Lodge's Webster

WHEN Mr. Lodge published his memoir of his great-grandfather, George Cabot, it was thought best by Miss Dodge (Gail Hamilton) to write a great many columns in successive numbers of a New York newspaper, in order to point out that the book did not deserve a moment’s attention. Many people, as she justly remarked, bad already forgotten who George Cabot was. Miss Dodge undoubtedly knows her own circle better than we ; and some of her friends may already have forgotten who Daniel Webster was. This is, however, an argument which works both ways. We once knew a young Irish damsel, who, on being urged to study arithmetic, declined the proposition, on the apparently irrelevant ground that arithmetic was a subject of which she knew nothing whatever. It is supposed to be one object of history to redeem eminent names from the risk of oblivion, and it is well worth while to do this in the case of Daniel Webster, although it cannot quite be said of the present work, as was said by Mr. George Bancroft in respect to the Life of George Cabot, that it is the most valuable contribution made to American history for many years.

The American Statesmen series considered as a whole might almost merit Mr. Bancroft’s strong phrase of praise, if we include in historical art the quality of popularization as well as that of research. Taken together, they present the history of the United States in its clearest and simplest form, and are to Bancroft and Hildreth as Plutarch’s Lives to Thucydides. They are fresh, lucid, accurate, judicial, condensed. Mr. Morse’s John Quincy Adams still stands at the head of the series; it is the only one of which it can positively be said that it is difficult to lay it down; but the present volume is by no means the least good, and it is to be remembered that its theme offers greater difficulties, in some respects, than any other yet handled by Mr. Morse’s authors. For one thing, it comes nearer to the present time and touches more living prejudices; and it is also a drawback that it has none of those episodes of foreign diplomatic life which impart some variety to the other volumes. Its value has to be secured by a more careful and continuous analysis of intellectual work; nevertheless the interest is sustained, and it is undoubtedly from this book that the rising generation will mainly form its judgment of Webster. Mr. Curtis’s more elaborate memoir, however painstaking and meritorious, is but one long course of adulation, without criticism, discrimination, or perspective.

Sharing the merits of the series to which it belongs, the present volume shares also their one chief defect, — the absence of what Mr. Lodge himself calls (page 241) “historical scenery.” He attributes this want to the period treated, but we should charge it, in part, to a defect in the method of these books, or in their writers. Mr. Lodge truly says, “ The political questions, the debates, the eloquence, of that day give us no idea of the city in which the history was made, or of the life led by the men who figured in that history ” (page 241). These books, as it strikes us, do very little to remedy that defect. We are here introduced to a world where every man appears to spend his life either in talking law and politics, or in acting them out. But these same men existed in a private and domestic world likewise ; they all had mothers ; they generally had wives and children. The places where they lived had a social atmosphere, however crude : even Washington had a marked society of its own ; it had dinner parties and levees ; it had drinking-bouts, gambling, and duels; it was, like all spheres of social life, largely under the influence of women. But we seldom obtain a glimpse, in these books, of anything that is not grave, serious, and masculine. It is rarely that a woman’s name appears in the index of subjects at the end of the volume; whereas a corresponding English book would be pretty sure to contain the names of twenty, and a French biography would probably offer more.

This may be partly due to the greater political seclusion of American women, but nobody can say that they are socially secluded, or that it is possible to depict society without the aid of their keen eyes. We know John Adams best through his correspondence with two women, his wife and Mercy Warren. Mrs. Josiah Quincy paints the influences which surrounded her husband as the Federalist leader at Washington, and does it better than he could have done it for himself. When she describes to us the winning way in which she and Mr. Quincy were treated “in the enemy’s camp,” as she calls it, — Mrs. Madison’s dinner-parties, where they were the only Federalists, — she opens to us what was a very potent influence in bringing on the era of good feeling. When she represents Mrs. Madison as saying to a party of ladies who had been covertly inspecting the White House, “Ladies, it is your house as much as it is mine,” she illustrates, better than it was done by any speech in Congress, the democratic tendencies inaugurated by the policy of Jefferson ; for neither Mrs. Washington nor Mrs. Adams would have been likely to say anything of the kind. Nor is the social bitterness between Federalist and Democrat to be as well discerned in any political debate as in Miss Sedgwick’s description, in her Reminiscence of Federalism, of the old horse which used to wander peacefully up and down a certain village street in New England, his sides alternately plastered with handbills of opposite politics, according as he paced toward the upper or the lower end of the town. To write the biographies even of statesmen, and omit the world of women, is a serious fault; it is to leave out the part of Ophelia.

In Mr. Lodge’s Webster,2 there are more glimpses of historic scenery than in some of the other volumes of the series. He at least consents to give us a graphic picture of Mr. Webster’s early life and love; and even hints, in one place, at his demeanor toward children. He perhaps analyzes too minutely the successive speeches or arguments, yet he gives us effectively the gradual development of his hero’s remarkable career, and presents a being far more alive and interesting than that portrayed by Mr. Curtis. We see first the tall and awkward country boy, with fiery eyes and hungry heart ; we see him brought in contact with refinement and worldly experience as embodied in Christopher Gore ; we follow his gradual march to the command of listening senates ; we recognize his fall from his early apostleship of freedom ; we trace his melancholy but still stately old age. Nothing is extenuated, nothing set down in malice ; there is not even the commonest foible of the biographer, the crotchet of a new attitude or self-important discovery ; the sad tale of a great, faulty, disappointed life is conscientiously and simply told.

