Daniel Webster


WHEN Daniel Webster entered Dartmouth College, more than one hundred years ago, it had attained a considerable degree of prosperity. For a quarter of a century after Wheelock planted it in the wilderness it remained the only college in northern New England, and the rapid settlement of the country about it gave it an important constituency. During the ten years immediately preceding Webster’s graduation it was second among the colleges of the country in the number of graduates to the degree of Bachelor of Arts. He came from one of the frontier families that crowded into this region. When the smoke first curled from the chimney of his father’s log cabin in Salisbury, there was, as the son has said, “ no similar evidence of a white man’s habitation between it and the settlements on the rivers of Canada.” Professor Wendell tells us, in his scholarly book on literature in America, that Webster was the “ son of a New Hampshire countryman ; ” and again, that “ he retained so many traces of his far from eminent New Hampshire origin ” that he was less typical of the Boston orators than were some other men. It is true that the father was a “ New Hampshire countryman,” and he does not appear to have attained any remarkable eminence; but only the most cautious inferences should be drawn from a surface or negative fact of that character, in a past necessarily covered for the most part with darkness. A great deal is to-day unknown about that sturdy race of men who swarmed over our frontiers more than a century ago, and especially a great deal that was worthy and noble in individuals. And it is hardly useful to turn to a doubtful past in order to learn of a known present, or to judge of a son whom we know well from a father of whom we know but little. It is often more safe to judge of the ancestor from the descendant than of the descendant from the ancestor. I supposed that Daniel Webster had forever settled the essential character of the stock from which he sprung, just as the pure gold of Lincoln’s character unerringly points to a mine of unalloyed metal somewhere, if there is anything in the principles of heredity ; and whether the mine is known or unknown, its gold will pass current even at the Boston mint. Perhaps neither of these men, in himself or in his origin, was wholly typical of any place; it is enough that both were typical of America.

But what we know of Webster’s father indicates the origin of some of the great qualities of the son. He was a man of much native strength of intellect and of resolute independence of character. He had those magnificent physical qualities which made the son a source of wonder to all who knew him. He had, too, a heart which, the son once said, “ he seemed to have borrowed from a lion.” “Your face is not so black, Daniel,” Stark once said, “ as your father’s was with gunpowder at the Bennington fight.” And on the night after the discovery of Arnold’s treason, at that dark moment when even the faithful might be thought faithless, and the safety of the new nation demanded a sure arm to lean upon, it was then, according to the tradition, that Webster was put in command of the guard before the headquarters of our general, and George Washington, another “ countryman,” said, “ Captain Webster, I believe I can trust you.”

The schooling of Webster before he entered college was of a limited character. He appears to have been well drilled in Latin, but he possessed only the rudiments of English, and of Greek he knew very little. It must not be overlooked, however, that even at his youthful age he had acquired a fondness for the Spectator and for other good English books. While in college he broadened his reading of English and history, until he was said to be at the head of his class in those branches. Perhaps his most positive acquirement was in the Latin language, in which he became a good scholar, and which he continued to study in after life. A profound knowledge of a foreign tongue can hardly be conclusively inferred from frequent quotations from it. In the oratory of the first half of the last century the Latin quotation was an established institution, and for much of it little more than the manual custody of the Latin author was apparently necessary. But the quotations from that language in Webster’s speeches were apt, and usually betrayed an insight into the meaning of the author, deep enough often to get a second or poetical meaning. He continued to neglect Greek, probably because he had been so miserably prepared in it, and long afterwards he lamented that he had not studied it until he could read and understand Demosthenes in his own tongue. The course of study which he followed was the rigid and unyielding course of that day, where every branch was impartially prescribed for everybody. The debating society was an institution to which Webster was devoted, and from which he derived great benefit. It enabled him to overcome his timidity, which had been so excessive at Exeter that it was impossible for him to recite his declamations before the school, and he became in college a ready and self-possessed debater. I do not find it easy, however, to detect under the flowers of his early rhetoric the promise of that weighty and concentrated style which afterwards distinguished him. Although not the first in scholarship, he undoubtedly acquired a leadership among his college mates. His popularity was the natural result of the display of his ability and manly qualities in that most just and perfect democracy in the world, — a democracy of schoolboys. It lingered in the college after he left it; and when he returned, after his graduation, with the 11 shekels,” as he expressed it, which he had earned for his brother Ezekiel, he was received as quite a hero.

It is difficult to believe, in view of the majestic proportions of his later years, that he was ever slender and delicate, but he is spoken of as being in his college days “ long, slender, pale, and all eyes.” Yet his slight form supported an enormous mass of head, with its noble brow crowned by hair as black as the wing of a raven. Those wonderful black eyes, which near the end of his life Carlyle spoke of as “ dull anthracite furnaces, needing only to be blown,” were then lighted up with the fire and brilliancy of youth.


