The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book II/Chapter XVI

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The Cambridge History of American Literature by Henry Cabot Lodge
Book II, Chapter XVI: Webster

§ 1. Webster not a Writer.[edit]

We may take it for granted that Webster knew well how large a place he would fill in the history of his time. He was singularly free from small vanities and petty conceit but he was too great a man not to be conscious of his own intellectual power or of the part which he had played in his day and generation. His feeling about himself comes out in the famous passage of the Seventh of March speech when he asked: “What States are to secede? What is to remain American? What am I to be?” A remarkable question that last one! With the exception of Washington and Lincoln, who in our history could have solemnly put it forth in a public speech without being laughed at and ridiculed? Yet Webster uttered the words in a speech in the Senate, and a political opponent said that the tone of that question made him shudder as if some dire calamity were at hand. Laughter and ridicule fled before this naked assertion of a personality, and men not only shrank from the visions which it conjured up but accepted it as very solemn and entirely natural. The power of the orator was one reason, no doubt, for the impression, but the greatness of the man himself was the controlling cause.

Yet despite this just sense of his place in the history of his time and of his own greatness, Webster would have been profoundly surprised to find himself included as a marked figure in the history of our literature.[1] Except for a fragment of an autobiography and some private letters he never wrote anything in the literary sense. In his day public men did not turn to the newspaper or the magazine for an opportunity to express their views upon public questions. The age of pamphlets, so much used by the framers of the Constitution and the founders of our government, had passed away. That of the magazine and the review had not arrived. Men in public life trusted to their speeches in Parliament or Congress or before the people, almost as in the days of Fox and Pitt, to make their arguments and opinions known, and they would have thought any other course hardly consistent with their dignity. Moreover, Webster did not give his leisure, as many statesmen have done, to writing memoirs or history or to the discussion in book form of some question which interested him. The reason was simple. When Webster was not in office or when he had an interval between the sessions of Congress, he gave his time to the practice of his profession, and great cases before the courts absorbed all his energy.[2]

§ 2. His Knowledge of Literature.[edit]

He loved literature undoubtedly. He had been educated, both at school and at college, upon the old classical system, and it is obvious that he always retained his knowledge of Latin: in fact, he was a good Latin scholar. There is no evidence that he was a good Greek scholar or even kept up the Greek of his youth. He knew the history of Greece and Rome and much of modern history, but he was not a student of history, and this he realized. It is also apparent that he was fond of pure literature, and he never forgot at least the eighteenth century poets who were the standard poets of his youth. The story of his dispute with Rufus Choate over a quotation illustrates not his knowledge of Pope, which is unimportant, but his love of literature, which is significant. At a most exciting moment in the trial of a case very famous in its day, Webster was observed to write a few words upon a slip of paper and pass it to Choate. The spectators thought something very vital to the case was going on, but what Webster wrote was this:

Lo! where Mæotis sleeps and softly flows
The freezing Tanais through a waste of snows.

Choate wrote “wrong” on the slip and then:

Lo! where Mæotis sleeps and hardly flows
The freezing Tanais through a waste of snows.

Webster wrote “right” against his version and offered a bet. The volume of Pope containing The Dunciad was sent for, and it appeared that Choate was right. Webster wrote the words “Spurious Edition” on the book, and the consultation between the two great lawyers ended.

§ 3. Literature and Oratory.[edit]

The fact, however, that in Johnson’s phrase he had literature and loved it, although it tells us of the man, would not give him a place in literary history. Yet he has that place and his right to it rests and must rest upon his speeches, for speeches and addresses are all that Webster has left to us to prove his literary quality, and it very rarely happens that a literary reputation can be based upon speeches actually spoken and delivered. The reason for this rarity of speeches which give a title to a place in literature lies, if we pause to reflect upon it, in the very nature of the speech itself.

