John Quincy Adams
John C. Calhoun
William H. Seward
Salmon P. Chase
Sir John Alexander Macdonald, G. C. B.
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE EXPOUNDER OF THE CONSTITUTION
A man of herculean frame, rotund delivery of speech, and long life; a large institution by himself, so that when small shopkeepers heard that Daniel Webster was in Boston, they naturally postponed business and went out on the sidewalk to see him come down the street; a man whose fifty principal orations, gathered in a heavy volume, with introductory eulogy by some great scholar, still form a textbook in colleges of declamation; a Sena-tor for twenty-five years, the very ideal of the patrician under our Constitution; yet withal a whole-souled man, so quick with pity for the poor that he could not pay the rich; thus morally somewhat lacking, and likely to see a question as a lawyer who would first choose his side and study his cause afterward; not sure footed, like Andrew Jackson or Thomas Jefferson; declaring, at the end of his life, that he had spent his years in vain this, perhaps, is Daniel Webster. In his day, he was the recognized stately spokesman at dedications. He started and finished Bunker Hill Monument; he laid the corner-stone of the addition to the National Capitol. As an oratorical functionary he had no peer. His first success, however, lay in proving to a compliant court that a private corporation was of equal life with the power of the people who made it, and such an argument, being erroneous and false to common sense, was a bad beginning.
Daniel Webster was born at Salisbury, N. H., January 17, 1782. As a boy he was sickly, and could not speak in school, lacking the confidence of an orator. His people, by dint of affectionate sacrifice, sent him to Dartmouth College. After this he studied law in the office of Christopher Gore at Boston, and was admitted to the bar of Massachusetts in 1805.
He opened his first office at Boscawen, near his early home, but soon removed to Portsmouth. He married Grace Fletcher, whom he devotedly loved. His practice was gradually established, and as a result of the oratorical talent which he displayed, he was elected to Congress in 1813, as a Federalist, and lukewarm proponent of the war with Great Britain. Yet he aided Calhoun nobly. The almost seditious Hartford Convention threw him into obscurity, and he removed to Boston.
There he entered, as a brilliant lawyer, into a society of college-bred men, who were earning large fees or harvesting ample profits as merchants. The city, at first cool, was soon forced to receive him as one of its leading inhabitants. His argument of the rights of Dartmouth College, carried to the Supreme Court with triumph, was to give kingly charters to corporations until it should be brushed away sixty years later. To the astonishment of States and people, they found that Daniel Webster had tied them with thongs; unless they prudently entered into the text of a charter the proviso that it could be altered, it was irrevocable, immortal, and paramount. We may imagine how valiantly Thomas Jefferson would have assaulted any such corporate defense. To accomplish his end in this case, Daniel Webster had recourse to sentiment. His little college, his alma mater, was like Casar in the Senate house, surrounded with enemies. Should he, her son, also advance to stab her? This appeal, it is said, brought tears to the eyes of the Judges in New Hampshire, and when again applied, before the bench of the Supreme Court at Washington, wrought equally on the magistrates who thought of their own boyhood days. On such foundation of law, American corporations thrived until the eighth decade of the century.
Another law case exhibited the agility of the great advocate. Stephen Girard endowed a college at Philadelphia on condition that all theological teaching should be forbidden. Priests, ministers, Deic teachers of all kinds, should be excluded. Webster attacked the bequest on the ground that the Christian religion was an essential part of the common law no gift could be charitable that was not Christian. Story wrote to Kent that "Webster did his best for the other side, but it seems to me altogether an address to the prejudices of the clergy." It was, indeed, admired by the churches, and widely circulated as a theological tract. Early in life Daniel Webster was proud to be a substantial pillar under the temple of established things. In his old age, when that temple was falling, he doubted the wisdom of his early days.
We catch a view of the man himself in a story of the Rhode Island case before the Supreme Court. In the court below, young Bosworth had elaborated a point which his seniors in the law firm rejected as trivial, and sent Bosworth up to Washington to instruct Daniel Webster, who was to plead their case before the Supreme Court. Bosworth went on to state his cause. "Is that all?" asked Webster, dissatisfied. Then Bosworth told of the "trivial" idea, and its rejection.
Webster was startled. "Mr. Bosworth, by the blood of all the Bosworths who fell on Bosworth field, that is the point of the case !"