It was a fortunate circumstance, in Webster’s early career, that it fell to his lot to meet often in the courts so great a lawyer as Jeremiah Mason. When Webster came to the Portsmouth bar, he found Mason its unquestioned leader. Mason was a giant, mentally and physically, thoroughly trained in his profession, with an absolute contempt for rhetorical ornament, and a way of talking directly at juries in a terse and informal style which they could comprehend ; standing, as Webster expressed it, so that he might put his finger on the foreman’s nose. Long afterwards, when Webster’s fame as a lawyer and statesman extended over the whole country, he wrote it as his deliberate opinion of Mason that if there was a stronger intellect in the country he did not know it. From this estimate he would not even except John Marshall. Webster quickly outstripped his other rivals, and for nine years maintained the struggle against this formidable antagonist for supremacy at the Portsmouth bar. He was compelled to overcome his natural tendency to indolence, and to make the most careful preparation of his cases. The rivalry called into play the most strenuous exercise of all his faculties. The intellectual vigilance and readiness which became his marked characteristics in debate were especially cultivated. He soon saw the futility of florid declamation against the simple style of Mason, and his own eloquence rapidly passed out of the efflorescent stage, and became direct and full of the Saxon quality ; although he never affected little words, and would use a strong word of Latin origin when it would answer his purpose better. When his practice at the Portsmouth bar came to an end, he had proved his ability to contend on even terms, at least, with Mason, and had developed those great qualities which enabled him to take his place as the leader of the Boston bar almost without a struggle, and to step at an early age into the front rank of the lawyers who contended in the Supreme Court at Washington.


This occasion demands more than a passing reference to the cause in which Webster gained a recognized place among the leaders of the bar of the national Supreme Court. It marked an epoch in his professional career, and it vitally concerned the existence of this college. The Dartmouth College causes grew out of enactments of the New Hampshire legislature, making amendments in the charter of the college which differed little from repeal. In substance, they created a new corporation, and transferred to it all the property of the college. There would have been little security in the charters of our colleges, if state legislatures generally had possessed the power to pass acts of that sweeping character.

The point upon which the court at Washington had jurisdiction was regarded by the college counsel as a forlorn hope, and to be more daring and novel than sound. It apparently originated with Mason. It was, however, the only ground open on the appeal, and this was a fortunate circumstance for the fame of the cause. If the whole cause had been subject to review, it might well have been decided upon one of the other grounds, and thus it would not have become one of the landmarks of constitutional law. Wirt, who was then the Attorney-General of the United States, and Holmes appeared against the college, and Hopkinson with Webster in its favor. It must be admitted that Webster possessed an advantage over the other counsel. He had fought over the ground when it was most stubbornly contested, and knew every inch of it. His whole soul was in his case. He had the briefs of Mason and Smith as well as his own, and had absorbed every point in all the notable arguments on his side at Exeter. He generously gave all the credit to Mason and Smith. He was interested in preventing the printing of the Exeter speeches, because, he said, it would show where he got his plumes. This was undoubtedly too generous, but his debt was a great one, and no lawyer was ever better prepared than Webster was when he rose to speak in the college cause. He possessed, too, as complete a mastery of his opponents’ arguments as of his own. With his extraordinary power of eloquence thus armed, it is not strange that the court was to witness a revelation, and that he was destined to a signal personal triumph. He took the part of junior counsel, and opened the argument; but when he took his seat, after five hours of high reason and clear statement, kindled with tremendous passion and delivered with all the force of his wonderful personality, the case had been both opened and closed, and nothing remained to be said. The spectators were astonished and overawed. It is not to be wondered at that Marshall sat enchained, and that Story forgot to take notes. The counsel against the college were far from being so well prepared. Webster afterwards wrote a letter to Wirt, complimenting him upon his argument, and Wirt apparently satisfied himself ; but the extraordinary performance by Webster took his antagonists by surprise. A majority of the court was carried, and carried, probably, by the eloquence of the advocate. The college was saved, and at the same time there was witnessed the birth of an important principle of constitutional law and of a great national fame.

There have been arguments before the same high tribunal more discursively eloquent, more witty, and delivered with a greater parade of learning; but in the boldness, novelty, and far-reaching character of the propositions advanced, in the strength with which they were maintained, in the judgment with which the points of argument were selected and the skill with which they were pressed upon the court, in the natural oratorical passion, so consuming that for five hours the spectators were held spellbound by the discussion of questions of law, no greater speech was ever made before the Supreme Court. No other advocate in that tribunal ever equaled what he himself never surpassed. The published report of this speech is apparently much condensed, and contains only the outlines of what was said. There is no hint of the beautiful peroration. Mr. Ticknor says of the printed version that those who heard the speech when it was delivered “still wonder how such dry bones could ever have lived with the power they there witnessed and felt.” But even the printed version is a classic in its severe simplicity and beauty. Although this was not the first cause argued by Webster before the national Supreme Court, it especially marked the beginning of a career which continued for more than a third of a century, and stamps him as, on the whole, the greatest figure who ever appeared at that august bar.


It is sometimes said of Webster that he was not learned in the law. But in the very best sense of the term he was a learned lawyer. If his mind was not an encyclopædia of cases, it was a storehouse of legal principles. He had the art of condensation, and would select the genuine points of his case, and put them with unsurpassed simplicity and weight. He possessed to a remarkable degree, too, the inborn legal sense, without which there can be no lawyer. From the day when, a mere stripling, he graduated from college, the law was his chief study. Usually acting as senior counsel in important cases, he had the advantage of the preparation of learned juniors. He was called upon in court to display a mastery of his own side, and to hear and meet all that could be said by accomplished lawyers against it. His memory was prodigious. The result of it all was that, with his great natural powers thus disciplined by forty years of practice, one would have been willing to back him, not merely as a parliamentary Hercules, as Carlyle said, but as a legal Hercules, against the whole extant world.