Charles Fox was the author of the famous aphorism that “no good speech ever read well.” This is a declaration in epigrammatic form that the speech which is prepared like an essay and then read or recited, which, in other words, is primarily literature and not oratory, is not a thoroughly good speech, and of the soundness of the doctrine there can hardly be a doubt. But the theory, however valid, is not without its dangers. Charles Fox lived up to his own principle. He was, it may well be thought, the greatest of English orators at the moment of speech, but he is little read and seldom quoted now. What he actually said has faded from the minds of men despite its enchanting, its enormous effect at the moment. On the other hand, the speech which is literature before it is spoken is ineffective or only partially effective at the moment, and if it is read afterwards, however much we may enjoy the essay, we never mistake it for the genuine eloquence of the spoken word.

Macaulay is an example of this latter class, as Fox is of the former. Macaulay’s speeches are essays, eloquent and rhetorical, but still essays—literature, and not speeches. He was listened to with interest and delight, but he was not a parliamentary debater or speaker of the first order. The highest oratory, therefore, must combine in exact balance the living force and freshness of the spoken word with the literary qualities which alone ensure endurance. The best examples of this perfection are to be found in the world of imagination, in the two speeches of Brutus and Mark Antony following the death of Cæsar. They are speeches and nothing else—one cool, stately, reasonable; the other a passionate, revolutionary appeal, hot from the heart and pouring from the lips with unpremeditated art, and yet they both have the literary quality, absolutely supreme in this instance, because Shakespeare wrote them.

It is not the preparation or even the writing out before-hand which makes a speech into an essay, for these things can both be done without detracting from the spontaneity, without dulling the sound of the voice which the wholly great speech must have, even on the printed page. The speech loses when the literary quality becomes predominant, and absolute success as high as it is rare comes only from the nice balance of the two essential ingredients. This balance and combination are found in Demosthenes and Isocrates, although one may venture to think that those two great masters, as they have come down to us, lean, if at all, too much to the literary side. In Cicero, although in matter and manner the best judges would rank him below the Greek masters, the combination is quite perfect. One of his most famous speeches, it is said, was never delivered at all, and none the less it is a speech and nothing else, instinct with life and yet with the impalpable literary feeling all through it, the perfect production of a very beautiful and subtle art. Among English orators Burke undoubtedly comes nearest to a complete union of the two qualities, and while the words of Fox and Pitt are unread and unquoted, except by historians, Burke’s gorgeous sentences are recited and repeated and his philosophic discussion of great general principles are studied and admired by successive generations. Yet there is no doubt that Burke erred somewhat on the literary side, and we find the proof of this in the fact that he often spoke to empty benches, and that Goldsmith could say of him:

Too deep for his hearers still went on refining,
And thought of convincing while they thought of dining.

§ 4. Webster’s Permanence.[edit]

Burke was a literary man as well as an orator and a statesman; Webster, as has just been said, was not a literary man at all. He was an orator pure and simple; his speeches, good, bad, or indifferent, are speeches—never essays or anything but speeches—and yet upon all alike is the literary touch. In all, certainly in all the great speeches, is the fine literary quality, always felt, never seen, ever present, never obtrusive. He had the combination of Shakespeare’s Brutus or Antony, of Demosthenes or Cicero, and when he rose to his greatest heights he reached a place beyond the fear of rivalry. The practical proof and exhibition of this fact is apparent if we turn to any serious and large debate in Congress, for there we shall find Webster quoted, as he is in every session, twenty times as often as any other public man in our history. He said many profound, many luminous, many suggestive things; he was an authority on many policies and on the interpretation of the Constitution. But there have been others of whom all this might be said—there were kings before Agamemnon—but they are rarely quoted, while Webster is quoted constantly. He had strong competitors in his own day and in his own field, able, acute, and brilliant men. He rose superior to them, it appears, in his lifetime; and now that they are all dead Webster’s words are familiar to hundreds while his rivals are little more than names. So far as familiarity in the mouths of men goes, it is Eclipse first and the rest nowhere. That which has made this possible is his rare combination of speech and literature; it is the literary quality, the literary savour which keeps what Webster said fresh, strong, and living. When we open the volumes of his speeches it is not like unrolling the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy, to find within a dry and shrivelled form, a faint perfume alone surviving faintly to recall the vanished days, as when

Some queen, long dead, was young.

Rather it is like the opening of Charlemagne’s tomb, when his imperial successor started back before the enthroned figure of the great emperor looking out upon him, instinct with life under the red glare of the torches.

