The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Webster, Daniel
WEBSTER, Daniel, an American statesman, born in Salisbury (now Franklin), N. H., Jan. 18, 1782, died at Marshfield, Mass., Oct. 24, 1852. He was the second son of Ebenezer Webster and his second wife, Abigail Eastman. (See Webster, Ebenezer.) The schools on the frontier in his childhood (Salisbury being then the furthest settlement toward Canada in this part of New England) were very indifferent; and the best part of his early education was probably derived from his father and mother. In 1796 he was sent to the Phillips Exeter academy. While there, as he relates, he could never muster courage to make a declamation, but in other respects he gave decided promise of future eminence. In February, 1797, he was placed in the family of the Rev. Samuel Wood, of the town of Boscawen, and in the autumn entered Dartmouth college, where he partly supported himself and aided his elder brother Ezekiel to prepare for college by teaching school in winter. He read widely, especially in history and general English literature, laid a good foundation in the ancient languages, which enabled him to read the Latin classics with pleasure through life, and delivered addresses before the college societies, some of which found their way into print. By the close of his first year he had shown himself decidedly the foremost man of his class, and that position he held through his whole college course. He graduated in 1801, and immediately entered the law office of Thomas W. Thompson, his father's next-door neighbor, who was afterward a congressman and United States senator. From January to September, 1802, he was principal of the Fryeburg academy, Maine, at a salary of $350 a year, which he supplemented by copying for the register of deeds, filling two folio volumes. He afterward remained with Mr. Thompson till February, 1804, when he went to Boston and through a friend procured the charge of a school for his brother Ezekiel. With the aid which the latter was thus enabled to afford him, he entered the office of Mr. Christopher Gore, afterward governor of Massachusetts and United States senator, to complete his legal studies. With him he remained, though not continuously, from July, 1804, to March, 1805. Mr. Webster justly regarded his admission to Mr. Gore's office as “a good stride onward.” It was a situation which gave him the means of studying books, and things, and men. While there he made reports of every case decided in the supreme court of Massachusetts, and in the circuit court of the United States. Shortly after his arrival in Boston his brother returned to Dartmouth college, to attend to his graduation, leaving his school to the care of Daniel. In the spring of 1805 he was admitted to the bar of the court of common pleas in Boston. Shortly before he had been offered the clerkship of the court of common pleas of Hillsborough co., N. H. The post was worth $1,500 a year, a large income for the time, and his father, who was a member of the court, wished him to accept it; but Mr. Gore, who foresaw for him a splendid career at the bar, dissuaded him. He practised for a year at Boscawen, and in 1806 was admitted to the superior court of New Hampshire, and established himself at Portsmouth, then the capital of the state. Here he rose at once to full practice at a bar composed of eminent counsel, and attended by others of distinction from Massachusetts. — Mr. Webster came forward in life at a time when party spirit ran high. He had inherited from his father the principles of the federal party, and advocated them in speeches and resolutions on public occasions, but did not for some years embark deeply in politics. The declaration of war in 1812, long foreseen, and deprecated by the federalists, created a demand for the best talent the country could furnish. Mr. Webster had already established a commanding reputation, and in 1812 he was elected to congress. He took his seat in the special session of May, 1813, and in the organization of the house was placed on the committee of foreign affairs. The complications with foreign powers which had brought on the war, and the ways and means for meeting the greatly increased expenditure of the government, were the subjects which principally occupied the house; and in the debates on both Mr. Webster took a leading part. Early in the session he moved a series of resolutions on the repeal of the Berlin and Milan decrees, and on June 10, 1813, delivered his maiden speech on that subject. Proceeding from a person almost wholly unknown at Washington, it took the house and the country by surprise. His subsequent speeches on the increase of the navy, which he warmly recommended, and the repeal of the embargo, placed him in the first rank of debaters. He cultivated friendly relations on both sides of the house, and gained the respect of those most warmly opposed to him in politics. He was reëlected to congress in 1814. In the succeeding session he opposed the bill for a new bank of the United States, which should not be obliged to redeem its notes in coin in a speech which exhibits a perfect mastery of the abstruse subjects of