A great part of a lawyer’s work is ephemeral, and perishes with the day that brought it forth. Some of the miracles which Rufus Choate wrought in the courts were a nine days’ wonder, passed into splendid traditions, and were then forgotten. This is due to the fact that while there are many causes of vast consequence to individuals, there are comparatively few which are of importance to society generally or in the development of the law. But a great mass of Webster’s legal work survives, and insures him permanent fame as a lawyer. Take, for instance, the great case of Gibbons and Ogden, where the state of New York had attempted to grant a monopoly of navigation on its inland waters. The doctrine which Webster contended for in that case was sustained by the court. In a time when so much is said of the evils of granting franchises in the public streets, we can appreciate the far-reaching importance of a decision which at one stroke forever rescued our great lakes and harbors and the Mississippi and the Ohio from the grasp of monopolies, and left our inland waters open highways for all to navigate on equal terms. In the formative period of our institutions, when their limits were explored in the courts and established by judicial construction, there were great judges besides Marshall, and great lawyers besides Webster. But Marshall stands, in America, unapproached as a jurist, just as Webster stands as an advocate without a rival. The former set our constitutional landmarks, and the latter pointed out where they should be placed. And it is significant of Webster’s primacy that in important debates to-day, in Congress or elsewhere, upon great questions of a constitutional character or of a political legal character, relating to our systems of government and the nature and limitations of their powers, he is more widely quoted than any other lawyer, whether speaking only with his own voice or ex cathedra as a member of our highest court.

An important sphere of his professional activity would be neglected if I did not refer to his strength as an advocate before juries. The same simple style which enlightened the highest courts made him easily understood by the ordinary juryman. But his oratory was less fettered by technical rules, and was more varied, before juries than before the courts. Only two of his very many speeches to juries are preserved in his published works, and each of these amply demonstrates his enormous capacity in that field.


The chief source of Webster’s success as a statesman is found in his transcendent power of speech. When his public career began, a highly decorated fashion of oratory, which has been termed the Corinthian style, flourished in this country. Our orators were justly conscious of the fact that we had won our independence from the greatest power in the world, and had become a nation. Every one was inspired to talk eloquently about Liberty, and, as a consequence, a vast number of literary crimes were committed in her name. It was an excessively oratorical era. Whether the thought was great or little, the grand manner was imperatively demanded. The contemporary accounts of the speeches of that time were as highly wrought as the speeches themselves, and one would suppose that orators of the grade of Demosthenes existed in every considerable village ; although it will be observed that they gradually diminished in number as the cold art of stenography became more commonly and successfully practiced. The simple art of speaking with reference to the exact truth was held in contempt, and the art of extravagant expression was carefully cultivated. It is not difficult to detect in this extravagance the influence of Edmund Burke. He was chiefly responsible, however, only because he stood in a class by himself, and could defy successful imitation. There is nothing more gorgeous in English literature than the best of his speeches or his essays ; for his speeches and essays were the same sort of composition. His knowledge was varied and prodigious, and even his conversation, well compared by Moore to a Roman triumph, was enriched with the spoils of all learning. In depth and intensity of feeling and a noble sympathy for the oppressed of every race, he was surpassed by no orator, ancient or modern. He had the glowing and exuberant imagination that

“ Kicks at earth with a disdainful heel,
And beats at heaven’s gates with her bright hoofs.”

Imitation of Burke, thus royally endowed, and blazing with indignation at some great public wrong, would easily lend itself to extravagance, and would produce the empty form of colossal speech without its substance. I think Burke’s influence can be clearly seen in our orators from his own day to the end of Charles Sumner’s time. A few of Webster’s speeches show not merely the inspiration due to an appreciative understanding of Burke, which was legitimate and might be wholesome, but a somewhat close and dispiriting imitation of Burke’s manner. This is true particularly of the much - admired Plymouth oration, which substituted John Adams for the Lord Bathurst of Burke’s celebrated passage, and extorted from that venerable patriot, who had come under the spell of the Corinthian era, the statement that Burke could no longer be called the most consummate orator of modern times. But it is Webster’s glory that, at his best, he had a style that was all his own, simple, massive, and full of grandeur ; and compared with some of his noble passages, Burke’s sublimity sometimes seems as unsubstantial as banks of cloud by the side of a granite mountain. While Webster was slow in reaching his full mental stature, how rapidly his style developed, and simplicity took the place of the flowery exaggeration that was then thought to be fine, may be seen by contrasting passages from two of his speeches. In his Fourth of July address, delivered a year before his graduation, occurs this passage: “Fair Science, too, holds her gentle empire among us, and almost innumerable altars are raised to her divinity, from Brunswick to Florida. Yale, Providence, and Harvard now grace our land, and Dartmouth, towering majestic above the groves which encircle her, now inscribes her glory on the register of fame ! Oxford and Cambridge, those Oriental stars of literature, shall now be lost, while the bright sun of American science displays his broad circumference in uneclipsed radiance.” The other is from a speech, early in his congressional career, against the policy of forcing the growth of manufactures, or of rearing them, as he expressed it, “in hotheds: ” “ I am not anxious to accelerate the approach of the period when the great mass of American labor shall not find its employment in the field ; when the young men of the country shall be obliged to shut their eyes upon external nature, upon the heavens and the earth, and immerse themselves in close and unwholesome workshops ; when they shall be obliged to shut their ears to the bleatings of their own flocks upon their own hills, and to the voice of the lark that cheers them at the plough.” The one passage is little above or below the style then prevailing among schoolboys ; the other possesses a simple and lyric beauty, and might have been written by a master of English prose in its golden age.

