1902 Encyclopedia > Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster
American statesman
(1782-1852)




DANIEL WEBSTER (1782-1852), American statesman, was born at Salisbury, New Hampshire, January 18, 1782. His family can be traced back without difficulty to Thomas Webster, of Scottish ancestry, who settled in New Hampshire in 1636, but no further. Ebenezer Webster, the father of Daniel, rose to the rank of captain in the " French and Indian War." From him his sons Ezekiel and Daniel inherited great physical force ; their mother, Abigail Eastman, gave them their intellectual powers. Daniel always insisted on considering his elder Ibrother, who became a leading lawyer in his native State, as really his superior in intellect, and the correspondence between them was close and confidential until Ezekiel's death in 1829. Living on the frontier, Daniel was com' pelled to depend for early education on his mother and on the scanty schooling customary in winter ; and for much of this he was indebted to the fact that he was physically the weakest of his family. It is a little odd, however, that he failed utterly in that with which his final reputation was so closely connected. In his own words : "There was one thing I could not do: I could not make a declamation; I could not speak before the school." When he was fifteen years old a family council decided to send him to college, a step involving severe abstinence and additional struggle on the part of his immediate relatives. After an imperfect preparation, he graduated at Dartmouth College in 1801, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in Boston in 1805, from the office of Christopher Gore.

Regard for his father made Webster begin practice in the town of Boscawen, near his early home ; but his father died within a year, and he removed to Portsmouth, the largest town of the State. Here he took a leading place at the bar, having but one rival. In May 1813 he entered Congress as a representative from New Hampshire, being placed at once on the committee of foreign affairs. As a moderate Federalist, he held that attacks on Canada should cease, and that the war should be confined to the ocean. His first speech showed that the raw New Hampshire boy of a dozen years before had developed new lowers. " If the war must continue, go to the ocean. If you are seriously contending for maritime rights, go to the theatre where alone those rights can be defended. Thither every indication of your fortune points you. There the united wishes and exertions of the nation will go with you. Even our party divisions, acrimonious as they are, cease at the water's edge." The position of any Federalist in Congress, however, was not a wide sphere of influence; and Webster, removing to Boston in 1816, gave up political life for some years.

At the Massachusetts bar Webster soon gained a place as prominent as he had held in New Hampshire, and within three years his reputation as a lawyer had become national. His national standing was gained by his argument in the " Dartmouth College case," practically endorsed by the Supreme Court. Dartmouth College had been chartered by the king in 1769. In 1816 the New Hampshire legislature undertook to alter the charter and reorganize the corporation ; and the State courts sustained the legislature in a suit brought by the old trustees against the new. On appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1818, Webster contended that the College was an eleemosynary corporation, over which the legislature had no more power than the king who chartered it; that the king had no power to void such a charter, and the New Hampshire legislature no such sovereign powers as parliament; that the legislature's action came within the Federal constitution's prohibition of State legislation altering contracts; that "the charter of 1769 is a contract;" that "the acts in question impair this contract;" and that they were therefore unconstitutional and void. The Supreme Court upheld Webster's view, and it was soon seen that he had worked a serious change in the relations of the States to corporations, as they had thus far been understood. The States endeavoured to meet the new rule by inserting in their charters clauses retaining the right to alter them ; but the spirit of the " Dartmouth College case," which has always had its opponents among American lawyers, has had its influence upon judges everywhere, in every variety of cognate cases. From this time Webster was recognized as the leading lawyer of the country, and his services were in constant demand.

His cases are quite beyond statement within the space here available. Some of his leading constitutional cases were those of Gibbons v. Ogden, in 1824, in which he overthrew the action of the New York legislature, in granting to Ogden, assignee of Fulton and Livingstone, a monopoly of steam navigation in New York waters, as an interference with the right of Congress to regulate commerce; Ogden v. Saunders, in 1827, in which he attacked the right of a State to pass bankruptcy laws; the Girard College case, in 1844, in which he maintained that Christianity was an essential part of the common law; and the case of Luther v. Borden, commonly known as the lihode Island case, in 1848, in which he laid the foundation for the subsequent definition of the "guarantee clause" of the constitution, and stated the meaning of the " republican government" of a State. Like other American lawyers, he made no distinction in his practice between kinds of cases, and was often retained in criminal causes. The most celebrated of these were the trials of Goodridge and Knapp; in the latter (6 Webster's Works, 53) is the passage on the power of conscience, which has been declaimed by countless American schoolboys.