Let us apply another and surer test. How many speeches to a jury in a criminal trial possessing neither political nor public interest survive in fresh remembrance seventy years after their delivery? One can hardly think of jury speeches of any kind which stand this ordeal except, in a limited way, some few of Erskine’s, and those all have the advantages of historical significance, dealing as they do with constitutional and political questions of great moment. But there is one of Webster’s speeches to a jury which lives to-day, and no more crucial test could be applied than the accomplishment of such a feat. The White murder case was simply a criminal trial, without a vestige of historical, political, or general public interest. Yet Webster’s speech for the prosecution has been read and recited until well-nigh hackneyed. It is in readers and manuals. and is still declaimed by schoolboys. Some of its phrases are familiar quotations and have passed into general speech. Let us recall a single passage:

He has done the murder. No eye has seen him; no ear has heard him. The secret is his own, and it is safe.
Ah, gentlemen, that was a dreadful mistake. Such a secret can be safe nowhere. The whole creation of God has neither nook nor corner where the guilty can bestow it and say it is safe…. A thousand eyes turn at once to explore every man, everything, every circumstance connected with the time and place; a thousand ears catch every whisper; a thousand excited minds intensely dwell on the scene, shedding all their light, and ready to kindle the slightest circumstance into a blaze of discovery. Meantime the guilty soul can not keep its own secret. It is false to itself; or, rather, it feels an irresistible impulse of conscience to be true to itself. It labours under its guilty possession, and knows not what to do with it. The human heart was not made for the residence of such an inhabitant. It finds itself preyed on by a torment which it dares not acknowledge to God or man. A vulture is devouring it, and it can ask no sympathy or assistance either from heaven or earth. The secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him, and, like the evil spirits of which we read, it overcomes him and leads him whithersoever it will. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and almost hears its workings in the very silence of his thoughts. It has become his master. It betrays his discretion, it breaks down his courage, it conquers his prudence. When suspicions from without begin to embarrass him and the net of circumstance to entangle him, the fatal secret struggles with still greater violence to burst forth. It must be confessed; it will be confessed. There is no refuge from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession.

Those are words spoken to men, not written for them. It is a speech and nothing else, and yet we feel all through it the literary value and quality which make it imperishable. If now we go back to Webster’s earlier days we can trace throughout his speeches, once he had escaped from the flowers of eloquence which burdened his youth, the literary touch appearing with increasing frequency until it came continually, quite naturally and without effort. As the sureness of the literary touch increased, so did the taste become refined until it was finally almost unerring.

§ 5. The Plymouth Discourse.[edit]

The Discourse, as he called it, delivered at Plymouth in 1820 upon the two hundredth anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, was the first of the great occasional addresses which gave so much fame to Webster as an orator, wholly apart from that which he achieved in Congress or in the courts. It was evidently prepared with extreme care and has less of the effect of words actually spoken than his later work of the same character. The perfect combination of the literary quality with the spoken word, to which he afterwards attained, has not yet been reached. The Plymouth Discourse shows his wide knowledge of history, and the historical illustrations are given with an easy mastery of his subject and with a conciseness that saves him from the rambling digression which is at once the temptation and the danger of the historical parallel. There are also many passages which contain, in the manner of Burke, philosophical considerations of the science of government and which deal with the general principles affecting social and political problems. The history and philosophy are all eminently appropriate to his subject and to an address of that character. They give it weight, seriousness, and the permanence which lasts far beyond the moment of speech. The manner in which they are used and introduced is distinctly literary. But we also find in this address something more, the purely literary quality in the style and in the thought.

§ 6. Rhetoric and Literature.[edit]

It is this literary quality which concerns us here, and to appreciate it we must mark the distinction, often a very narrow one, between the rhetorical and the literary. Rhetoric is of course in its place a branch of literature, but it may be of the utmost excellence and yet lack the highest literary quality. Rhetoric is out of place in purely literary work which is not dramatic in character. Yet curiously enough it is not misplaced in poetry. Rhetorical verse, although not the highest kind of poetry, may yet be in its own sphere very admirable indeed.