In his speech upon the Greek revolution, delivered while he was still a member of the House, his style may be said to have become fixed in its simplicity. Upon such a subject there was every temptation to indulge in passionate declamation about freedom and to make a tremendous display of classical learning, and such a treatment seemed to be demanded by the prevailing taste of the time ; but the generous sympathy he held out to the Greeks he extended in a speech of severe and restrained beauty, and the greater part of his effort was devoted to a profound study of the principles of the Holy Alliance as a conspiracy against popular freedom. Jeremiah Mason pronounced this speech the best example of parliamentary eloquence and statesmanlike reasoning which our country had seen. The Plymouth speech greatly extended his reputation as an orator, and was most impressive in its immediate effect. George Ticknor, who was disposed to be critical, and usually admired with difficulty, somewhat hysterically wrote in a letter, on the day of the delivery of this speech: “ I warn you beforehand that I have not the least confidence in my own opinion. His manner carried me away completely. . . . It seems to me incredible.... I was never so excited by public speaking before in my life. Three or four times I thought my temples would burst with the gush of blood.” This speech was received everywhere with the most extravagant praise, and may fairly be said to have established Webster’s position as the first orator of the nation. While it contains noble passages, it sometimes expresses the platitude of the day in a style that suggests the grandiose, and it shows more strongly than any other of his important speeches the literary faults of the time. The first Bunker Hill speech and the eulogy on Adams and Jefferson are distinctly superior to it. That splendid piece of historical fiction, the speech which he puts in the mouth of Adams, is an excellent illustration of his ability to reproduce the spirit of a great event and endow it with life. It was precisely such a speech as the most impassioned and strongest advocate of the Declaration of Independence might have made on the floor of the Continental Congress. If Webster’s understanding had been less powerful, he would have been credited with a very great imagination. That faculty, however, was strictly subordinated to his reason ; and instead of producing anything unusual and fantastic, the creature of a disordered rather than a creative imagination, he summoned the event out of the past, and so invested it with its appropriate coloring and rational and proper setting that it seemed to be a fact rather than a fancy.2


It is sometimes said of Webster that, as a statesman, he was not creative, and that no great legislative acts are identified with his name; that he was the unrivaled advocate of policies, but not their originator. It must be remembered that during most of his congressional career his party was in a minority, and he had only a limited opportunity to fashion political legislation. He did not, it is true, pass any considerable portion of his time in drawing bills, embodying more or less fanciful theories of government. But he displayed in a prominent degree the qualities of statesmanship most loudly called for by his time. He was highly successful in adapting to the needs of a nation the provisions of a written Constitution, by applying to its construction the soundest principles of government. It was beyond human foresight for the framers of the Constitution to comprehend the unknown demands of the future. The application of that frame of government to new needs and conditions demanded as high and as original an order of statesmanship as was required in the first instance to write it. It might easily have supported a greatly different structure of government, if it had been less wisely expounded. If our highest court has been able to recognize supposed national exigencies and apply contradictory judicial constructions to the same clause of the Constitution, we can see that it might indeed be a flexible instrument in the hands of statesmen whose prime function is political, and not judicial. But there was no paltry expediency in Webster’s expounding. His recognition of sound principles, his profound sympathy with the genius of our system, and his true political sense enabled him to display the most difficult art of statesmanship, the practical application of theory to the government of a nation. The principles of government are derived from a long series of experiments, and the statesman who produces something novel produces something which experience will usually show it is well to avoid. Originality of statesmanship does not alone consist in bringing forth something unheard of in government, or in keeping on hand, as Sieyès was said to have done, a large assortment of constitutions ready-made. Neither can I see originality or even a high order of statesmanship in patching up a truce by some temporary device, which, after it shall have lost its effect, may leave the body politic in a worse condition than before. Webster aided in making the Constitution work among conditions that its founders did not foresee. He contributed to protect it from danger against which they made no provisions, and to endow it with perpetuity. His adherence to sound principles was as resolute as his recognition of them was instinctive. This unbending quality and an indisposition to appeal to a pseudo-patriotism prevented him, in the conditions then existing, from becoming a successful party leader ; and in that respect he strikingly resembled Fox. After a career unexampled among statesmen, in its constant treatment of liberty as a birthright of all men, and not as a peculiar prerogative of Englishmen, it was said of Fox’s following in Parliament that they could all be put in a hackney coach. The reason is obvious. The British Parliament has usually been jealous for British freedom ; but when British demands come in conflict with the freedom of foreign peoples, liberty then becomes a much less influential sentiment than what, on such occasions, is sometimes termed humanity, and sometimes civilization.

