THE GREAT SPEECHES AND ORATIONS OF DANIEL WEBSTER
With an Essay on Daniel Webster as a Master of English Style
Edwin P. Whipple
The object of the present volume is not to supersede the standard edition of Daniel Webster’s Works, in six octavo volumes, edited by Edward Everett, and originally issued in the year 1851, by the publishers of this volume of Selections. It is rather the purpose of the present publication to call attention anew to the genius and character of Daniel Webster, as a lawyer, statesman, diplomatist, patriot, and, citizen, and, by republishing some of his prominent orations and speeches of universally acknowledged excellence, to revive public interest in the great body of his works. In the task of selection, it has been impossible to do full justice to his powers; for among the speeches omitted in this collection are to be found passages of superlative eloquence, maxims of political and moral wisdom which might be taken as mottoes for elaborate treatises on the philosophy of law and legislation, and important facts and principles which no student of history of the United States can overlook without betraying an ignorance of the great forces which influenced the legislation of the two Houses of Congress, from the time Mr. Webster first entered public life to the day of his death.
It is to be supposed that, when Mr. Everett consented to edit the six volumes of his works, Mr. Webster indicated to him the orations, speeches, and diplomatic despatches which he really thought might be of service to the public, and that he intended them as a kind of legacy,–a bequest to his countrymen.
The publishers of this volume believe that a study of Mr. Webster’s mind, heart, and character, as exhibited in the selections contained in the present volume, will inevitably direct all sympathetic readers to the great body of Mr. Webster’s works. Among the eminent men who have influenced legislative assemblies in Great Britain and the United States, during the past hundred and twenty years, it is curious that only two have established themselves as men of the first class in English and American literature. These two men are Edmund Burke and Daniel Webster; and it is only by the complete study of every thing which they authorized to be published under their names, that we can adequately comprehend either their position among the political forces of their time, or their rank among the great masters of English eloquence and style.
DANIEL WEBSTER AS A MASTER OF ENGLISH STYLE
THE DARTMOUTH COLLEGE CASE
Argument before the Supreme Court of the United States, at Washington, on the 10th of March, 1818.
FIRST SETTLEMENT OF NEW ENGLAND
A Discourse delivered at Plymouth, on the 22d of December, 1820.
DEFENCE OF JUDGE JAMES PRESCOTT
The closing Appeal to the Senate of Massachusetts, in Mr. Webster’s “Argument on the Impeachment of James Prescott,” April 24th, 1821.
THE REVOLUTION IN GREECE
A Speech delivered in the House of Representatives of the United States, on the 19th of January, 1824.
A Speech delivered in the House of Representatives of the United States, on the 1st and 2d of April, 1824.
THE CASE OF GIBBONS AND OGDEN
An Argument made in the Case of Gibbons and Ogden, in the Supreme Court of the United States, February Term, 1824.
THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT
An Address delivered at the Laying of the Corner-Stone of the Bunker Hill Monument at Charlestown, Massachusetts, on the 17th of June, 1825.
THE COMPLETION OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT
An Address delivered on Bunker Hill, on the 17th of June, 1843, on Occasion of the Completion of the Monument.
OUR RELATIONS TO THE SOUTH AMERICAN REPUBLICS
Extracts from the Speech on “The Panama Mission,” delivered in the House of Representatives of the United States, on the 14th of April, 1826.
ADAMS AND JEFFERSON
A Discourse in Commemoration of the Lives and Services of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, delivered in Faneuil Hall, Boston, on the 2d of August, 1826.
THE CASE OF OGDEN AND SAUNDERS
An Argument made in the Case of Ogden and Saunders, in the Supreme Court of the United States, January Term, 1827.
THE MURDER OF CAPTAIN JOSEPH WHITE
An Argument on the Trial of John Francis Knapp, for the Murder of Joseph White, of Salem, in Essex County, Massachusetts, on the Night of the 6th of April, 1830.
THE REPLY TO HAYNE
Second Speech on “Foot’s Resolution,” delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 26th and 27th of January, 1830.
THE CONSTITUTION NOT A COMPACT BETWEEN SOVEREIGN STATES
A Speech delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 16th of February, 1833, in Reply to Mr. Calhoun’s Speech on the Bill “Further to Provide for the Collection of Duties on Imports.”
PUBLIC DINNER AT NEW YORK
A Speech delivered at a Public Dinner given by a large Number of Citizens of New York, in Honor of Mr. Webster, on March 10th, 1831.
THE PRESIDENTIAL VETO OF THE UNITED STATES BANK BILL
A Speech delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 11th of July, 1832, on the President’s Veto of the Bank Bill.
THE CHARACTER OF WASHINGTON
A Speech delivered at a Public Dinner in the City of Washington, on the 22d of February, 1832, the Centennial Anniversary of Washington’s Birthday.
EXECUTIVE PATRONAGE AND REMOVALS FROM OFFICE
From a Speech delivered at the National Republican Convention, held at Worcester (Mass.), on the 12th of October, 1832.
From the same Speech at Worcester.
