Webster's Speeches

SINCE the publication of the six volumes of the Works of Daniel Webster in 1851, under the faithful editorship of Edward Everett, there has been no available compilation of Webster’s speeches. The Everett edition is, and will always be, the standard edition ; it is the work on which Mr. Webster’s fame rests ; but it is too large and costly for general use. Kow we have in one volume a selection of the Great Speeches 1 of Mr. Webster, comprising the best examples of his forensic and parliamentary eloquence, together with some of the occasional addresses, which in the last generation carried the fame of English eloquence to a higher point than had been known since Edmund Burke, and in some of the nobler attributes of eloquence surpassing even that mighty master of human speech.

The selections in the new volume show Mr. Webster at his best; and his best will be always worthy of the study of every one, young or old, who has a stake in public life, or interest in the literature and history of the country. In the close and commanding power of his reasoning, in elevation of thought and purpose, in grandeur and purity of style, the great speeches and orations have their place assured, without rivalry, as models of what public eloquence ought to be. Mr. Webster aimed always, and rarely failed, to adapt himself to his task ; and if the task were a great one, he was the more sure to rise to the full height of its requirements. All the forces of nature in him seemed to impel him upward, until he reached the highest point of intellectual achievement without apparent effort of his own.

It has been said of him — indeed, it would be folly to attempt to say anything new — that in his forensic arguments, like that in the Dartmouth College case, in the trial of the Knapps at Salem, and others too strictly professional to find a place in the volume before us, he spoke as if he were never anything but a lawyer; and in public debates, like that on Foote’s Resolution, the powers of the executive, the constitution not a compact, the United States Bank, and the like, as if be were always and only a statesman. There have been public speakers of momentary reputation endowed with principles without eloquence, and with what passes for eloquence without principles. Mr. Webster had both. About the one great principle which was the light of his public life he built up those massive and magnificent arguments which, as Mr, Whipple suggests in his interesting essay, might be carried by mining and siege, but could never be approached by direct assault.

With his logical power and abundant learning he possessed also imagination and a lively sensibility. He saw the just proportions of things ; he was never betrayed by appearances. He had no tricks of speech. He indulged in no subtleties. To every kind of rhetorical artifice he was a stranger. In the great speeches one is struck first by their logical order, then by their clearness and power of statement. Unexpected flashes of imagination light them up here and there, never distracting or misleading, but guiding the attention straight on to the end he is pursuing. When we come to his memorial addresses, we come into another atmosphere and a world of new emotions. Reading the Plymouth oration of 1820, one cannot help even now a rush of sympathy with the fervor of old John Adams, when he exclaimed, “ It ought to be read at the close of every century, and indeed at the end of every year, forever and ever ! ”

The two speeches in reply to Hayne mark the highest point of Mr. Webster’s genius. In other speeches, especially in his more formal orations, there are passages of more sustained and lofty eloquence, reasoning as close and invincible, mastery of many of the conditions of successful oratory ; but here all were united. The hour and the man came together ; elaborate preparation there was none. He was occupied at the time with important engagements in the supreme court. Many cares were pressing upon him. The exigency arose almost without warning. Webster alone was expected to meet the crisis. If he failed, the cause would be lost. It was a great occasion, and he rose to it. As we read the speeches to-day, and realize once more the circumstances under which they were made, — though half a century has passed away, carrying with it the personal interests and enthusiasm of the time, — it is impossible, at least for a New Englander, not to feel again something of the glow and uplifting of that hour of supreme triumph. The unanswerable argument of these speeches reappears again and again in The Constitution not a Compact between Sovereign States, in repeated discussions with Mr. Calhoun, and in many of his popular addresses. No one can pretend to have mastered the argument on the distribution and limits of constitutional powers who is not familiar with them.