Let us follow Webster’s course upon some of the more important issues of his time, in order to gain a practical insight into his statesmanship. He was a friend of commerce, which, he declared, had paid the price of independence, and he was in favor of encouraging it both with foreign nations and between the states themselves. He was, therefore, strenuously opposed to the embargo which preceded and attended the war with Great Britain. He was so hostile to the war itself that he refused to vote supplies to carry it on. Even that muchquoted passage, so frequently employed against those who would question a proposed aggression upon other nations, “ Our party divisions, acrimonious as they are, cease at the water’s edge,” was uttered by him in a speech against a bill to encourage enlistment. The question of peace or war, he declared, was “ not to be compressed into the compass that would fit a small litigation.” It was a great question of right and expediency. “ Utterly astonished at the declaration of war, I have been surprised at nothing since. Unless all history deceived me, I saw how it would be prosecuted when I saw how it was begun. There is in the nature of things an unchangeable relation between rash counsels and feeble execution.” The struggle itself, whether just or unjust at its inception, became almost a war of self-preservation, and Webster’s attitude was an extreme one in refusing to vote the necessary means to carry it on. At a much later period of his life he voted for supplies for the war with Mexico, to which he had also been opposed. But when, during the War of 1812, he declined to be badgered out of the right of public discussion,—for he did not escape the fury of the small patriots of his time, — his position was unassailable. “ It is,” he said, “ a home-bred right, a fireside privilege.... It is not to be drawn in controversy. . . . Belonging to private life as a right, it belongs to public life as a duty. . . . This high constitutional privilege I shall defend and exercise within this House and without this House, and in all places, in time of peace, in time of war.”

His earlier speeches in Congress on the tariff were upon free-trade lines, and against the exercise of the taxing power of the Constitution for the purpose of protection. During his term of service in the House he voted against tariff bills that were protective in their nature, but after he became a member of the Senate, in 1827, he voted for bills that were protective ; and he has often been accused of inconsistency on account of these apparently contradictory votes. But his answer was simple and, as it seems, conclusive. He had opposed the policy of artificially calling manufactures into being, but it had been adopted. New England had acquiesced in a system which had been forced upon her against the votes of her representatives. Manufactures had been built up, and he would not vote to strike them down.

During the early years of his service in the House he began his advocacy of a sound money system, and continued to support it, while the currency was an issue, to the end of his career. The delusive arguments in favor of a money which the art of printing made cheap of production did not impose upon him. No man of his time set forth more clearly the principles of a sound system of finance, or the disaster which would follow a deviation from it. He had been so conspicuous in the debates upon financial measures that President Harrison requested him to accept the secretaryship of the Treasury at the time he became Secretary of State. He was too firm a friend of civil justice not to make an indignant protest against the bill proposing to take the trial of certain cases of treason from the courts, and give them to military tribunals. The Force Bill of 1833, which gave Jackson the authority to cope with the nullification movement in South Carolina, would probably have failed of passage without Webster’s support. That measure, however, became of little consequence after the substantial concession to that state made in the tariff propositions brought forward by Mr. Clay, who was usually ready to apply temporary devices to any threatening situation. Webster austerely declined to surrender to the threats of South Carolina, and voted against the tariff bill. He jealously upheld the prerogatives of the Senate, and resolutely severed the growing friendship between himself and Jackson, when the latter showed a disposition toward personal government and an autocratic administration of the laws. But first of all he was attached to the principles of popular government, and while a Senator he favored a broad construction of the power which the Constitution gave to the Representatives to originate revenue bills.

In a running debate in the Senate, he took the position that territories were not a part of the United States, within the meaning of the Constitution, and he referred for authority to a class of decisions of the Supreme Court. It so happened that the court had decided but a single case of the class he mentioned, and that he himself had been counsel in it. It showed his remarkable memory and command of his resources that, thirty years afterwards, he was able, apparently upon the spur of the moment, to urge in all its force the argument he had prepared in the law case. The court, however, although it had decided the case in his favor, had not put its decision upon the ground he urged. In the same debate in the Senate, he made it clear, whatever he may have meant in claiming that the Constitution did not extend to the territories, that the oath of members of Congress bound them to observe its limitations even when legislating for the territories, which is an essential point in the great controversy in which he has recently been so often cited as an authority. So far from admitting that a denial of congressional absolutism, in dealing with human rights anywhere, would make our government an incomplete or crippled government, he saw in tendencies of an opposite character the danger that our Constitution would be converted “ into a deformed monster,” into a great “ frame of unequal government,” and “ into a curse rather than a blessing.” He also gave weighty expression to the opinion that while arbitrary governments could govern distant possessions by different laws and systems, we could do no such thing. He protested against the policy of admitting new and small states into the Union, because of its tendency to destroy the balance established by the Constitution, and convert the Senate into an oligarchy,—a policy which has been pursued, until at last states having less than a sixth of the population of the country elect a majority of the entire Senate. He took a leading part in the codification of the criminal laws of the nation, and in the enlargement of its judicial system. He profoundly deplored the existence of slavery, and many striking utterances against it may be found in his speeches; but he held to the opinion, which indeed appears to have prevailed everywhere at that time, that the national government had no authority, under the Constitution, to interfere with slavery in the states where it was established. He believed that the non-political offices of the government should not be used as party spoils, and a generation before civil service reform made its appearance on this continent he gave luminous expression to its most essential principles. His public career was singularly free from demagogy, and his speeches will be explored in vain for catchpenny appeals to the passing popular fancy.

