Here to return to
WEBSTER THE MAN.
BIRTH at Salisbury, N.H., 1782.Graduation at Dartmouth College, 1801.
Admission to the Bar, 1805.
First marriage (to Grace Fletcher), 1808.
Election to the United States House of Representatives, 1812.
Second election to the United States House of Representatives, 1815.
Removal to Boston, 1816.
Member of the Convention to revise the Constitution of Massachusetts, 1820.
Third election to House of Representatives, 1822.
Fourth election to House of Representatives, 1824.
Election to the United States Senate, 1828.
Second marriage (to Caroline LeRoy), 1829.
Leader of the Whig party, 1834.
Nomination for presidency by the Whig party of Massachusetts, 1834.
Visit to Europe, 1839.
Second election to Senate, 1839.
Secretary of State to Presidents Harrison and Tyler, 1841-1843.
Negotiation of Ashburton Treaty, 1842.
Third election to the Senate, 1844.
Secretary of State to President Fillmore, 1850-1852.
Despatch to Hülsemann, 1850.
Defeat by Whig party in presidential nomination of 1852.1
Death at Marshfield, Mass., Oct. 24, 1852.2
One of the public buildings of Harvard University is adorned with the sculptured heads of the world’s renowned orators. With Demosthenes and Cicero, Bossuet and Burke, Webster finds fair companionship. The skilful jurist, the revered senator, the judicious cabinet officer, the brilliant statesman, are outranked when we recall in him the noble orator, who, like Wallace of Scotland, left his name “like a wild-flower, all over his dear country.”
Daniel Webster was born at Salisbury, N.H., Jan. 18. 1782, His father, Ebenezer Webster, served his country both in the French and Indian War and the Revolution, thus giving his son a natural inheritance of patriotism. No less was he indebted to his mother for the intellectual strength and childlike simplicity which marked his thought-habit. A delicate infancy and childhood gave no promise of the vigorous physique or stately beauty of his middle and later years, while the gentle care incident to the rearing of the frail boy precluded the possibility of asking “from the season more than its timely produce.” Happily, in his wholesome country home the Bible, Shakespeare, Pope, Addison, and Don Quixote made ample amends for the dearth of so-called child-literature.
Young Webster’s preparation for college, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, was a thing “of shreds and patches.” The scant instruction of the village school, with a few months at Phillips Exeter Academy, was supplemented by the private tuition of the Rev. Samuel Wood, a country parson otherwise unknown to fame. This preliminary work consisted in a modicum of mathematics, for which he had little taste, a smattering of Greek grammar, six books of Virgil’s Æneid, and a few of Cicero’s Orations. His best equipment was his indomitable courage, his tireless industry, and an ability for self- denial which John Stirling rightly says makes the worst education better than the best that omits it.
He entered Dartmouth College in August, 1797, taking his degree after the customary four years of study. The education which it cost his parents sacrifice and privation to give was valued to its utmost opportunity. It was a career of genius, but never of idle genius. One of his biographers says of him,
His faculty for labor was something prodigious, his memory disciplined by methods not taught him by others, and his intellect was expanded far beyond his years. He was abstemious, religious, of the highest sense of honor, and of the most elevated deportment. His manners were genial, his affections warm, his conversation brilliant and instructive, his temperament cheerful, his gayety overflowing.”
Fully believing that his brother possessed the nobler parts, and foreseeing the gulf that would inevitably widen between the brother at college and the brother on the farm, Webster occupied his later college vacations and his early years after graduation by teaching, in order to devote the proceeds to the education of Ezekiel, whose brief but brilliant history fully justified this estimate of his powers.
On his admission to the bar, Webster was a tall, vigorous, finely proportioned man, whose massive forehead and thick, black, beetling eyebrows overshadowed a pair of black eyes as solemn-looking as they were searching. His carriage was erect and slow, his manner moderate and reserved; and, indeed, his whole bearing, after forty years of political life, was but the emphasis of this earlier portrait.
His career as a lawyer, after his admission to the bar in 1805, and a brief practice in his native State and in Boston, was soon merged in the larger life of the orator and statesman. It fitting that a man whose first and last serious thought was “his country, his whole country, and nothing but his country,” should have made his first great national speech at Plymouth on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. The attention that this, together with former patriotic addresses of local interest, and his interests with the Federal party, called forth, sent him as the representative of that party to the eighteenth Congress in 1823. These were the days of Clay and Calhoun, and the beginning of the great debates on the tariff, of the earliest hints of the great anti-slavery controversies of the middle of the century, of the settling of our strained relations to England, and the proposed independence of the South American republics.
From this period his political advancement was without retrogression, though he continued his legal practice, and was retained to plead before the Supreme Court of the United States, where he won immediate fame by establishing a ruling in the relation of States to corporate bodies in the famous Dartmouth College decision.
From 1813, when he took his seat as representative, to the date of his death in 1852, when he filled the office of Secretary of State to President Fillmore, he occupied the positions successively of re-elected representative, member of the Convention to revise the Constitution of Massachusetts, United States senator, and cabinet office.
