Of the generation of American statesmen that followed those of the Revolutionary period few will live as long in the memory of the people, and none as long in the literature of the country, as Daniel Webster. His figure rises above the level of his time like a monument of colossal proportions. He was a child of the war of Independence, born in 1782. His father, a Puritan of stern and sterling character, had, as a backwoods farmer in New Hampshire, been an Indian fighter while New England had an Indian frontier, a soldier in the French war and a captain in the Revolutionary army. His high standing among his neighbors made him a judge of the local court. Ambitious for his children, he strained his scanty means to the utmost to give his son the best education within reach, first at Exeter Academy, then at Dartmouth College. From his earliest days Daniel was petted by good fortune. His seemingly delicate health, his genial nature and his promising looks put, in the family circle, everybody at his service, even at personal sacrifice; and such sacrifice by others he became gradually accustomed to expect, as a prince expects homage.
At the academy and the college he shone not by phenomenal precocity, but by rapid progress in the studies he liked — Latin, literature and history. He did not excel in the qualities of the genuine scholar — patient and thorough research and the eager pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; but he was a voracious reader, assimilating easily what he read by dint of a strong memory and of serious reflection, and soon developed the faculty of making the most of what he knew by clear, vigorous, affluent and impressive utterance. At an early age, too, he commanded attention by a singular charm of presence, to which his great dark eyes contributed not a little, and, notwithstanding his high animal spirits, by a striking dignity of carriage and demeanor — traits which gradually matured into that singularly imposing personality, the effect of which is described by his contemporaries in language almost extravagant, borrowing its similes from kings, cathedrals and mountain-peaks.
His conspicuous power of speech caused him, even during his college days, to be drawn upon for orations on the Fourth of July and other festive days. The same faculty, reenforced by his virtue of knowing what he knew, gave him, after he had gone through the usual course of law study, early successes at the bar, which soon carried him from the field of legal practice into political life. He inherited Federalism from his father, and naturally accepted it, because he was a conservative by instinct and temperament. Existing things had a prima facie claim upon his respect and support because they existed. He followed his party with fidelity, sometimes at the expense of his reason and logic, but without the narrow-mindedness of a proscriptive partisan spirit. In the excited discussions which preceded and accompanied the war of 1812 he took an active part as a public speaker and a pamphleteer. Something happened then, at the very beginning of his public career, that revealed in strong light the elements of strength as well as those of weakness in his nature. In a speech on the Fourth of July, 1812, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he set forth in vigorous language his opposition to the war policy of the Administration; but with equal emphasis he also declared that the remedy lay not in lawless resistance, but only in “the exercise of the constitutional right of suffrage” — a proposition then by no means popular with the extreme Federalists of New England. A few weeks later he was appointed by a local mass convention of Federalists to write an address on the same subject, which became widely known as the “Rockingham Memorial.” In it he set forth with signal force the complaints of his party, but, as to the remedy, he consented to give voice to the sense of the meeting by a thinly veiled threat of secession and a hint on the possibility of a dissolution of the Union. In the first case he expressed his own opinions as a statesman and a patriot; in the second he accepted the opinions of those around him as his own, and spoke with equal ability and vigor as the mouthpiece or attorney of others — a double character destined to reappear from time to time in his public life with puzzling effect.
New Hampshire sent him to Congress, where he took his seat in the House of Representatives in May, 1813. He soon won a place in the front rank of debaters, especially on questions of finance. But the two terms during which he represented a New Hampshire constituency were a mere prelude to his great political career. In 1817 he left Congress to give himself to his legal practice, which gained much in distinction and lucrativeness by his removal to Boston. He rose rapidly to National eminence as a practitioner in the Federal as well as the State tribunals. It was there that he won peculiar luster through his memorable argument in the famous Dartmouth College case before the Federal Supreme Court, which fascinated John Marshall on the bench, and moved to tears the thronged audience in the courtroom. It left Webster with no superior and with few rivals at the American bar. It may be questioned whether he was a great lawyer in the highest sense. There were others whose knowledge was larger and more thorough, and whose legal opinion carried greater authority. But hardly any of these surpassed him in the faculty of seizing with instinctive sureness of grasp the vital point of a cause, of endowing mere statement with the power of demonstration, of marshaling facts and arguments in massive array for concentric attack on the decisive point, of moving the feelings together with the understanding by appeals of singular magic and also of so assimilating and using the work of others as if it had been his own. Adding to all this the charm of that imposing personality which made every word falling from his lips sound as if it were entitled to far more than ordinary respect, he could not fail to win brilliant successes. He was engaged in many of the most important and celebrated cases of his time — some then celebrated and still remembered because of the part he played in them.