One of the great achievements of his career, as well as one of the most definite and honorable triumphs of American diplomacy, is found in the negotiation of the Webster - Ashburton treaty. The dispute over the northeastern boundary had for years been a source of irritation between this country and Great Britain, and had baffled such earnest attempts at solution that it promised to continue a menace to the peace of the two countries. The British government had finally dispatched a large number of soldiers to Canada, and our minister at London expressed the opinion that war appeared inevitable. There were also other annoying sources of dispute aside from that relating to the boundary. Webster triumphantly overcame all obstacles, and he could proudly appeal, as he subsequently did in the Senate, “ to the public men of the age whether, in 1842, and in the city of Washington, something was not done for the suppression of crime, for the true exposition of the principles of public law, for the freedom and security of commerce on the ocean, and for the peace of the world.” The qualities which he displayed in these negotiations attracted attention in the British Parliament. Macaulay commented on his “ firm, resolute, vigilant, and unyielding” manner. Diplomatic writing has a peculiar rhetoric, — a rhetoric which Webster had the good sense to refuse to adopt in preference to his own. Compared with his condensed and weighty letter upon impressment, for instance, the ordinary fawning or threatening diplomatic performance seems a flimsy structure indeed. The claim, on the part of the British government, of the right to impress British-born sailors from the decks of American ships could not survive the conclusive arguments which he crowded into the brief letter to Ashburton, and which, without any pretense, led to the conclusion that “ the American government then is prepared to say that the practice of impressing seamen from American vessels cannot be hereafter allowed to take place.” And then he ran up the flag, not for rhetorical purposes, but over the solid masonry of reason, from which it can never be hauled down without overturning established principles. “ In every regularly documented American vessel, the crew who navigate it will find their protection in the flag that is over them.” No one could mistake the meaning of what was so simply stated, after its justice had been so conclusively shown. It is impossible for an American to read the diplomatic correspondence of Webster while Secretary of State and not feel a new pride in his country. The absolute absence of anything petty or meretricious, the simple dignity, and the sublime and conscious power cause one to feel that it ennobled the nation to have such a defender. It may be said, too, that the manner in which he conducted the State Department proved that he possessed the highest qualities of executive statesmanship.


But the overshadowing work of Webster’s public life is to be found in the part he performed in maintaining the supremacy of the laws of the national government, enacted in conformity with the Constitution. In the great controversy over the relations between the central and state governments, which began soon after the adoption of the Constitution, and continued until it was removed from the forum of debate, to be settled by the arbitrament of arms, Webster was the colossal figure. From the high ground he took in the Reply to Hayne he never wavered. If he erred at all in his devotion to the national idea, it was in the sacrifices he was willing to make for it. Twenty years after his first great discussion upon the Union, he made a speech on that subject which excited fiercer controversy than has ever been kindled by any other utterance of an American statesman. His Seventh of March Speech gave rise to more criticism, to employ no harsher term, than grew out of all the rest of his public career. The alienation it caused from so many of his old friends, who were grieved to the heart and regarded him as a fallen archangel, the relentless abuse it drew forth from others who had never been his friends, embittered the last days of his life. A half century after it was spoken, we should be able to hear something of those permanent voices which are drowned in the fleeting tumult of the times, but which speak to after ages. I do not wholly agree that that speech must be passed by in silence, out of regard for Webster’s fame. Twenty years ago the poet Whittier made noble reparation for Ichabod in The Lost Occasion; and even more ample reparation would be his due, if, in judging him, one applied the same tests that are apparently applied to his critics.

When he replied to Hayne, the danger to the Union was chiefly theoretical, except for the attitude of a single state; but when he spoke on the 7th of March, the controversy had become more angry and practical. Only a few weeks before he spoke, an anti-slavery society, most respectable in numbers and the character of its members, had met in his own state, and in Faneuil Hall, and had resolved that they were the enemies of the Constitution and the Union, and proclaimed their purpose to “ live and labor for a dissolution of the present Union.” These declarations were but the echo of what had come from a similar society in the state of Ohio. They emanated, not from the home of nullification doctrines, but from that portion of the country where the hopes of the Union lay. There was an equally uncompromising and a more resentful feeling upon the other side of the slavery questions, and a convention had been called at the city of Nashville to give it voice. That convention subsequently put forth an address in favor of disunion. The annexation of Texas, the war with Mexico, and the treaty of peace had produced practical and pressing questions, and Webster had come reluctantly to believe that their solution, without detriment to the Union, was most difficult, in the inflamed condition of the public mind. More than a year after he made the speech, he declared that, “ in a very alarming crisis,” he felt it his “ duty to come out.” “If,” he said at that time, “ I had seen the stake, if I had heard the fagots already crackling, by the blessing of Almighty God I would have gone on and discharged the duty which I thought my country called upon me to perform.” That a similar opinion of the importance of the crisis was entertained by those two great men whose names stand, perhaps, next to his own, and forever to be associated with it in our congressional annals, there can be no doubt. There is something pathetic in the spectacle of those three statesmen, then almost at the end of their careers, who had often radically differed with one another upon public questions, bending their energies to the support of a common cause, and struggling to avert a common danger. Clay put forth a last effort of his statesmanship, and brought forward his compromise measure. For the moment he forgot his differences with Webster, and earnestly besought the latter for his support. Calhoun, too weak to utter his own words, spoke through the mouth of another, in his last speech in the Senate, his sense of the gravity of the crisis.