Webster's reputation as an orator began with his address at Plymouth in 1820, on the 200th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. It was increased by his address at the laying of the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill monument in 1825, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, and by that which commemorated in 1826 the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the coincident deaths of Jefferson and John Adams. On every great public occasion thereafter, if Webster was obtainable, he was held to be the natural speaker to be chosen. His finest subsequent speeches were made on the completion of the Bunker Hill monument in 1843, and at the laying of the cornerstone of the addition to the Capitol at Washington in 1851.

In December 1823 Webster returned to Congress as a representative from Massachusetts, and his first speech, in January 1824, in support of a resolution to send a commissioner to Greece, then in insurrection, made him the first of Congressional speakers. During his service in the house the tariff of 1824 came up for discussion. Representing a commercial district, Webster's speech has always been a source of gratification to American opponents of protection. He repudiated the name of " American system," claimed by Clay for the system of protection , which he was introducing. He cited with cordial approval the expressed belief of English statesmen that English manufactures had prospered in spite of protection, not because of it, and their desire for " unrestricted trade." He attacked the " old notion " of the balance of trade with such vigour that he felt compelled to apologize " for speaking irreverently of the dead." He stated the manner in which, under unrestricted trade, the American production in cotton, woollens, and iron had already come to rival that of England, protected for hundreds of years, and the loss in labour which would come from an attempt, by legal protection, to " support a business that cannot support itself." The whole speech would be a very striking free-trade argument even at the present day. When the tariff of 1828, which was still more protective, came up for discussion, Webster had ceased to oppose protection; but his speech does not attempt to argue in favour of it. It states that his people, after giving warning in 1824 that they would consider protection as the policy of the Government, had gone into protected manufactures, and that he now asked that that policy be not reversed to the injury of his constituents. It can hardly escape notice that, in his published Works, Webster has but two subsequent speeches in Congress on the tariff, both defending protection rather as a policy under which industries had been called into being than asan advisable policy, if the stage had been clear for the adoption of a new policy.

In 1827 Webster was sent to the senate, in which he remained until his death, with the exception of his service in the cabinet in Tyler's administration. In January 1830 came the crowning event of his political life. A debate on public lands, under a resolution offered by Senator Foot, thence known as " Foot's resolution," had wandered off into all possible fields. In course of it, Hayne, of South Carolina, attacked New England for having pursued a selfish policy as to western lands. Webster replied. During Hayne's answer Webster drew from him the first distinct and public statement of the new doctrine of nullification, of the constitutional right of a State to forbid the execution within its jurisdiction of Acts of Congress which it considered unconstitutional. This had been the product of Calhoun's intellect, which was generally taken to be the source of Hayne's inspiration. Webster's reply is his famous " second speech on Foot's resolution." He began by a defence of Massachusetts, which has been severely criticized, and is perhaps open to criticism. But if effect is to be taken as a test, it is above criticism. The remainder of the speech was of intense interest, not merely to New England, but to the whole North and West, and to all the progressive elements of the country. He stated the anarchistic doctrine of nullification in its nakedness, extorted from Hayne an unwilling half-admission of the exactness of his statement, and then went on to trample on it with such an exhibition of logic, sarcasm, and elephantine humour as has never been heard in the senate before or since. It is on this speech that Webster's fame was built. Southern men had taken the lead so long that it was a new sensation to the North and West to see a Southern leader completely overmatched by their champion; and "Black Dan Webster," a popular name, due to his dark complexion, beetling brows, and heavy cast of features, was for twenty years the representative of Northern sentiment as to the nature of the Union.