In Boston Webster found a thoroughly congenial home. Its history and traditions, its wealth and commercial activity, the high character of its citizenship, the academic atmosphere created by its institutions of learning, the refined tone of its social circles, the fame of its public men, made the Boston of that period, in the main attributes of civilized life, the foremost city in the United States. Boston society received Webster with open arms, and presently he became, in an almost unexampled measure, its idol. Together with the most distinguished personages of the State, among them the venerable John Adams, he was elected a member of the convention called to revise the State constitution, where, as the champion of conservative principles, he advocated and carried the proposition that the State senate should remain the representative of property. When, in 1820, the day arrived for the celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, it was he whom the public voice designated as the orator of the day. The oration, with its historical picturesqueness, its richness of thought and reasoning, its broad sweep of contemplation and the noble and magnificent simplicity of its eloquence, was in itself an event. No literary production of the period in America achieved greater renown. From that time on Massachusetts loved to exhibit herself in his person on occasions of state, and, in preference to all others, Webster was her spokesman when she commemorated the great events of her history. As such he produced a series of addresses — at the laying of the corner-stone and, later, at the completion of the Bunker Hill monument, on the death of John Adams and of Thomas Jefferson and on other occasions — which his contemporaries acclaimed as ranking with the greatest oratorical achievements of antiquity.
Webster soon appeared in Congress again, first in 1823, in the House of Representatives, as the member from the Boston district, and a few years later in the Senate. Then began the most brilliant part of his political career. It was the period when the component elements of the old political parties, the Federalists and the Republicans, became intermingled, when old party issues vanished, and when new questions, or rather old questions in new shapes and relations, caused new groupings of men to be formed. In the confusion of the political and personal conflicts which characterized the so-called “era of good feeling,” and which immediately followed it, Webster became a supporter of the Administration of John Quincy Adams, and, as an old Federalist and conservative, was naturally attracted by that combination of political forces which subsequently organized itself as the Whig party.
In the House of Representatives he attracted the attention of the world abroad by a stinging philippic against the “Holy Alliance,” in a eulogy on the Greek revolution and by a sober exposition of the Monroe doctrine in a speech on the famous Panama mission. But his most remarkable achievement was an argument against Henry Clay's “American system,” tariff protection as a policy — the very policy which was destined to become the corner-stone of the Whig platform. Webster's free-trade speech — for so it may be called — summed up and amplified the views he had already expressed on previous occasions, in a presentation of fundamental principles so broad and clear, with a display of knowledge so rich and accurate and an analysis of facts and theories so keen and thorough, that it stands unsurpassed in our political literature, and may still serve as a text-book to students of economic science. But Clay's tariff was adopted nevertheless, and four years later Webster abandoned many of his own conclusions, on the ground that in the meantime New England, accepting protection as the established policy of the country, had invested much capital in manufacturing enterprises, the success of which depended upon the maintenance of the protective policy, and should therefore not be left in the lurch. For this reason he became a protectionist. This plea appeared again and again in his high-tariff speeches which followed; but he never attempted to deny or shake the broad principles so strongly set forth in his great argument of 1824.
Webster reached the highest point of his power and fame when, in 1830, he gave voice, as no one else could, to the National consciousness of the American people. Before the war of 1812 the Union had been looked upon by many thoughtful and patriotic Americans as an experiment — a promising one, indeed, but of uncertain issue. Whether it would be able to endure the strain of divergent local interests, feelings and aspirations, and whether its component parts would continue in the desire permanently to remain together in one political structure, were still matters of doubt and speculation. The results of the war of 1812 did much to inspire the American heart with a glow of pride in the great common country, with confident anticipations of its high destinies and with an instinctive feeling that the greatness of the country and the splendors of its destinies depended altogether upon the permanency of the Union. The original theory that the Constitution of the United States was a mere compact of partnership between independent and sovereign commonwealths, to be dissolved at will, whatever historical foundation it may have had, yielded to an overruling sentiment of a common nationality.
This sentiment was affronted by the nullification movement in South Carolina, which, under the guise of resistance to the high tariff of 1828, sought to erect a bulwark for slavery through the enforcement of the doctrine that a State by its sovereign action could overrule a Federal law, and might, as a last resort, legally withdraw from the “Federal compact.” Against this assumption Webster rose up in his might like Samson going forth against the Philistines. In his famous “Reply to Hayne” he struck down the doctrine of the legality of State resistance and of secession with blows so crushing, and maintained the supremacy of the Federal authority in its sphere and the indissolubility of the Union with an eloquence so grand and triumphant, that as his words went over the land the National heart bounded with joy, and broke out in enthusiastic acclamations. At that moment Webster stood before the world as the first of living Americans. Nor was this the mere sensation of a day. His “Liberty and Union, one and inseparable, now and forever!” remained the watchword of American patriotism, and still reverberated thirty years later in the thunders of the civil war. That glorious epoch continues to hold the first place among the monuments of American oratory.