Mr. Lodge’s delineation of Mr. Webster’s personal traits is not merely truthful; it is felicitous, and abounds in graphic and salient passages. It is possible that he sometimes lacks condensation, and that he sometimes repeats himself ; but his own summings-up and obiter dicta are almost always admirable. When, for instance, he shows that Mr. Webster’s triumph in the Dartmouth College case was not due, as has generally been supposed, to a great discovery in constitutional law, but to magnificent rhetoric based upon a brief which others had provided, he characterizes the great orator’s method in a few admirable words,— “his indolent and royal temperament, which almost always relied on weight and force for victory ” (page 98). And no one ever stated the extraordinary effect of Mr. Webster’s personal presence better than when our author says (page 192), “There is no man in all history who came into the world so equipped physically for speech. In that direction nature could do no more.” Nor has any man pointed out more clearly than Mr. Lodge the gradual change in public opinion which transformed the Union from the recognized experiment of 1789 to the solid finality of 1833. “ Whatever the people of the United States understood the constitution to mean in 1789, there can be no question that a majority in 1833 regarded it as a fundamental law. and not as a compact, — an opinion which has now become universal. But it was quite another thing to argue that what the constitution had come to mean was what it meant when it was adopted ” (page 217 ; compare pages 170-7).

In a few cases, as it seems to us, Mr. Lodge has not quite made the most of his opportunities. There are important aspects of Mr. Webster’s life on which his biographer does not dwell. Mr. Lodge analyzes admirably, for example, the bearing in certain directions of the famous Rockingham County (N. H.) Memorial against the war of 1812, as drawn up by Mr. Webster. But the point of that memorial which best illustrates the peculiar attitude both of the Federalists and of their spokesman is that there is not a word of remonstrance offered respecting the one great grievance of the war, — the insult to the American flag implied in the practice of search and impressment. The ignominious national disgrace of allowing any ship in our service to be overhauled and searched by any British midshipman, — he being, in the indignant phrase of Cobbett, at once accuser, witness, judge, and captor, — this is not even mentioned in the Federalist protest against the war. So long as the young republic submitted to this ignominy, — one which, as Lord Collingwood admitted, England would not have tolerated for an hour from any nation on earth,— so long American independence was a sham. While we endured it, we were merely, as the London Times insultingly called us at the time when Washington was captured, “ an association.” To have failed to perceive this was the worst mistake of the Federalists ; it was a far greater error than the Hartford Convention ; as Mr. Morse well points out, in another volume of this very series, the bloodiest war was a smaller evil than the submission to such a wrong; yet Daniel Webster, in the Rockingham Memorial,never mentioned its existence. The defender of the Union, the great advocate of our navy, the vindicator of American nationality against Austria, he stooped in 1812 to treat that for which the nation fought as a mere squabble between Great Britain and her own deserters, while the shame to the American flag caused not a thrill of indignation in his heart. And yet, curiously enough, the Federalists were always convinced that they were utterly free from party spirit, and whenever their pulpit orators preached upon the evils of that sentiment they meant only the wicked Democrats.

The moral of Mr. Webster’s life, denied us by Mr. Curtis, is candidly drawn by Mr. Lodge, who has never appeared to better advantage than when resisting the still lingering prejudice of his own circle of friends, and holding aloof from that sentimental reaction of forgiveness which is apt to confuse the whole story of a great man’s errors. Mr. Webster’s unexpected support of the Fugitive Slave Law, for instance, is a part of the history of the nation, and Mr. Lodge clearly and ably establishes that his change of attitude at that time hurt the national cause, which his general influence had so greatly helped. So far as it had weight, it strengthened the South and weakened the moral sentiment of the North ; if emancipation ultimately succeeded, it was because Webster’s final effort had failed. Had his 7th of March speech carried the nation with it, not even the exigencies of war would have brought on emancipation; whatever the issue of battle, slavery would have remained untouched ; and that result would have been lost which even the defeated party now admits to have been a blessing in disguise.

In his manly allusion to the private faults and the financial negligences which notoriously clouded the career of Mr. Webster, his present biographer is equally to be commended. The temptation was very great to pass them wholly by ; and on the other hand, if Mr. Lodge had chosen, he might easily have gathered from the lively reminiscences of the French M. de Bacourt several passages much more mortifying than the very mild one which he has cited. It is impossible for one of Mr. Lodge’s accurate historic sense to pursue the tactics of such Websterian defenders as Rev. W. C. Wilkinson, and others who simply shut their eyes and ears, and believe nothing. It is almost absurd to find clerical choruses now ready to absolve the great man from all personal misdeeds, merely because he, in the Girard case, “ made his plea,” as Judge Story said, “ altogether an address to the prejudices of the clergy,” while a lay biographer like Mr. Lodge, professing no especial squeamishness, is yet obliged to look the truth in the face. Not a professed moralist, he helps morality by briefly recognizing the historic fact. The vices of Paine and Burr have done nobody in this generation any harm. Personal, political, and theological hostility have done their utmost to proclaim them ; they are known to the world at their worst, and possibly beyond their worst. What demoralizes young men is the discovery that the weaknesses which damn the memory of unpopular men become venial foibles in heroes, and gradually so diminish in the report of successive generations that they are at last piously forgotten.

  1. Daniel Webster. By HENRY CABOT LODGE. American Statesmen series. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.