banking, finance, and currency. The bill was lost by the casting vote of the speaker, but revived on a motion for its reconsideration by Mr. Webster, and so amended that it passed the house by a large majority, and was carried through the senate but was vetoed by President Madison. In the 14th congress, which met in December, 1815, Mr. Webster took an active part in support of the charter of the bank of the United States, which passed the house in April, 1816. His most important service at this session was the introduction of a resolution requiring all payments to the treasury, after Feb. 20, 1817, to be made in specie or its equivalents. This measure prevailed, and restored the depreciated currency of the country. — In December, 1813, Mr. Webster's house at Portsmouth was burned with all its contents, including his library and the entire fruits of his professional labor. This disaster, together with the limited opportunities afforded in his profession by so small a place, decided him to seek a wider field. Accordingly, at the close of the session in August, 1816, after some hesitation between Boston and Albany, he decided on Boston, in which and its vicinity he made his home, except while officially resident at Washington, till the end of his life. For nearly seven years after his removal, with a single exception, he filled no public office, but devoted himself exclusively to the practice of his profession, taking a position as a counsellor and an advocate above which no one has ever risen in this country. A choice of the best business in New England, and of that of the whole country which was adjudicated at Washington, passed into his hands. Besides the reputation which he acquired in the ordinary routine of practice, Mr. Webster, shortly after his removal to Boston, took a distinguished lead in establishing what might be called a school of constitutional law by his argument in the Dartmouth college case. In 1816 the legislature of New Hampshire passed laws altering the charter of Dartmouth college, enlarging the number of the trustees, generally reorganizing the corporation, and changing its name to Dartmouth university. The newly created body took possession of the corporate property and assumed the management of the institution. The old board brought an action against the treasurer of the new board for the record books, the original charter, the common seal, and other corporate property of the college. The case turned upon the points whether the acts of the legislature were binding upon the old corporation without their assent, and not repugnant to the constitution of the United States. It was argued twice with great ability in the courts of New Hampshire, which decided that the acts of the legislature were constitutional and valid. The case was immediately appealed to Washington, and on March 10, 1818, was argued by Mr. Webster and Mr. Hopkinson of Philadelphia for the plaintiffs, and Mr. John Holmes of Maine and Attorney General Wirt for the defendants, in error. Mr. Webster as junior counsel opened the case, and made a novel and exhaustive argument on the propositions that at common law colleges under ordinary circumstances are private eleemosynary institutions, over which the state has no control except for acts in violation of their charters; and that within the meaning of the constitution of the United States the charter of such an institution is a contract which the legislature of a state cannot annul. The decision of the court was pronounced by Chief Justice Marshall, at the term for 1819, declaring the acts of the legislature of New Hampshire unconstitutional, and reversing the decision of the court below. By this decision the law of the land in reference to collegiate charters was firmly fixed. This case established Mr. Webster's reputation at the supreme court of the United States, and he was thenceforward retained in almost every considerable cause argued at Washington. It will be sufficient to name the cases of Gibbons and Ogden (the great steamer monopoly case), the case of Ogden and Saunders (state insolvent laws), the Charles river bridge case, the Alabama bank case, the validity of Mr. Girard's will, the Rhode Island charter case, and the great India-rubber case argued before the circuit court of New Jersey in the last year of his life. In the trials of Goodridge at Newburyport, shortly after his removal to Boston, and the great cause célèbre of Knapp at Saluin, Mr. Webster exhibited skill as a criminal lawyer which has never been surpassed. — In 1820 Mr. Webster was a member of the Massachusetts convention to revise the constitution of that state after the separation of Maine. The principal subjects on which he spoke at length were oaths of office, the basis of senatorial representation, and the independence of the judiciary. During its session he pronounced, on Dec. 22, 1820, his celebrated discourse at Plymouth on the anniversary of the landing of the pilgrim fathers. This was the first of a series of performances, apart from the efforts of the senate and the bar, by which he placed himself at the head of American orators. The other addresses of this class were his orations at the laying of the corner stone of the Bunker Hill monument in June, 1825, and at the completion of that structure in June, 1843; the eulogy on Adams and Jefferson in 1826; and his discourse on laying the corner stone of the extension of the capi