No brief sketch can enumerate the services that, in these various capacities, were done for the country he served. The boy who could not see himself take privileges and opportunities that were denied his elder brother was father of the man who made the triumphant reply to Senator Hayne of South Carolina, and showed how the larger family constitution was endangered by the monopoly of rights in a single member; the youth whose early private necessities demanded that every penny be invested with reflection, so thoroughly mastered the science of finance that the record of his counsel as to the public purse is with few equals, and no superiors. Had Mr. Webster’s advice been taken, the ruinous financial disasters of 1837 would not to-day blot our commercial history. The country school teacher whom recreant lads nicknamed “All-eyes,” developed a seer’s vision, which made him for more than a quarter of a century America’s greatest political teacher.
There is a sad significance in the words he once uttered, and which he intended to be taken only literally, “Whatever I have accomplished has been done early in the morning.” Webster’s great work was done before, possessed of unrestrained ambition and excited by the brilliancy of his own intellect and the unwise devotion of his personal friends, he pursued unworthily the phantom of the possible presidency, and placed himself where the temptation to a time-serving spirit was irresistible. Remembering the losses and defeats of that later period, one is disposed to thank God with him that no one could take away what he had done for his country; but the just narrator will remember also that the best was done early in the morning, before he had learned, with another wise man, the vanity of earthly expectations. Solomon said, “All is vanity;” Webster, “I have given my life to law and politics. Law is uncertain, and politics is utterly vain.”
As the great statesman recedes farther and farther in the background of our political history, he who has an eye for perspective cannot fail to see how, like the peak of Teneriffe, he towers above his fellows, or to recall Bacon’s aphorism, “There is no great beauty without some strange disproportion.” The ultimate product of his life presents all the curious contradictions which can result from an intense love of nature and her solitudes, and the arena and its excitements; from devoted love of family and friends, and overweening love of personal power; from sincere regard for his country’s weal, and the ability to hazard it and produce her woe. But he would be no profound logician, and no clear-sighted reviewer, who could not discern that, in spite of all, by the frequent restatement of universal truths; by reiterated appeals for the necessity of the preserved Union; by judicious counsel in our financial affairs, both domestic and foreign; by the creation of a political literature, that, in the mouth of every schoolboy, becomes the unconscious sentiment of his manhood, Daniel Webster made himself the Foster-Father of our American nationality.____________________
1 Webster was three times defeated in his presidential aspirations.
2 Only one son, of five sons and daughters, survived him: Fletcher Webster, born in Portsmouth, 1812, was killed in the battle of Bull Run, 1862.
BECAUSE a superior theme gives a superior vocabulary, we find Webster’s richest words in those orations which celebrate the glory of his country rather than in his less famous but masterly legal pleas.
To any one familiar with his life, the sources of his vocabulary are not far to find. He chooses simple, strong words, largely, because in his childhood and youth he had committed to memory so much of the Bible and Shakespeare, that in manhood he had at his command a great exchequer of Anglo- Saxon words. No better example in Websterian literature illustrates his indebtedness to this source than the oration we are about to study, as severe and unadorned in its massive strength as the monument whose erection it celebrates. It is in this stronghold, too, of the Anglo-Saxon, that he is utterly saved from the ordinary temptation of the civic orator; from the strained vehemence of a Calhoun, the verbal felicities of a Clay, and the somewhat over-nice elegance of an Everett.
In the structure of his sentences, Webster offers a pleasing variety; neither the long and periodic, nor the short and abrupt prevails. If he has any distinct tendency, it is either toward the short or the loose sentence, except in those famous perorations whose very nature demanded a sustained length, because of their sustained flight. Often he avails himself of that antithetical effect which makes tedious the pages of Macaulay; more often he makes the happiest use of the balanced sentence, as in, “ I mean to use my tongue in the Court, not my pen; to be an actor, not a registrar of other men’s actions.” Most often he delivers himself of a threefold form which seems, in his method of use, original; as,
“I was born an American, I live an American, I will die an American;” “we do it once, we do it for our generation, perhaps forever;” “made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people” (of the government); “Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever;” “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish.”
But whether long and sustained, or short and brilliant, there is no arrangement of words for effect. There is always the same consistent subservience of the expression to the thought, always the same dependence upon the certain foundations of logic rather than the uncertain flights of rhetoric. Although finish and smoothness do not fail in his best efforts, nor dignity and grandeur in his every effort, it is this natural conservation of energy, the physical and intellectual inheritance of three generations that makes Henry Hallam say, in a private letter to Mrs. Ticknor, “ Mr. Webster approaches the beau ideal of a Republican senator more than any man I have seen in the course of my life. He is worthy of Rome or of Venice rather than of our noisy and wrangling generation.” To sum up in a single word the leading characteristic of Webster’s style, one must avail himself of the word that to him was the keynote of national strength, and which whether found in the single sentence, or the full thought, or the entire oration, was the ruling passion of his style and his life — unity!
ON THE DARTMOUTH COLLEGE CASE. U. S. Supreme Court, March 10, 1818.
ON THE CHARACTER OF THE NEW ENGLAND SETTLERS. Plymouth, Mass., Dec. 22, 1820.