In the contest against the nullification movement in South Carolina, Webster firmly maintained, against Henry Clay's compromise policy, that, wherever the National authority was lawlessly set at defiance, peace should never be purchased by concession to the challengers, and that it was time to “test the strength of the government.” He therefore sturdily supported President Jackson's “force bill,” although the Administration of that doughty warrior was otherwise most uncongenial to him. But when the compromise had actually been adopted, he dropped back into the party line behind Clay's leadership, which he thenceforth never again forsook. There was an element of indolence in his nature, which it needed strong impulses to overcome so as to set the vast machinery of his mind in full motion. Such an impulse was furnished again by Jackson's attack on the United States Bank, and by other somewhat autocratic financial measures. Webster opposed this policy in a series of speeches on currency and banking, which deserve very high rank in the literature of that branch of economics. They were not free from partisan bias in the specific application of those fundamental principles of which Webster had such a masterly grasp; but, notwithstanding this, his deep insight into the nature and conditions of credit, and his thorough study and profound judgment of the functions of banking, made him an invaluable teacher of the science of public finance. Nobody has ever depicted the vices and dangers inherent in an unsound currency, and the necessity of grounding the monetary system upon a firm basis of value, with greater force and more convincing lucidity.
But in spite of the brilliancy and strength of his efforts in opposing Jackson's willful and erratic policies, Webster never became the real leader of the Whig party. Although he was greatly the superior of Clay in wealth of knowledge, in depth of thought, in statesmanlike breadth of view, in solidity of reasoning power and in argumentative eloquence, he fell far behind him in those attributes which in contests for general leadership are apt to turn the scale — the spirit of initiative, force of will, that sincere self-confidence which extorts confidence from others, bold self-assertion in doubtful situations and constant alertness in watching and directing the details of political movements. Clay, therefore, remained the general leader of the Whig party, while Webster, with New England at his back, stood now by his side, now behind him, as in feudal times a great duke, rich in treasure and lands and retainers, himself of royal blood, may have stood now behind, now by the side of his king.
Unhappily for himself, Webster was not satisfied with the theater of action on which his abilities fitted him for the greatest service, and on which he achieved his highest renown. At a comparatively early period of his career he ardently wished to be sent as Minister to England, and he bore a grudge to John Quincy Adams for his failure to gratify that desire. Ever since his “Reply to Hayne” had made his name a household word in the country, an ungovernable longing possessed him to be President of the United States. The morbid craving commonly called “the Presidential fever” developed in him, as it became chronic, its most distressing forms, disordering his ambition, unsettling his judgment and warping his statesmanship. His imagination always saw the coveted prize within his grasp, which in reality it never was. He lacked the sort of popularity which, since the Administration of John Quincy Adams, seemed to be required for a Presidential candidacy. He travelled over the land, South and North and East and West, to manufacture it for himself, but in vain. The people looked at him with awe and listened to him with rapture and wonder, but as to the Presidency the fancy and favor of the politicians, as well as of the masses, obstinately ran to other men. So it was again and again. Clay, too, was unfortunate as a Presidential candidate. But he could have at least the nomination of his party so long as there appeared to be any hope for his election. Webster was denied even that. The vote for him in the party conventions was always distressingly small, usually confined to New England, or only a part of it. Yet he never ceased to hope against hope, and thus to invite more and more galling disappointments. To Henry Clay he could yield without humiliation; but when he saw his party prefer to himself, not once, but twice and three times, men of only military fame, without any political significance whatever, his mortification was so keen that, in the bitterness of his soul, he twice openly protested against the result. Worse than all this, he had to meet the fate — a fate not uncommon with chronic Presidential candidates — to see the most important and most questionable act of his last years attributed to his inordinate craving for the elusive prize.
