in Portsmouth. Of his jury triumphs the best known is that in the White murder case. His most celebrated plea before the Supreme Court in Washington is that for Dartmouth College, in 1818, when the personal touches, notably, "It is, as I have said, a small college, and yet there are those who love it," so affected all present that it was said of Chief Justice Marshall that "the deep furrows of his cheek expanded with emotion and his eyes suffused with tears."
Party passions, together with the power of his tongue, naturally took Webster into politics. It is said that even in childhood he began to study the Constitution as printed on a cotton handkerchief. From 1813 to 1817 he was a member of the House of Representatives. New England at that time was bitterly opposed to the Madison administration, to the Democratic Party, and especially to the war with England, and Webster's eloquence was used unsparingly to express these New England prejudices, though he cannot be connected with the more or less disloyal Hartford Convention. At this early period, in curious contrast to his later views and arguments, he was hostile to a protective tariff, feeling that it would complete the ruin of the New England shipping interests, already sufficiently imperilled by the cost of war.
While he was out of politics, from 1817 to 1823, Webster devoted himself energetically and profitably to the practice of law. During these years he was making his great reputation as a historical orator. In 1820 he delivered the bi-centennial speech at Plymouth, celebrating the landing of the Pilgrims, and it is probable that in the line of general eloquence he never reached a greater height than this. The address delivered on the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, in 1825, was another of these historical tributes, equally successful and well known. On August 2, 1826, Webster gave, in Faneuil Hall, Boston, the eulogy on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who had both died nearly a month earlier on the Fourth of July.
In 1823 Webster again was sent to the House of Representatives, and in 1827 to the U.S. Senate, where he was to play so great a part for many years. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had for the time apparently settled the question of slavery, but in reality the rift between the two sections of the country had been opened, and it was not ever really to be closed again until after the Civil War.
Webster's position with regard to slavery was taken at this time and in spite of his conduct in later years, it cannot be said that his theoretical attitude was ever altered. He believed, as did so many good men and leaders, both North and South, that slavery was an evil, disastrous to the white race as well as to the black. The earlier great men of the South in the main held this view, and it was left for John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, under the controlling influence of cotton, to declare that the enslavement of the blacks was ordained by God for the benefit of everybody. But Webster believed first of all in the Constitution. The Constitution recognized slavery, and therefore it was impossible to meddle with it, except to see that its increase and spread were discouraged by every means that the Constitution would permit.
On the other sectional issue, that of the tariff, which most Southerners considered even more vital than slavery, inasmuch as it meant the growing triumph of the industrial North over the agricultural South, Webster was more aggressive, and distinctly advocated the high protection which the Southern leaders felt to be fatal to their prosperity. In his quarrel with the South Webster heartily supported Andrew Jackson, but there was no friendship between them. Webster was an aristocratic Whig of the old school, Jackson an aggressive Democrat of the America to come, and over the bank (national federal bank) and other things they came into violent conflict. It should be added that Webster's most serious contributions to political thought are to be found in his discussion of strictly financial matters. Moreover, when Jackson left office in 1836, Webster held aspirations to become President but his positions on financial policy did not resonate well with the general public. Many biographers deny Webster's ambition. He just wanted to serve his country, they say; he wanted to be where he could be of the greatest use. It is the old story, and no one has ever yet succeeded in disentangling the personal from the patriotic motive in these matters. Indeed, Webster's words to his friend Plumer penned many years earlier: "I have done absolutely nothing. At 30 Alexander had conquered the world; and I am 40." It is unreasonable to assume that a few years of service in the U.S. Senate would have quenched such a thirst.
Martin Van Buren was elected, and Webster passed by, and for a time he turned his thoughts to private life. He had been twice married, first in 1808, to Grace Fletcher, a love-match; second in 1829, to Caroline Le Roy. He had an expensive family, and his own tastes were expensive. He liked social life of all sorts, and social life was costly. He liked eating and drinking, especially the latter. He was happy on his great farms, in Franklin and at Marshfield.