itol in 1851. In the autumn of 1822 he was elected to congress from Boston by a very large majority. Early in the session, commencing in December, 1823, he made his famous speech on the Greek revolution, a powerful remonstrance against the principles of the “holy alliance.” The subject of the tariff was discussed at this session, and Mr. Webster opposed an extravagant increase of protective duties. As chairman of the judiciary committee, he reported and carried through the house a complete revision of the criminal law of the United States. The second session of the 18th congress is memorable for the election of John Quincy Adams as president of the United States by the house of representatives. Mr. Webster, as long as he remained a member of the house, was the leader of the friends of the administration in that body. He was reëlected in 1824. In 1827 he was elected by the legislature of Massachusetts to the senate of the United States to fill a vacancy, and retained his seat by reëlection till 1841. The principal topic at the first session of the 20th congress was the revision of the tariff, with special reference at first to protection of the woollen interest. Mr. Webster, in an elaborate argument, showed that a moderate protective system had now become the settled policy of the country; and that the capital invested in manufactures was far too considerable to be exposed to the caprices of the foreign market, fraudulent invoices, and the competition of foreign labor working on starvation wages. The first session of the 21st congress was signalized by the famous debate on Foot's resolution relative to the survey of the public lands, which gradually assumed the character of partisan warfare, and mainly related to the newly promulgated doctrines of the school of Mr. Calhoun on the right of an individual state to nullify an act of congress. Two speeches were made by Mr. Webster, of which the second, pronounced on Jan. 26 and 27, 1830, is the most celebrated of his parliamentary efforts. His first speech was an entirely unpremeditated reply to the first of Mr. Hayne, who endeavored in an elaborate argument to prove that New England had always pursued an unfriendly course toward the western states. Mr. Benton followed Mr. Webster, and Mr. Hayne then claimed the right of rejoinder. His second speech was still more strongly marked with bitterness toward the eastern states, and bordered on the offensive toward Mr. Webster. He also reaffirmed, with great emphasis, the doctrine of nullification. This speech occupied a part of one day and the whole of the next. Mr. Webster began his reply the next day, and completed it the day after. He had a threefold task to perform: first, to repel the personalities toward himself which formed a very prominent part of Mr. Hayne's speech, and this was done by a few retaliatory strokes, in which the keenest sarcasm was so mingled with unaffected good humor and manly expostulation as to command the sympathy of the audience; secondly, to vindicate the eastern states in general, and Massachusetts in particular, which was done with the utmost spirit and effect; and lastly, and what Mr. Webster deemed by far the most important object, to overthrow the doctrine of nullification, as held and expounded by the South Carolina school. The senate chamber was crowded to its utmost capacity on both days, and certainly a more brilliant parliamentary success was never achieved. At the close of the second day Mr. Hayne attempted a reply. He spoke only about half an hour, principally in answer to Mr. Webster's constitutional argument, and reaffirming the South Carolina theory; but the report of the speech filled 19 columns in the public journals. Mr. Webster made a brief rejoinder, including a recapitulation of his own argument, which for condensation and force may be cited as a specimen of parliamentary logic never surpassed. The speech was more widely circulated throughout the country than any that had ever before been made, and except in South Carolina was universally considered as having given the coup de grâce to the doctrine that it is competent for an individual state to annul an act of congress. From this time to the accession of Gen. Harrison to the presidency in 1841, the principal occurrences were the breaking up of the combinations which had borne Gen. Jackson into the presidency; the rejection of Mr. Van Buren's nomination as minister to England by the united votes of Messrs. Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, and their friends; the bill to recharter the bank of the United States, and its veto by President Jackson; the ordinance of nullification adopted by South Carolina; the force bill in congress; the compromise tariff of Mr. Clay; the removal of the public deposits from the bank of the United States and their distribution among the local banks; the resolution of the senate disapproving of that measure, and the message from the president protesting against the resolution; the expunging resolution; the election of Mr. Van Buren to the presidency; the financial crisis of 1837, and the extra session of congress occasioned by it, with the new government plan of finance. These events furnished the topics of a series of debates in the senate, in all of which Mr. Webster took a leading part. Mr. Webster's argument on what was called the “subtreasury” system of the administration was the most elaborate and effective of his speeches on the currency. — In the spring of 1839 Mr. Webster crossed the Atlantic and made a hasty tour in England, Scotland, and France. Returning in the early winter, he yielded the most efficient aid in bringing about the great political change which was consummated in the election of Gen. Harrison to the presidency. His own name had been prominently brought forward as candidate for vice president, but, in conformity with the almost invariable usage of the political parties, it was deemed expedient that the candidates for the two offices should not be from the same section of the Union. On this ground Mr. Webster withdrew his name, and that of Mr. Tyler was substituted. Gen. Harrison, as soon as it was ascertained that he was elected, offered to Mr. Webster the choice of places in his cabinet. The condition of the foreign relations of the country was extremely critical, and it was finally decided that he should take charge of the department of state. Harrison's death and the succession of Mr. Tyler to the presidency menaced the harmony of the administration, and finally overturned it; but no changes took place immediately. Our relations with England demanded prompt attention. The differences between the two governments relative to the northeastern boundary, which for nearly two generations had tasked to the utmost the resources of diplomacy, the affair of the Caroline and McLeod, and the detention and search of American vessels by British cruisers on the coast of Africa, were subjects of controversy which imperatively demanded a peaceful solution. Fortunately a change of ministry took place in England at the end of August, 1841, and the new administrations in both countries were able to address themselves to the difficult task of a comprehensive settlement. Lord Ashburton was sent as a special envoy to the United States, and in a few months a convention was agreed upon equally advantageous and honorable to both parties. Mr. Webster retired from the administration of Mr. Tyler in the spring of 1843, the other members of the cabinet having resigned their places in the preceding summer. His continuance in office after the president's change of policy had been severely blamed in some quarters; but the critical state of foreign relations and Mr. Tyler's undiminished confidence in him were deemed sufficient justification by the more moderate of his party. He remained in private life during the residue of Mr. Tyler's administration, for the first time in 20 years, occupied more than ever with professional duties. In the autumn of 1844 he supported Mr. Clay's nomination to the presidency. The question at issue was the annexation of Texas, and was decided in favor of that measure by the election of Mr. Polk. At the first session of the 29th congress (December, 1845) Mr. Webster took his seat in the senate of the United States, as the successor of Mr. Choate. He opposed the annexation of Texas as unconstitutional, but he thought it his duty, after the war with Mexico was actually commenced, not to withhold the supplies which were required for the sustenance and reënforcement of our troops. His second son, Edward, obtained a major's commission in Gen. Scott's army, and died in the city of Mexico. The Oregon boundary question was settled at this time, and Mr. Webster, though holding no executive office, was able, through private channels of influence in England, to contribute materially to this result. In the spring of 1847 he set out upon a visit to the southern states, where he was uniformly received with cordiality, especially at Charleston, Columbia, Augusta, and Savannah. At Savannah he was threatened with severe illness, and obliged to abandon the further prosecution of his tour. In the course of this year the Mexican war was brought to a triumphant close. Mr. Webster, foreseeing that the territory acquired by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) would prove a Pandora's box of evil to the country, voted against its confirmation. The great popularity of Gen. Taylor led to his nomination as the candidate of the whig party at the ensuing presidential election. The friends of Mr. Webster had calculated, with some confidence, that the choice of the nominating convention would full upon him; but nothing occurred to prevent him and his friends from giving a cordial support to Taylor's administration. The controversies relative to slavery had become violent beyond former example, in consequence of the recent territorial acquisitions. California, having without previous congressional sanction adopted a constitution by which slavery was prohibited, was applying for admission to the Union; New Mexico was to