The generation now in active life, or passing to the shadowy side of it, came upon the stage in the midst of the personal strifes growing out of the conflict with slavery. Those who were disappointed by Mr. Webster’s course from 1848 to the close of his life — and the disappointment was grievous and bitter — forgot, or refused to learn, the service he had rendered to the country by his matchless vindication of the constitution, and his defense of the integrity and indivisibility of the Union. Poetry and philanthropy united to disparage him, and the rising political tide at last overwhelmed him. He was not born for revolution. He was the orator and advocate of constitutional order, of government, of laws, and of loyal submission to their authority, until they could be changed by the force of reason, acting upon the hearts and consciences as well as upon the intellectual convictions of men. That was his gospel; he had lived by it, and was content to die by it. He hated secession in every fibre, and with every attribute of his nature. He foresaw the ominous shadow from the beginning. He resisted its coming in every form and with every weapon he could use effectively. But he hated with equal energy the spirit of disunion among his own people. He was moved with equal indignation by the cry rung in his ears whenever he returned to Massachusetts, that “the constitution was a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” His whole life had been a warfare for the constitution as the guaranty and bulwark of civil liberty on this continent; and when he saw the North and the South, with their discordant views of constitutional power, moving steadily in opposite directions, the gulf opening and widening between them, it is not difficult to realize why be should have been resolved to stand upon the ground he had deliberately chosen until it sank beneath him. He foresaw more clearly than most of his contemporaries what secession and disunion meant. His marvelous vision swept over the chasm — more terrible than the

“ Gulf profound
Betwixt Damiata and Mount Casius old,” —

toward which they were blindly hastening, thoughtless of consequences. He saw in it the wreck of all his hopes, the realization of all his fears. He saw the beauty and glory of our nation drawn into it, never to rise again. If he could have spanned the chasm, and seen that there was still hope beyond it, and had used his great talents to shape and control the conflict then driving us towards it, the result might not have been different ; but his fame would have survived the shock, and escaped much of the unreasoning wrath that assailed it in his dying hour. His last appeal, except that contained in his address at the laying of the corner-stone of the addition to the Capitol, in July, 1851, was to the patriotism of his countrymen, —an appeal which would have been inspiring under any other circumstances, — made not for a day or a generation, but for all who were to come afterward. “ Let us make our generation,” he said, “ one of the strongest and brightest links in that golden chain which is destined, I fondly believe, to grapple the people of all the States to this constitution for ages to come. We have a great, popular, constitutional government, guarded by law and by judicature, and defended by the affections of the whole people. No monarchical throne presses these States together, no iron chain of military power encircles them ; they live and stand under a government popular in its form, representative in its character, founded upon principles of equality, and so constructed, we hope, as to last forever. In all its history it has been beneficent; it has trodden down no man’s liberty ; it has crushed no State. Its daily respiration is liberty and patriotism; its yet youthful veins are full of enterprise, courage, and honorable love of glory and renown. Large before, the country has now, by recent events, become vastly larger. This republic now extends, with a vast breadth, across the whole continent. The two great seas of the world wash one and the other shore. We realize, on a mighty scale, the beautiful description of the ornamental border of the buckler of Achilles : —

“1 Now, the broad shield complete, the artist crowned
With his last hand, and poured the ocean round;
In living silver seemed the waves to roll,
And beat the buckler’s verge, and bound the whole.'”

There is a deep pathos in this 7th of March speech. It is wholly wanting in the confident tone and temper, “ the majestic inward calm,” that was usual with him. In endeavoring to balance the grievances between the North and the South, he is conscious of standing on uncertain ground, and he feels that his argument is making no impression. The conflict had passed into an arena with whose motives and sentiments he was not familiar, and into which he was unwilling to enter. He had cast in his lot with the constitution as he understood it, with all its implied guaranties to slavery, and he would not stir from it though the heavens fell. For him the fall came soon. But more fortunate than most statesmen who fail to keep in accord with their times, he had already built an imperishable monument, which no changes in political opinion or in political institutions could disturb. It still remains and will long remain for the admiration of mankind, when many who thought themselves wise in their day have passed on with their works to the limbo prepared for the multitude whom the world is willing to “let die.”

Mr. Whipple’s essay on Daniel Webster as a Master of English Style is an excellent example of his power of critical analysis. He weighs intellectual products, not by wholesale, but with conscientious discrimination, in which long practice has made him an expert. The result is worthy of the place it holds in this noble volume. To a new generation who will be brought to an acquaintance with the Great Speeches for the first time Mr. Whipple’s discourse upon them will be of much value. It is well calculated to give an intelligent understanding of the elements of Mr. Webster’s genius, and at the same time to promote a more sympathetic appreciation of his heart and character.

The volume has a good index, intelligently made, and increasing its value for general use.

  1. The Great Speeches and Orations of Daniel Webster. With an Essay on Daniel Webtser as a Master of English Style. By EDWIN P. WHIPPLE, Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1879.