By this time he was attracting large audiences in dry cases, the great were seeking him, and the little were about him like the children of Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Under the influence of unchastened adulation, his method of address became pompous and conventional, and the school of old-style oratory waxed and magnified into law, custom, doctrine, dogma.
The Massachusetts Constitutional Convention met at Boston in November, 182o. All the learned magistrates and advocates of the commonwealth were called upon to serve, and the brunt of debate fell on Webster and Story. Webster represented the interests of property and was the advocate of the patrician classes, but without narrowness. He found reason, however, to vote to remove the religious test, and after the Girard argument, was ingenious in his conclusions. He demonstrated that a Constitutional Senate could not be established without property representation. To the joy of his clients he carried his cause, yet it was not many years ere the work was undone, and people became legally superior to the stored results of their toil. He tried to make the Judges more secure from possible popular anger, but totally failed. He came out of the convention praised by all who had property, office, and standing, as a most noble law maker.
On Friday, December 22, 1820, he delivered the address on the landing of the Pilgrims, an effort which gave him instantly a national fame as an orator of the occasion a man capable of foreseen effects. These, of course, could never rank with the unforeseen lightnings of Patrick Henry's eyes, and the charmed periods of his inspired voice, yet their influence on Ticknor, who had traveled in Europe, was worthy of record. "Three or four times I thought my temples would burst with the gush of blood." "When I came out I was almost afraid to come near him." These are passages in Ticknor's diary. Old octogenarian John Adams wrote he who was the best of all the Continental Congress debaters : "If there be an American who can read it [the oration] without tears, I am not that American." Thereafter Daniel Webster, when he spoke by appointment, was sure of "a sea of upturned faces."
The pressure upon him to enter political life grew stronger, and in 1823 he again went to Congress from Boston. Clay made him chairman of judiciary. He was twice returned by an overwhelming vote. His first speech, on Greece, was a triumph, but without other than rhetorical result. He was from a protection town, yet he spoke against protection but it was then a theory. When it became a fact, in later years, Webster was for it. He advocated internal improvements. It may be seen that he was overturning Jeffersonian doctrine, and was rapidly getting where Andrew Jackson could hoist both him and Clay, especially when he should accept protection in full, with Bank and surplus taxation. He was a good supporter of the Administration in the House, and the leader of that body while Clay was Secretary of State. His elevation to the Senate was regarded with misgivings by the President, who dreaded his absence from the popular branch of Congress. He was to sit a quarter of a century in the upper House, with only a slight intermission, when he should be Secretary of State. With the physique and countenance of Danton and Mirabeau, Webster lacked their love for the masses; he belonged in the Senate, and there he made a figure that students of government will always gaze long upon.
Already some thoughts of the Presidency must have assailed Daniel Webster. He had aided Crawford against John Quincy Adams. He did not want to aid Clay. He was, as a lawyer, the advocate of corporations before the great courts, the logical foe of Jackson. At Webster that keen-eyed champion would hurl a javelin the first time he saw him. At the same time Webster would have been flattered to go to London as Minister, where his banquet speeches would make a most polite stir. But Mr. Adams would not conciliate or forgive him put it either way. Webster was at his prime. His Bunker Hill speech had again thrown Ticknor, the diarist, prone upon his idolatrous face, and a party of English lords had joined their compliments with the plaudits of worshipful Boston. Nothing was ever lacking to spoil Daniel Webster; yet his herculean frame, his slow and majestic nature, was generally proof against his greatest dangers he could not become inglorious.