You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet,
Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone?
Of two such lessons, why forget
The nobler and the manlier one?
You have the letters Cadmus gave—
Think ye he meant them for a slave?

That is rhetorical poetry and it is very fine of its kind, very splendid even. Byron was a great master of rheotrical verse, often too much so for his own good, but none the less the rhetoric is not out of place. On the other hand, to put rhetoric, except in dramatic passages, into literary prose is almost as bad as to write metred prose, of which Dickens was guilty in the description of the death of Little Nell. But when we come to giving the literary touch to rhetoric the exact reverse is the case. The rhetoric is at once lifted up and illuminated. The only objection is that the art is as rare as it is difficult, to be found in only a few great masters of speech in human history. It was precisely in this rare and difficult art that Webster excelled. His rhetoric was always unimpeachable, but his peculiar power lay in the fact that he was able to give to it with ever-increasing ease the imperishable literary quality.

We detect the first gleams of this beautiful art in the Plymouth oration. It is not necessary to take as an example the celebrated passage about the slave trade, where the rhetoric predominates; less familiar sentences prove the point. He is speaking of Rome:

Although the time might come, when darkness should settle on all her hills; when foreign or domestic violence should overturn her altars and her temples; when ignorance and despotism should fill the places where Laws, and Arts and Liberty had flourished; when the feet of barbarism should trample on the tombs of her consuls and the walls of her Senate-house and forum echo only to the voice of savage triumph.

A little farther on, speaking of the human love of home and birth-place, a well-worn theme, he says:

When the heart has laid down what it loved most, then it is desirous of laying itself down. No sculptured marble, no enduring monument, no honourable inscription, no ever burning taper that would drive away the darkness of the tomb, can soften our sense of the reality of death, and hallow to our feelings the ground which is to cover us, like the consciousness that we shall sleep, dust to dust, with the objects of our affections.

The thought in these passages is simple, oft-recurrent, entirely familiar, expressed by many other orators with great effect and received by genuinely moved audiences with much applause. The first time one looks upon them, if one could extricate them from the limbo of forgotten speeches, they might sound as well as Webster’s words. But listen to them again, read them, and it will be found that Webster’s sentences have a quality which all the others lack. Literature is interwoven with Webster’s rhetoric, and it is this that preserves what he said from the forgetfulness which has overwhelmed others who in public speech have said the same things but just a little differently and without the magic literary touch.

Let us take one more example from his early days. In 1826, speaking in the House upon the Monroe Doctrine, Webster said:

I look on the message of December, 1823, as forming a bright page in our history. I will neither help to erase it or tear it out; nor shall it be by any act of mine blurred or blotted. It did honor to the sagacity of the government and I will not diminish that honor. It elevated the hopes and gratified the patriotism of the people. Over those hopes I will not bring a mildew; nor will I put that gratified patriotism to shame.

Rhetorically this passage is all that could be desired. The sentences are short, effective, possessing both balance and precision. But when we come to the last we find the literary touch. It is only one word, “mildew,” but that single word is imaginative and strikes us at once. Leave it out and change the sentence slightly; the rhetoric remains excellent as before, but the whole effect is altered.

Let us take one or two other familiar passages from the later speeches when the style was perfected and when the literary quality had become a second nature. As Webster stood one summer morning on the ramparts of Quebec, and heard the sound of drums and saw the English troops on parade, the thought of England’s vast world empire came strongly to his mind. The thought was very natural under the circumstances, not at all remarkable nor in the least original. Some years later, in a speech in the Senate, he put his thought into words, and this, as everyone knows, is the way he did it:

A power which has dotted over the surface of the whole globe with her possessions and military posts, whose morning drumbeat, following the sun and keeping company with the hours, circles the earth with one continuous and unbroken strain of the martial airs of England.

The sentence has followed the drumbeat round the world and has been repeated in England and in the antipodes by men who never heard of Webster and probably did not know that this splendid description of the British Empire was due to an American. It is not the thought which has carried these words so far through time and space. It is the beauty of the imagery and the magic of the style. Let me take one more very simple example of the quality which distinguishes Webster’s speeches above those of others, which makes his words and serious thoughts live on when others, equally weighty and serious, perhaps, sleep or die. In his first Bunker Hill oration he apostrophized the monument, just as anyone else might have tried to do, and this is what he said:

Let it rise, let it rise till it meet the sun in his coming; let the earliest light of morning gild it, and parting day linger and play on its summit.