be organized as a territory; a claim was set up by Texas to an extensive region on her border; while at this inauspicious season a more stringent law for the extradition of fugitive slaves was demanded by the south. The excitement in congress and through the country had reached a dangerous height, and a national crisis seemed to be impending. A series of compromise measures was at length adopted in congress, by which the threatened catastrophe was for the time averted. In the progress of the senatorial debates on these subjects, Mr. Webster delivered his much criticised speech of the 7th of March, 1850, in which he abandoned the Wilmot proviso and justified the fugitive slave law. In making this concession for the sake of conciliation, he was not without melancholy forebodings of its failure to unite even the unanimous suffrage of his political friends. While the compromise measures were still before congress, about midsummer of 1850, President Taylor died. In the reorganization of the cabinet by President Fillmore, Mr. Webster was called to the department of state. The movements of the filibusters against Cuba, successful attempts in different parts of the country to resist the execution of the fugitive slave law, the arrival in America of Kossuth and the other Hungarian exiles, the apprehensions of a collision with the British cruisers on the fishing grounds, the affair of the Crescent City at Havana, the misunderstanding with Peru relative to the Lobos islands, the Japanese expeditions, the proposed tripartite guaranty of Cuba, the reciprocity treaty relative to the Canadian provinces, and the affairs of Central America were the subjects which engaged the attention of Mr. Fillmore's administration while Mr. Webster remained in charge of that department. On July 4, 1851, he delivered an address at the laying of the corner stone of the extension of the capitol, which was his last discourse of this kind. In January, 1852, he argued the important India-rubber patent cause at Trenton. This was his last great forensic effort. In the spring of that year the whig presidential convention assembled at Baltimore. Sanguine hopes were entertained by the friends of Mr. Webster, but the choice of the convention fell upon Gen. Scott. Early in May Mr. Webster was seriously injured by being thrown from his carriage near his farm in Marshfield. In June he went back for a short time to Washington, but his health required, in addition to a cooler climate, the repose which he could only find at home. He made another short visit to Washington in August. The few closing months of his life were passed at Marshfield. The last matter of public business which engaged much of his attention was the affair of the American fisheries off the coasts of the British provinces. After his final return from Washington chronic complaints gained rapidly upon him. Sensible that his failing health did not admit the punctual discharge of the duties of his office, he tendered his resignation, which was declined by Mr. Fillmore. His funeral was attended at Marshfield in the presence of a great part of the population of that place and the neighboring towns, of a large number of persons from Boston and other parts of Massachusetts, and of deputations from New York, Albany, and Philadelphia. Funeral orations, discourses, and sermons were delivered throughout the country, in great numbers. — Mr. Webster's person was imposing, of commanding height and well proportioned; his head of great size; his eyes deep-seated, large, and lustrous; his voice powerful, sonorous, and flexible; his action, without being remarkably graceful, was appropriate and impressive. He went to bed and rose early, and despatched the business of the day as much as possible during the morning hours. He was extremely fond of field sports, particularly fishing, and was a remarkably good shot. His social tastes were very strong, and his conversational powers have rarely been equalled. His happiest days were passed upon his farms. He understood agriculture theoretically and practically, and took great pride in his fine stock and large crops. He was a regular attendant on public worship. Portraits at different periods of his life by the most distinguished artists of the day, and his bust by Powers, will convey to posterity no inadequate idea of his countenance and form. Mr. Webster was married in early life to Grace Fletcher of Hopkinton, N. H. Of this marriage were born Charles, Julia, Edward, and Fletcher, of whom the last, the only one who survived him, fell as colonel of the 12th Massachusetts volunteers in the battle of Aug. 29, 1862, near Bull Run. Mr. Webster's first wife died in January, 1828, and in December, 1829, he married Caroline Bayard Le Roy, daughter of an eminent merchant in New York, who survives him. — Several editions of his collective works were published during his lifetime, the most complete in 6 vols. 8vo (1851). Two volumes of his private correspondence were published by his son in 1858. His biography has been written by George Ticknor Curtis (2 vols., New York, 1869). See also “Daniel Webster and his Contemporaries,” by the Hon. C. W. March (New York, 1876).