The cause of this steady succession of failures may have been partly that the people found him too unlike themselves — too unfamiliar to the popular heart — and partly that the party managers shrunk from nominating him because they saw in him not only a giant, but a very vulnerable giant, who would not “wear well” as a candidate. They had, indeed, reason to fear the discussions to which in an excited canvass his private character would be subjected. Of his moral failings those relating to money were the most notorious and the most offensive to the moral sense of the plain people. In the course of his public life he became accustomed not only to the adulation but also to the material generosity of his followers. Great as his professional income was, his prodigality went far beyond his means, and the recklessness with which he borrowed and forgot to return betrayed an utter insensibility to pecuniary obligation. With the coolest nonchalance he spent the money of his friends and left to them his debts for payment. This habit increased as he grew older, and severely tested the endurance of his admirers. So grave a departure from the principles of common honesty could not fail to cast a dark shadow upon his character, and it is not strange that the cloud of distrust should have spread from his private to his public morals. The charge was made that he stood in the Senate advocating high tariff as the paid attorney of the manufacturers of New England. It was met by the answer that so great a man would not sell himself. This should have been enough. Nevertheless, his defenders were grievously embarrassed when the fact was pointed out that it was, after all, in great part the money of the rich manufacturers and bankers that stocked his farm, furnished his house, supplied his table and paid his bills. A man less great could hardly have long sustained himself in public life under such a burden of suspicion. That Daniel Webster did sustain himself is a striking proof of the strength of his prestige. But his moral failings cost him the noblest fruit of great service — an unbounded public confidence.
Although disappointed in his own expectations, he vigorously supported General Harrison for the Presidency in the campaign of 1840, and in 1841 was made Secretary of State. He remained in that office until he had concluded the famous Ashburton treaty, under the Administration of President Tyler, who turned against the Whig policies. After his resignation he was again elected to the Senate. Then a fateful crisis in his career approached.
The annexation of Texas, the Mexican war and the acquisition of territory on our southern and western border brought the slavery question sharply into the foreground. Webster had always, when occasion called for a demonstration of sentiment, denounced slavery as a great moral and political evil, and although affirming that under the Constitution it could not be touched by the action of the general government in the States in which it existed, declared himself against its extension. He had opposed the annexation of Texas, the war against Mexico and the enlargement of the republic by conquest. But while he did not abandon his position concerning slavery, his tone in maintaining it grew gradually milder. The impression gained ground that as a standing candidate for the Presidency he became more and more anxious to conciliate Southern opinion.
Then the day came that tried men's souls. The slave-power had favored war and conquest, hoping that the newly acquired territory would furnish more slave States and more Senators in its interest. That hope was cruelly dashed when California presented herself for admission into the Union with a State constitution excluding slavery from her soil. To the slave-power this was a stunning blow. It had fought for more slave States and conquered for more free States. The admission of California would hopelessly destroy the balance of power between freedom and slavery in the Senate. The country soon was ablaze with excitement. In the North the anti-slavery feeling ran high. The “fire-eaters” of the South, exasperated beyond measure by their disappointment, vociferously threatened to disrupt the Union. Henry Clay, true to his record, hoped to avert the danger by a compromise. He sought to reconcile the South to the inevitable admission of California by certain concessions to slavery, among them the ill-famed and ill-fated fugitive-slave law — a law offensive not only to anti-slavery sentiment, but also to the common impulses of humanity and to the pride of manhood.
Webster had to choose. The anti-slavery men of New England, and even many of his conservative friends, hoped and expected that he would again, as he had done in nullification times, proudly plant the Union flag in the face of a disunion threat, with a defiant refusal of concession to a rebellious spirit, and give voice to the moral sense of the North. But Webster chose otherwise. On the 7th of March, 1850, he spoke in the Senate. The whole country listened with bated breath. While denouncing secession and pleading for the Union in glowing periods, he spoke of slavery in regretful but almost apologetic accents, upbraided the abolitionists as mischievous marplots, earnestly advocated the compromise and commended that feature of it which was most odious to Northern sentiment — the fugitive-slave law.
From this “Seventh of March Speech” — by that name it has passed into history — Webster never recovered. It stood in too striking a contrast to the “Reply to Hayne.” There was, indeed, still the same lucid comprehensiveness of statement. The heavy battalions of argument marched with the same massive tread. But there was lacking that which had been the great inspiration of the “Reply to Hayne” — the triumphant consciousness of being right. The effect of the speech corresponded to its character. Southern men welcomed it as a sign of Northern submissiveness, but it did not go far enough to satisfy them. The impression it made upon the anti-slavery people of the North was painful in the extreme. They saw in it “the fall of an archangel.” Many of them denounced it as the treacherous bid of a Presidential candidate for Southern favor. Their reproaches varied from the indignant murmur to the shrillest note of execration. Persons less interested or excited looked up at the colossal figure of the old hero of “Liberty and Union” with a sort of bewildered dismay, as if something unnatural and portentous had happened to him. Even many of his stanchest adherents among the conservative Whigs stood at first stunned and perplexed, needing some time to gather themselves up for his defense.