§ 7. Webster’s Developed Style.[edit]

Here the thought is nothing, the style everything. No one can repeat those words and be deaf to their music or insensible to the rhythm and beauty of the prose with the Saxon words relieved just sufficiently by the Latin derivatives. The ease with which it is done may be due to training, but the ability to do it comes from natural gifts which, as Goethe says, “we value more as we get older because they can not be stuck on.” Possibly to some people it may seem very simple to utter such a sentence. One can only repeat what Scott says somewhere about Swift’s style, perhaps the purest and strongest we have in the language. “Swift’s style,” said Scott, “seems so simple that one would think any child might write as he does, and yet if we try we find to our despair that it is impossible.”

It is not easy to say how much Webster’s literary art was due to intentional cultivation and how far it was purely instinctive. Undoubtedly he had a natural gift as certainly as he had an ear for the arrangement and cadence of words; but we know that he cared for style and had strong preferences in the choice of the words he used to express his thought. We have the right to infer, therefore, that he was quite aware of the art which he practised so admirably. The highly conscious art which we see in Sterne, or in Walter Pater in our own time, to take two examples at random, and which is so effective in its results, is not apparent in Webster. He would probably not have been one of the greatest of orators if it had been, for then the writer would have absorbed the speaker. We are conscious of his art, although he does not seem to be conscious of it himself. Yet, however much we may speculate as to the proportions of intentional art and of unaided natural gifts in the style of all he said, there can be no question that he possessed and had mastered the rare combination which confers the lasting quality of literature upon the speech without losing the living force of the written word. It is this most rare achievement which gives to Webster, who never wrote book or essay or verse, his uncontested place in the history of American literature.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^  There are used here, with modifications, two or three passages from an address delivered by the writer at the unveiling of the Webster monument in Washington, 14 January, 1900.

    Ever since 1800 Webster had been the exponent of a doctrine of nationalism which now made him the chief defender of the idea of union. His debate with Hayne of South Carolina in 1830, commonly called “The Great Debate,” is a classic statement of the doctrine and the idea. For twenty years Webster was the voice of New England. He failed of election as President, but he had a notable, if brief, career as secretary of state under Harrison and Tyler, 1841–43, during which he concluded with Great Britain the important Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Once more in the Senate after 1845, Webster opposed the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War. As the struggle over slavery grew more violent he turned to the side of Clay and in the famous “Seventh of March Speech” defended Clay’s Compromise Bill, with the result that he was bitterly denounced in the North as a renegade. The same year he became secretary of state again. He died under a kind of cloud, 24 October, 1852, but there can be little doubt that he, more than any other one man, contributed to the growth of that sentiment of union which sustained the national idea during the Civil War.—THE EDITORS.
  2. ^  Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury [now Franklin], New Hampshire, 18 January, 1782, of pioneer stock. A frail child, and therefore spared the hard work of his father’s farm, he was sent to Phillips Exeter Academy and to Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1801. He taught school as a make-shift, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1805. He practised first at Boscawen and then at Portsmouth, where he rapidly rose to prominence both as lawyer and public speaker. In 1813 he was sent to the House of Representatives as a Federalist member from Massachusetts, and thus came in close contact with Clay, then speaker, and Calhoun. Within a year Webster was a marked man in Congress. After four years, during which he struck many heavy blows at the administration, he resumed the practice of law. The great cases which he argued—the Dartmouth College Case, M’Culloch v. Maryland, Gibbons v. Ogden, Ogden v. Saunders—brought him into the first rank of American lawyers by the time he was forty. Meanwhile his reputation as the greatest American orator was built up by his oration at Plymouth in 1820, the Bunker Hill oration of 1825, and the speech in which he commemorated Adams and Jefferson in 1826. He returned to the House of Representatives in 1823 and in 1827 entered the Senate, in which he served till 1841.