It was said, and has been so often repeated that it is accepted in some quarters as an article of political faith, that Webster made his speech as a bid for the presidency. The imputation of an unworthy motive to a public man is easy to make and difficult to disprove. But on this point it is pertinent to remember that he threw away his fairest chance for the presidency by patriotically refusing, at the dictates of his own party in his own state, and of its leaders in the country, to retire from Tyler’s Cabinet until our differences with Great Britain should be composed; that he had many times resigned or refused to accept important public office; that the great position of Senator from Massachusetts had more than once to be forced upon him; and that, before the 7th of March at least, he had fully lived up to his own impressive declaration that solicitations for high public office were “inconsistent with personal dignity, and derogatory to the character of the institutions of the country.” Solicitude for the Union certainly was no new thing with him, that an ignoble motive should be ascribed. But it was not the first time, as it will not be the last, when those having solely in view the accomplishment of some great public object, to the exclusion of everything else, have imputed evil motives to those who have not sanctioned their particular course of procedure, especially when they threatened to pull down the pillars of the state itself, if thereby the evil might be destroyed in the common calamity. Reform not only draws to itself the single-minded who have no sordid aims, but it is attractive also to those censorious spirits who delight not so much in battering down the ramparts of wrong as in abusing those hapless individuals who do not believe that evil methods are to be sanctified by noble ends. In the speeches of some of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement, denunciation of slavery had the second place, and denunciation of Webster the first; and when the time of consummation came, even Lincoln did not escape their acrimony. The high moral purpose and the great practical value of the abolition movement cannot be questioned ; but it also cannot be questioned that much of that agitation was disruptive, and, in the conditions then existing, tended less toward freedom than to disunion and war. They might have broken this “ compact with hell,” which was the favorite term of some of them for the Constitution of their country ; but it is not easy to see how this programme could have broken a single chain, with a free and a slave republic side by side and hostile to each other. In the light of today, it can be clearly seen that to accomplish freedom the concurrence of other forces was demanded. Agitation was necessary to educate and arouse the people, but it needed also to be checked before it should become swollen beyond constitutional limits and form the basis of revolution ; for with any important body of opinion at the North coöperating with disunion at the South, the nation would have been rent asunder.

But look a little more closely at the matter. I presume no one would now criticise the willingness of Webster, as the great advocate of constitutional supremacy, to concede to the South whatever it had a right, according to the terms of the Constitution, to demand. The specific thing in the speech questioned with the nearest approach to justice was the position with regard to New Mexico. He declared that natural law had effectively banished slavery from that territory, because of its sterile and mountainous character, and that he would not vote uselessly to reënact the will of God and banish slavery by a statute. He therefore accepted that feature of Clay’s compromise, with the declaration that he would favor the application of the socalled Wilmot Proviso to any territory in which there was danger that slavery might be established. This was certainly a technical if not a practical concession to the Southern demands. For accepting this policy with regard to New Mexico, he was charged by Mr. Seward, who undoubtedly spoke the sentiments of a great many people, with having “ derided the proviso of freedom, the principle of the ordinance of 1787.” Ten years later, when it did not require a statesman’s eye to see the danger, nor a statesman’s ear to hear the thunders of the approaching storm, Congress consented to apply the very principle which Webster was willing to concede to New Mexico to the whole of that vast domain out of which the Dakotas and Nevada and Colorado have since been carved; and neither Seward, nor Adams, nor Sumner, nor any other member of Congress, belonging to the great, new anti-slavery party, was heard to raise his voice or vote against it. Surely, if Webster was a traitor to the cause of freedom, his accusers must bear him company. If he was a traitor, their guilt was deeper than his, for they were the special guardians of freedom, while he was only the champion of the Union; and the scornful repeal by the South of the settlement of 1850 shed a brighter light for them than was given to him upon the futility of all compromise. The truth is, none of them was a traitor. They were true-hearted, patriotic men, solicitous for the preservation of the republic which they loved. But when the most responsible of Webster’s accusers saw the danger as he saw it, they were willing to make concessions to slavery far more hateful than any of which he had ever dreamed.

In the great conflict of arms in which the debate finally ended, it was the sentiment of Union that banded those invincible armies together, and it was only through the triumph of that sentiment that we enjoy the blessings of a restored government, and that the slave secured his freedom. And had that great statesman, on the 7th of March, shown any less anxiety for the Union ; had that great centripetal force become centrifugal, and weakened in the attraction which it exerted to hold the states in their orbits, who shall say that our vast and now united domain might not be covered by two hostile flags, one of which would float over a republic founded upon slavery!