Mrs. Webster died at New York, January 21, 1828, while on her way to Washington to share her husband's new honors. The blow fell on the great orator with crushing force. He returned to his duties as a surcease of sorrow, and was in the mood that would easily bear the animadversions caused by his support of the high tariff of 1828, which made Calhoun rebel. When Hayne opened his attack on New England and Webster, the Senator vouchsafed a fine reply, and when Hayne answered that reply, Webster made his immortal speech —"When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood." This glorious day was January 26, 1830. It was then he cried : "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!" On that slogan Grant took Buckner, Pemberton, Lee; Sherman marched from Chattanooga down and up the Southern Confederacy. It is justly called the summit of Daniel Webster's fame. We have a description of the man by the king of thinkers, Thomas Carlyle, who calls Webster the most notable of all our notabilities, "a magnificent specimen." "The tanned complexion; that amorphous, crag-like face; the dull black eyes under the precipice of brows, like dull anthracite furnaces, needing only to be blown; the mastiff mouth accurately closed; I have not traced so much of silent Berserker rage that I remember of in any man. 'I guess I should not like to be your nigger !' Webster is not loquacious, but he is pertinent, conclusive; a dignified, perfectly bred man, though not English in breeding." What a leonine man must Daniel Webster have appeared to be, to extort such admiration from the crabbed Scotch critic! As Webster grew older, the sleeping lion in him increased, and it required more and more to awaken him, set him on fire, and make him the roaring lord of the forest that he easily could be.
Two years after the death of his first wife Webster married Catherine Bayard LeRoy, of New York. His loving brother Ezekiel died. He seemed t0 part with the past, and the remainder of his career offers less delectable ground to his admirers. At first Webster opposed both Clay and Jackson. He advocated the Bank's interest against Jackson, and, of course, met personal defeat and turned the people against himself. He should always have supported Clay, as it is impossible for a practicing legal advocate to gain the hearts of the masses. Clay had the grace; Jackson the right; the people could be ranged under each; there was no front place for Daniel Webster, because his original ambition had been confined to the bar, where only contentious, wronging, or wronged people ever come. We may best dispose of Mr. Webster's Presidential aspirations as a whole : When Clay let his party flounder in 1836, Webster received fourteen votes from Massachusetts. In 1840 Clay could only be sidetracked by Weed with the use of Harrison's name. In 1844 Webster had stayed behind with Tyler, and was out of the question. In 1848 Clay was again thrown over by Weed, but it took another hero, Taylor, to beat him, and Webster shared Clay's disgust. In 1852 Webster advised voters t0 favor Pierce, the Democrat. Webster was disappointed, because he thought the masses had a natural liking or obedience toward the great, who, in their turn, might comport themselves as the shepherds toward their flocks. With Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay in the world, only political nobodies could rise to the surface when those lords of votes were in retirement or eclipse, and the great Daniel Webster was anything save a nobody. He never was proper Presidential timber in his own age.
When Andrew Jackson thought he ought to move toward the hanging of Calhoun, he asked Webster's aid, and received it a most happy circumstance in Webster's life. For the rest he fought Jackson all the way through, meeting defeat at every turn. Calhoun came down out of the Senate's chair, and began his seventeen-year duel with Webster Clay, Webster, Calhoun, such was the order of their merit; euphony and human judgment have joined in the verdict. They were three huge lights in a Senate where all were brilliant. Mr. Webster made a short trip to Europe in 1839, and was glad to speak for Harrison in 1840, some of his addresses giving him broad opportunity to dress the wounds Jack-son had given him and his doctrines. He accepted the State Department under Harrison, and was deep in the Ashburton treaty when Harrison died and Tyler came in as President. When Tyler killed the Bank, as Jack-son would have done, all his Whig Cabinet took leave save Daniel Webster. Henry Clay's music was too quick in step for him; he stayed with Tyler, and for other than Senatorial and oratorical purposes was politically as dead as Tyler. But he made an admirable Secretary of State, and his professional sense informed him that his country needed him at the post he held. When his work was done, in May, 1843, he resigned, which was fast enough to meet his views of dignity and proper procedure, retiring to his farm at Marshfield, Massachusetts. He spoke for Clay in the campaign which elected Polk, practiced law, and was reelected United States Senator to oppose Texan annexation and war with Mexico, taking his seat in 1845. His career in the Senate was to culminate with the 7th-of-March speech, which was to indorse Henry Clay and becloud the setting of his own sun. In the first place, the Democrats, expanding on every side, were crying "54:40 or fight." This parallel on the North American continent might have added to our granaries more wheat than has so far been raised in the world, outlandish as that declaration may seem, but Webster was for the forty-ninth parallel, which is 340 miles south. There is no other potential wheat field so large as the one we gave up by Daniel Webster's advice. His action aroused a retaliatory investigation of his financial accounts, which were always in bad order, and friends thereafter took his private business in charge. He spoke bitterly against Texas, with its new slave-holding Senators, saying that the annexation would "turn the Constitution into a deformity"; and certainly a Northerner who did not desire that the Union should grow on the north did not wish to see it spread on the south at the expense of a sister Republic that had abolished slavery.