This was not surprising. Henry Clay could plan and advocate the compromise of 1850 without loss of character. Although a man of anti-slavery instincts, he was himself a slaveholder representing a slaveholding community — a compromise in his very being; and compromise had always been the vital feature of his statesmanship. But Webster could not apologize for slavery, and in its behalf approve compromise and concession in the face of disunion threats, without turning his back upon the most illustrious feat of his public life. Injustice may have been done to him by the assailants of his motives, but it can hardly be denied that the evidence of circumstances stood glaringly against him. He himself was ill at ease. The virulent epithets and sneers with which he thenceforth aspersed anti-slavery principles and anti-slavery men, contrasting strangely with the stately decorum he had always cultivated in his public utterances, betrayed the bitterness of a troubled soul.
The 7th-of-March speech, and the series of addresses with which he sought to set right and fortify the position he had taken, helped greatly in inducing both political parties to accept the compromise of 1850, and also in checking, at least for the time being, the anti-slavery movement in the Northern States. But they could not kill that movement, nor could they prevent the coming of the final crisis. They did, however, render him acceptable to the slave-power when, after the death of General Taylor, President Fillmore made him Secretary of State. Once more he stirred the people's heart by a note addressed to the Chevalier Hülsemann, the Austrian chargé d'affaires, in which, defending the mission of a special agent to inquire into the state of the Hungarian insurrection, he proudly justified the conduct of the government, pointed exultingly to the greatness of the republic and vigorously vindicated the sympathies of the American people with every advance of free institutions the world over. The whole people applauded, and this was the last flash of popularity.
In 1852 his hope to attain the Whig nomination for the Presidency rose to the highest pitch, although his prospects were darker than ever. But he had reached the age of seventy; this was his last chance, and he clung to it with desperate eagerness. He firmly counted upon receiving in the Convention a large number of Southern votes; he received not one. His defeat could hardly have been more overwhelming. The nomination fell to General Scott. In the agony of his disappointment Webster advised his friends to vote for the Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce. In 1848 he had declared General Taylor's nomination to be one “not fit to be made”; but, after all, he had supported it. Then he still saw a possibility for himself ahead. In 1852, the last hope having vanished, he punished his party for having refused him what he thought his due by openly declaring for the opposition. The reasons he gave for this extreme step were neither tenable nor even plausible. It was a wail of utter despair.
His health had for some time been failing, and the shock which his defeat gave him aggravated his ailment. On the morning of October 24, 1852, he died. Henry Clay's death had preceded his by four months. The month following saw the final discomfiture of the Whig party. The very effort of its chiefs to hold it together and to preserve the Union by concessions to slavery disrupted it so thoroughly that it could never again rally. Its very name soon disappeared. Less than two years after Webster's death the whole policy of compromise broke down in total collapse. Massachusetts herself had risen against it, and in Webster's seat in the Senate sat Charles Sumner, the very embodiment of the uncompromising anti-slavery conscience. The “irrepressible conflict” between freedom and slavery rudely swept aside all other politics and filled the stage. The thunder-clouds of the coming civil war loomed darkly above the horizon.
In the turmoils that followed, all of Webster's work sank into temporary oblivion, except his greatest and best. The echoes of the “Reply to Hayne” awoke again. “Liberty and Union, one and inseparable, now and forever!” became not merely the watchword of a party, but the battlecry of armed hosts. “I still live,” had been his last words on his death-bed. Indeed, he still lived in his noblest achievement, and thus he will long continue to live.
Over Webster's grave there was much heated dispute as to the place he would occupy in the history of his country. Many of those who had idolized him during his life extolled him still more after his death as the demigod whose greatness put all his motives and acts above criticism, and whose genius excused all human frailties. Others, still feeling the smart of the disappointment which that fatal 7th of March had given them, would see in him nothing but rare gifts and great opportunities prostituted by vulgar appetites and a selfish ambition. The present generation, remote from the struggles and passions of those days, will be more impartial in its judgment. Looking back upon the time in which he lived, it beholds his statuesque form towering with strange grandeur among his contemporaries — huge in his strength, and huge also in his weaknesses and faults; not, indeed, an originator of policies or measures, but a marvelous expounder of principles, laws and facts, who illumined every topic of public concern he touched with the light of a sovereign intelligence and vast knowledge; who by overpowering argument riveted around the Union unbreakable bonds of Constitutional doctrine; who awakened to new life and animated with invincible vigor the National spirit; who left to his countrymen and to the world invaluable lessons of statesmanship, right and patriotism, in language of grand simplicity and prodigiously forceful clearness; and who might stand as its greatest man in the political history of America had he been a master-character as he was a master-mind.