Calhoun took Hayne's place in the senate in 1833, introduced and defended resolutions endorsing the right of nullification, and was still more fully answered by Webster. For the next seventeen years the records of the senate are full of constitutional arguments between the two. Webster's oratory made him an invaluable member of the Whig party, and his addresses at political meetings are so numerous as to defy special mention. A leader so distinguished had a fair right to think of the presidency, but it always remained just beyond his reach. In the general Whig confusion of 1836 he received the fourteen electoral votes of Massachusetts. In 1840 the candidature of Harrison left him no chance. In 1844 Webster's retention of his position under Tyler gave Clay an overwhelming advantage with his party. In 1848 the nomination of Taylor, which Webster declared to be " one not fit to be made," was a fatal blow to the prospects of the Massachusetts leader. His final failure to obtain the Whig nomination in 1852 put an end to his political career.

When the Whig party came into power in 1841, Webster was appointed secretary of state (foreign affairs), and he retained his post under Tyler, after his colleagues had broken with the new president and resigned. There was good reason for his action. When he entered office war with Great Britain was a probable event of the near future. The M'Leod case, in which the State of New York insisted on trying a British subject, with whose trial the Federal Government had no power to interfere, while the British Government had declared that it would consider conviction and execution a casus belli ; the exercise of the right of search by British vessels on the coast of Africa, of which Americans had a deep-seated detestation, quite apart from any feeling about the slave-trade ; the Maine boundary, as to which the action of a State might at any time bring the federal Government into armed collision with Great Britain,—all these at once met the new secretary, and he felt that he had no right to abandon his work for party reasons. With the special commissioner from Great Britain, Lord Ashburton, he concluded the treaty of 1842, which settled all these questions satisfactorily to both parties. At the same time Webster took the opportunity to end the long controversy as to the right of impressment. Sixteen years afterwards the British Government admitted at last the correctness of the American position.

The treaty of 1842 also introduced the principle of extradition into the connexion between the two countries. It had been admitted once before, in Jay's treaty of 1794, but only as to murder and forgery, and only until 1806.

Leaving the cabinet in 1843, Webster was returned to the senate in 1845 and spent the remainder of his life there. He opposed the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War, and was, as before, the recognized spokesman of his party. As the growing intensity of the quarrel over the organization of the territory acquired from Mexico revealed the depth of the chasm which now yawned between the sections, Webster's standing-ground in American politics disappeared. His 7th of March speech, in 1850, which stamped him, in the opinion of many of his former Northern worshippers, as a recreant bidding for Southern votes for the presidency, was really little different from his former words. It was the country that had changed. He was still for the Union as the one controlling consideration, with an equal dislike for the abolitionist and the secessionist, who endangered the Union. But the North and the South were already so far apart that not even Webster could stand with one foot in one and the other foot in the other section ; and his fate was parallel with that of John Dickinson, who essayed a similar role during the revolution. Angered at the spirit with which his speech was received, Webster threw all his influence towards driving through the Whig Convention of 1852 an endorsement of the compromise of 1850 " in all its parts," including, of course, the Fugitive Slave Act. The result was his own failure to receive the Whig nomination for the presidency, and the downfall of his party. Just before the election he died at his home, Marshfield, Massachusetts, October 1852.

Webster was twdce married—to Grace Fletcher, of New Hampshire, in 1808, and two years after her death to Catherine Bayard le Roy, of New York, in 1829. One of his sons, Edward, lost his life in the Mexican War; his only surviving child, Fletcher Webster, colonel of a Massachusetts regiment, was killed at Bull Run. In marked contrast to Webster's wonderfully able treatment of public financial affairs, his management of his private finances was notoriously shiftless,—so much so that, in his later years, the care of them was assumed by a voluntary committee of Boston business men. Like other men of his time, he was neither careful nor temperate in table enjoyment. Washington people still tell of the enthusiasm with which, after dinner, he once insisted on standing up in a theatre-box, to join in the chorus of the American national hymn. He was a devoted angler, and intensely interested in scientific agriculture ; much of his Private Correspondence is connected with the latter subject.

Webster named as his literary executors Edward' Everett, C. C. Felton, George Ticknor, and George Ticknor Curtis. By this arrangement the standard edition of his Works, in six volumes, appeared (1851). In the first volume is a Life by Everett. See also Webster's Private Correspondence, Knapp's Life of Webster (1835), March's Reminiscences of Congress (1850), Lanman's Private Life of Webster (1856), Curtis's Life of Webster (1869), Harvey's Reminiscences of Webster (1877), Lodge's Life of Webster (1883). (A. J.)







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