In 1847 he visited the Southern States, which doubt-less affected his views on the race question. His son was killed in the Mexican War, and his daughter died in 1847. The son's body arrived from Mexico only three days after the daughter's funeral.* He then pre-pared at Marshfield a tomb for himself and his family. Clay would not support Taylor's candidacy for President, and when the Achilles also sulking at Marshfield was allured from his tent, he could give to Taylor only such support as Hamilton once gave to John Adams.
We next approach the 7th of March, 1850 that historical time when the silvery-voiced Clay, easily first in any circle of men that would gather where he might be, came up to Washington, a feeble-bodied statesman, and carried the olive branch that no one else could make acceptable to all. In the 7th-of-March speech, Daniel Webster accepted Clay's views. Why was this action so ignoble in Daniel Webster, if it were patriotic in Clay? It dimmed Webster's great fame why did it not tarnish Clay's?
Probably the view of Webster's course is sectional, while Clay is considered from a broader field. Clay was a Southern slaveholder, who had put his ear to the ground and heard the anti-slavery swell. Clay knew John Quincy Adams, and the slow but awful ruin he had wrought in the House on slavery. Webster had put his ear to the ground, too, but he had heard nothing. He considered Abolitionists criminals; he could not conceive that there could ever be a party of them larger than a large jail would hold. He did not grasp as good an idea of the advance of the anti-slavery cohorts, living among them, as Henry Clay did in hearing slaveholders curse John Quincy Adams. Nobody had told Daniel Webster what to do about Clay's great speech, because Webster was a leader himself. New England was in the attitude of war, and expected marching- orders unconscious of that attitude until Daniel Webster accepted the command of the South that slaves must be marched in gyves and manacles past Faneuil Hall and the grave of Samuel Adams, to be subserviently delivered by such as William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown, of Ossawatomie, to the overseers who stood, goad in hand, to drive them back to slavery. When Daniel Webster sat down in the Senate that day, Massachusetts awoke to the fact that Daniel Webster would not do. He had outlived his usefulness. But Daniel Webster had not changed. He had the law. He shut his dull eyes under his shaggy brows, and could make no sign. It was the people who were flying against the law not he. When he saw both parties accepting Clay's prescription as the only possible balm for the bleeding wounds of the Nation, he might well hope the masses would be quiet.
Out of the discomforts of these closing days came a happy diversion. Millard Fillmore, suddenly President, called Webster to be Secretary of State, an office which was accepted July 23, 1850. December. 21 he wrote to Hülsemann, an Austrian diplomat representing his empire at Washington, a rebuke for his impudence in holding that America had no right to ascertain the true extent of Kossuth's insurrection, and Hülsemann sailed away in wrath. It was a good letter, sound in every sense, but it has kept many a dollar's worth of our goods out of Austria in revenge.
In 1852 Mr. Webster was left undeceived by his friends, and disputed with his chief the honors of the Clay compromise, but Fillmore had 133 to Webster's 29 ballots in the Whig National Convention, and Scott beat Fillmore. So deep was Daniel Webster's chagrin that he advised electors to vote for Pierce, which led politicians to believe that the great orator had lost his head altogether.
He was a sufferer from hay fever, and his health was impaired. In May, 1852, at Marshfield, he was seriously hurt in a runaway accident. In August he was able to return to Washington, but remained there only until the 8th of September. He consulted a physician at Boston on the 20th. This was the last time he was ever there. He failed rapidly in his sick room at Marshfield. On the evening of October 23, 1852, the aged and sleeping lion, as if questioned or doubted, shook himself out of his lethargy, as of yore, and cried : "I still live !"—his last words, which have linked him in memory so firmly to the minds of Americans.
He was buried on a beautiful day in autumn, when his body might, before its sepulture, be viewed on an outdoors catafalque of flowers and crimson leaves. Of other public form or ceremony he had begged there might be none, and his wish was respected. Of all the great men here considered, his ashes lie nearest to the sounding waves of the sea.
With Clay and Webster both departed in one year, it seemed to wise men as if the national. house were suddenly in ruins. Fast-coming terrible events did not controvert their judgment.