With the failure of his immediate political ambitions, Webster turned his attention to more general matters, and grew anxious to see something of Europe. The embassy to England had always tempted him, and it was even said that he maneuvered to get his friend Everett out of the position so as to succeed him. This came to nothing, but in 1839 Webster arranged a trip across the water and he was received by his English friends with every possible attention and courtesy.
Returning from abroad, Webster found the election of 1840 impending, but his own hopes and aspirations were completely submerged in the spectacular success of William H. Harrison, with the log-cabin and hard cider and Tippecanoe campaign furor. Again it was evident that, widely as Webster was esteemed and respected, he had not the faculty of personal leadership. Men praised him, but they did not vote for him. Instead of the Presidency, he was forced to settle for the position of Secretary of State, to which he was appointed by Harrison, and upon Harrison's death one month later, continued under the new President, John Tyler. Tyler soon got into trouble with his Whig Cabinet, and they all left him but Webster, who incurred some odium by remaining. His plea was that he wished to complete the negotiation with England about the north-eastern boundary of the United States. This was settled with Lord Ashburton by the treaty of 1842, an arrangement which was entirely satisfactory to neither party, and was therefore probably as fair a compromise as could have been devised. This is notable as being almost the only great constructive achievement of Webster's career.
After the treaty was disposed of, Webster retired from the cabinet and for a time again disappeared into private life. The clouds seemed to be gathering about him in many ways. The deaths of his children, culminating in that of his daughter Julia, were a terrible grief to him. His money complications increased, and though his earning power was as great as ever, his gift for spending more than kept pace with it.
When he returned to the Senate in 1845, the political world was as dark as his own surroundings. He was personally attacked with charges of dishonesty during his secretary-ship. Congressional investigation cleared him of all but carelessness, yet men always spoke of him with a slur or an apology from the financial point of view. The menace of the Mexican War was confusing everything, and making the issue of slavery more threatening and more difficult to deal with. Webster, like Clay and Calhoun, opposed the war, but he sent his son to fight and die, as did Clay also.
The vast accession of territory that resulted from the defeat of Mexico brought all sorts of slavery complications with it. Webster took an active part in these, being in the main anxious to have slavery repressed and limited, so far as this was compatible with the Constitution. But when, in 1850, Clay brought forward his compromise measures, in the desperate attempt to avert actual civil conflict, Webster joined him, and the combined influence of the two, after months of heated debate, prevailed to have the compromise accepted. Webster's course was abused with the utmost violence by the anti-slavery section of the North, and Whittier's wail over Ichabod gave abuse literary dignity and permanence. The Senator was accused of having betrayed every high principle, in the vain hope of getting the South to support him for the Presidency.
In 1850 Millard Fillmore became President upon the death of Zachary Taylor. Fillmore appointed Webster as Secretary of State and Webster filled this office until the condition of his health became so critical that work of any kind was out of the question. Perhaps the most notable of his later official acts was his sharp correspondence with the Austrian chargé Hülsemann in regard to the affairs of Hungary. Webster died on October 24, 1852.
The details of Webster's death have been recorded with curious minuteness by his biographer, Curtis. The dying statesman first delivered a senatorial oration on religious matters, perhaps, like most of his talk on such subjects, more eloquent than convincing. The exhaustion of this prostrated him for the moment. When he again came to himself, his words were: "Have I--wife, son, doctor, friends, are you all here?--have I, on this occasion, said anything unworthy of Daniel Webster?" And the audience unanimously answered, "no." It would be hard to find a more fitting final utterance for a man who had lived for 50 years in a statuesque pose.
Yet it is fair also to remember that Webster's last preoccupation on the less personal side was with his country, and he directed that the American flag should be kept flying at the masthead of his little yacht, with a light cast upon it at night, so that he could see it as long as he could see anything.
Webster's writings, complete ed., 18 vols., 1903.
Webster correspondence, Van Tyne, (1902).
Life, by Curtis, 2 vols., (1869).
"Life," in the "American Statesman" series. H. C. Lodge.
"The True Daniel Webster," by Fisher (1911).
SOURCE: ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA
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