ON THE LAYING OF THE CORNER STONE OF BUNKER HILL MONUMENT. Charlestown, Mass., June 17, 1825.
ADAMS AND JEFFERSON. Faneuil Hall, Boston, Mass., Aug. 2, 1826.
STATE’S RIGHTS (Webster’s celebrated reply to Hayne). Washington, D. C., Jan. 26, 27, 1830.
THE CHARACTER OF WASHINGTON. Washington, D. C., Feb. 22, 1832.
ON NATIONAL FINANCE. Washington, D. C., July 11, 1832.
ON THE COMPLETION OF BUNKER HILL MONUMENT. Charlestown, Mass., June 17, 1843.
ON THE RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION OF THE YOUNG (Girard College Case). Washington, D. C., Feb. 20, 1844.
THE CONSTITUTION AND THE UNION. Washington, D. C., March 7, 1850.
THERE are more than Molière’s “Bourgeois Gentilhomme” who seem to think that “All that is not poetry is prose.” Though in its broadest sense the term includes technically philosophic and scientific literatures, in the narrower and generally accepted sense, it confines itself to such works as have a distinct literary form. For example, we would not speak of an author who had written, however well, a series of arithmetics, as a writer of English Prose. This is because a certain artistic element must enter into the literary form, and then it becomes Philosophical Prose, as in Leslie Stephen’s “History of English Thought;” Historical Prose, as in Macaulay’s “History of England;” Poetic Prose, as in Ruskin’s “Seven Lamps of Architecture;” Oratorical Prose, as in Webster’s “Bunker Hill Orations;” Periodical Prose, as in the ordinary essay and review; or a combination of two or more of these forms, as in the Novel or Romance.
The Oration among prose forms is a composition, which, through argument or reason, heightened by a presentation in person, affects the imagination or will of the hearer by persuasion. Its best characteristics are sincerity and earnestness.
In studying an oration, we note first to what general class it belongs: as the judicial, which by accusation or defence presents a legal argument; the sacred, which by exposition and exhortation presents an ethical argument; or the forensic, which by eulogy or conviction presents a political argument. The next point to ascertain is the circumstances under which it is delivered as affecting the form of presentation. For example, the local color of the oration in question is deepened both by the fact that it was given on the site of Bunker Hill and to an audience containing individuals who had maintained a significant part in the battle commemorated. Such environments determine whether the speaker can appeal most successfully to the intellect, the will, or the emotions. In the case of political oratory in general, truth is expounded, rights defended, minds convinced, consciences persuaded, emotions excited, or sentiments aroused; sometimes several or all these objects may be attempted, but the best oratory has a preponderance in favor of one. In the third place a careful student will note what branch of an especial theme is treated. For example, under political oratory, one might discuss the constitution, or national finance, or the empire of the state, or the responsibilities of an impending election, or the incentives to a great future by the study of a great past. Whatever be the theme treated, oratory worthy of a statesman must show, on the part of the speaker, a large knowledge of general history and literature, conversance with the science of government and constitutional law, and enthusiasm for public interests. Such oratory not only becomes a present incentive to public duty, but is equally valuable as a record for future counsel. There is no country which furnishes a more interesting study of oratorical prose than the American Republic, and no orator who has held more securely the public mind, both in his spoken and written form of the address, than Daniel Webster, and this is because his themes, however local, were always made universal in their interest. Happily Mr. Webster, in his famous eulogy on Adams and Jefferson, has given us the key to successful oratory, in a passage only second in felicity to that of Shakespeare in his directions for “the play within the play,” in “Hamlet.”
“When public bodies are to be addressed on momentous occasions, when great interests are at stake, and strong passions excited, nothing is valuable in speech further than as it is connected with high intellectual and moral endowments. Clearness, force, and earnestness are the qualities which produce conviction. True eloquence, indeed, does not consist in speech. It cannot be brought from far. Labor and learning may toil for it, but they will toil in vain. Words and phrases may be marshalled in every way, but they cannot compass it. It must exist in the man, in the subject, and in the occasion. Affected passion, intense expression, the pomp of declamation, all may aspire to it; they cannot reach it. It comes, if it come at all, like the outbreaking of a fountain from the earth, or the bursting forth of volcanic fires, with spontaneous, original, native force. The graces taught in the schools, the costly ornaments and studied contrivances of speech, shock and disgust men, when their own lives, and the fate of their wives, their children, and their country, hang on the decision of the hour. Then words have lost their power, rhetoric is vain, and all elaborate oratory contemptible. Even genius itself then feels rebuked and subdued, as in the presence of higher qualities. Then patriotism is eloquent; then self-devotion is eloquent. The clear conception, outrunning the deductions of logic, the high purpose, the firm resolve, the dauntless spirit, speaking on the tongue, beaming from the eye, informing every feature, and urging the whole man onward, right onward to his object, — this, this is eloquence; or, rather, it is something greater, and higher than all eloquence, — it is action, noble, sublime, godlike action.” 1
1 It is interesting to note in connection with the orations of Webster, that his manner of public speaking was deliberate and imposing; that he spoke, except when under great excitement, in a low, sustained, musical tone.