And then there is that ill-omened thing which, wherever else it may be found, is sure to attend greatness. The baleful goddess of Detraction sits ever at the elbow of Fame, unsweetening what is written upon the record. Whether it springs from the envy of rivals, or from the tendency in human nature to identify the material of greatness with common clay, it is true, as Burke says, that obloquy is an essential ingredient in the composition of all true glory. This proof of greatness, such as it is, exists in ample measure in the history of Webster. No man since Washington has had more of it. The pity of it all is that, when an unsupported charge is disproved, some people will shake their heads and say it is unfortunate that it should have been necessary to establish innocence, — as if reproof belonged rather to the innocent victim than to the author of calumny. I have alluded to the Seventh of March Speech, which has been accounted one of his crimes. One other matter I shall notice, because it bears upon a point which has often been conceded to be the weak place in his character. It so happens that in this case a slander was tested, and the evidence upon it carefully marshaled before a congressional investigating committee. He was charged in Congress with a misuse of the Secret Service Fund while Secretary of State. A resolution of inquiry upon the subject was presented in the Senate while he was a member of that body. He opposed it. Rather a singular course, it might be said, for an innocent man to take. It would ordinarily be regarded as an evidence of guilt. It might also show an extraordinary degree of public virtue, and indicate one of the rare men to whom the interests of their country are dearer than their own, even than their own reputations. What it implied in this instance may be inferred from the event.

A law had been framed, evidently, on the theory that, in conducting the government, it would sometimes be necessary to employ secret agents for confidential purposes, and a fund was accordingly created, to be expended upon the sole responsibility of the President. A publication of the special disbursements would violate the spirit of the law, and, to say nothing of the bad faith with reference to the past, might cripple the government in its future operations. Webster declared in the Senate that every dollar had been spent for a proper public purpose, but that he could not wish to see an important principle and law violated for any personal convenience to himself. The Senate overwhelmingly refused to make the inquiry. The author of the charges, writhing under the lashing which Webster had administered to him in a speech in the Senate, again pressed them in the House, and a committee of investigation was appointed. That committee was politically hostile to Webster, and was established with a view to his impeachment if the charges were sustained. A thorough investigation was made, and it appeared, as the outcome of it all, that Webster had not, indeed, displayed the highest skill as an accountant; but it appeared also that he himself had paid the amount of certain lost vouchers out of his own pocket. The report concluded that there was no proof “ to impeach Mr. Webster’s integrity or the purity of his motives in the discharge of the duties of his office.” And that report, exonerating the defender of the Union, will not lose weight from the fact that it bears the name of Jefferson Davis.

It is true that his friends contributed considerable sums of money to his support, and for this he was severely criticised. Burke received from his friends, during his life, gifts or loans that were never repaid, to an enormous amount for those days. Fox’s friends gave him an annuity of fifteen thousand dollars a year. It has occurred to no one to accuse either of them of impropriety. Can it be doubted that Webster’s friends were as much attached to him, or that they gave from pure personal loyalty mingled with a desire to maintain in the service of their country talents as splendid as ever Fox or Burke possessed, and that were even more successfully employed ? It is to be regretted, from the abuse to which his example may give rise, that he found it necessary to accept this aid. The danger is that a far lesser man than Webster, in high public place, might receive a more calculating homage. However, each case must be judged on its own merits. It is very true that he was not a bookkeeper. But if accounts had been carefully kept, it may be doubted whether, even from the money standpoint, he did not give more than he received. Instead of neglecting his profession, and eking out his expenses by the aid of friends, he might have remained out of the public service, and enjoyed the most lucrative practice at the American bar. His father and his brother made great sacrifices to educate him; but it must also not be forgotten that he taught school, and at the same time copied two large volumes of deeds at night, and generously gave the proceeds of it all to his brother, and that he assumed and paid his father’s debts. He certainly was not a man “ who much receives, but nothing gives.” He had a regal nature, and men would give him their all because he was as free and generous as he was receptive. There is a strong light thrown upon this trait of his character by an incident which, among great speeches and public policies, may seem unimportant, and yet, as showing the real character of the man, is a great one. A young man who had been employed by him in connection with his farms in the West came to Washington, where he fell ill. Webster was at that time nearly sixty years old, at the summit of his fame, and engrossed in his public duties. But he saw this farmer’s boy sick in the city, among strangers. He took care of him with his own hands ; for a week he was with him almost constantly, day and night. Critics have applied to this generous nature the little standards for little men. They have told us that he ought not to have been extravagant, that he did not closely calculate his expenses, that he did not carefully keep his accounts ; and as they would arraign a petty criminal before a police court, they have harried this transcendent figure at history’s bar. They demanded too much of Nature. If she had tried to do more for him upon whom she had lavished so many gifts, she might indeed have made him a great clerk or bookkeeper, but she might also have spoiled him as a statesman. Careless he may have been, but anything like conscious corruption was utterly alien to his nature.

S. W. McCall.

  1. From an address delivered at Dartmouth College, September 25, 1901, at the centennial of Webster’s graduation.
  2. We regret that considerations of space make it necessary to omit Mr. McCall’s detailed discussion of Webster’s Reply to Hayne and other speeches, as well as some additional portions of the address. — EDITORS ATLANTIC.