THE NATURAL HATRED OF THE POOR TO THE RICH
From a Speech in the Senate of the United States, January 31st, 1834, on “The Removal of the Deposits.”
A REDEEMABLE PAPER CURRENCY
From a Speech delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 22d of February, 1834.
THE PRESIDENTIAL PROTEST
A Speech delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 7th of May, 1834, on the subject of the President’s Protest against the Resolution of the Senate of the 28th of March.
THE APPOINTING AND REMOVING POWER
Delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 16th of February, 1835, on the Passage of the Bill entitled “An Act to Repeal the First and Second Sections of the Act to limit the Term of Service of certain Officers therein named.”
ON THE LOSS OF THE FORTIFICATION BILL IN 1835
A Speech delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 14th of January, 1836, on Mr. Benton’s Resolutions for Appropriating the Surplus Revenue to National Defence.
RECEPTION AT NEW YORK
A Speech delivered at Niblo’s Saloon, in New York, on the 15th of March, 1837.
SLAVERY IN THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Remarks made in the Senate of the United States, on the 10th of January, 1838, upon a Resolution moved by Mr. Clay as a Substitute for the Resolution offered by Mr. Calhoun on the Subject of Slavery in the District of Columbia.
THE CREDIT SYSTEM AND THE LABOR OF THE UNITED STATES
From the Second Speech on the Sub-Treasury, delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 12th of March, 1838.
REMARKS ON THE POLITICAL COURSE OF MR. CALHOUN, IN 1838
From the same Speech.
REPLY TO MR. CALHOUN
A Speech delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 22d of March, 1838, in Answer to Mr. Calhoun.
A UNIFORM SYSTEM OF BANKRUPTCY
From a Speech delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 18th of May, 1840, on the proposed Amendment to the Bill establishing a Uniform System of Bankruptcy.
“THE LOG CABIN CANDIDATE”
From a Speech delivered at the great Mass Meeting at Saratoga, New York, on the 12th of August, 1840.
ADDRESS TO THE LADIES OF RICHMOND
Remarks at a Public Reception by the Ladies of Richmond, Virginia, on the 5th of October, 1840.
RECEPTION AT BOSTON
A Speech made in Faneuil Hall, on the 30th of September, 1842, at a Public Reception given to Mr. Webster, on his Return to Boston, after the Negotiation of the Treaty of Washington.
THE LANDING AT PLYMOUTH
A Speech delivered on the 22d of December, 1843, at the Public Dinner of the New England Society of New York, in Commemoration of the Landing of the Pilgrims.
THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY AND THE RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION OF THE YOUNG
A Speech delivered in the Supreme Court at Washington, on the 20th of February, 1844, in the Girard Will Case.
MR. JUSTICE STORY
THE RHODE ISLAND GOVERNMENT
An Argument made in the Supreme Court of the United States, on the 27th of January, 1848, in the Dorr Rebellion Cases.
OBJECTS OF THE MEXICAN WAR
A Speech delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 23d of March, 1848, on the Bill from the House of Representatives for raising a Loan of Sixteen Millions of Dollars.
EXCLUSION OF SLAVERY FROM THE TERRITORIES
Remarks made in the Senate of the United States, on the 12th of August, 1848.
SPEECH AT MARSHFIELD
Delivered at a Meeting of the Citizens of Marshfield, Mass., on the 1st of September, 1848.
From a Speech delivered in Boston, on the 7th of November, 1849, at a Festival of the Natives of New Hampshire established in Massachusetts.
THE CONSTITUTION AND THE UNION
A Speech delivered in the Senate of the United States, on the 7th of March, 1850.
RECEPTION AT BUFFALO
A Speech delivered before a large Assembly of the Citizens of Buffalo and the County of Erie, at a Public Reception, on the 22d of May, 1851.
THE ADDITION TO THE CAPITOL
An Address delivered at the Laying of the Corner-Stone of the Addition to the Capitol, on the 4th of July, 1851.
THE RIGHT OF SEARCH
LETTERS TO GENERAL CASS ON THE TREATY OF WASHINGTON
THE HUeLSEMANN LETTER
DANIEL WEBSTER AS A MASTER OF ENGLISH STYLE.
From my own experience and observation I should say that every boy, who is ready enough in spelling, grammar, geography, and arithmetic, is appalled when he is commanded to write what is termed “a composition.” When he enters college the same fear follows him and the Professor of Rhetoric is a more terrible personage to his imagination than the Professors of Greek, Latin, Mathematics, and Moral and Intellectual Philosophy. Both boys at school and young men in college show no lack of power in speaking their native language with a vehemence and fluency which almost stuns the ears of their seniors. Why, then, should they find such difficulty in writing it? When you listen to the animated talk of a bright school-boy or college student, full of a subject which really interests him, you say at once that such command of racy and idiomatic English words must of course be exhibited in his “compositions” or his “themes”; but when the latter are examined, they are commonly found to be feeble and lifeless, with hardly a thought or a word which bears any stamp of freshness or originality, and which are so inferior to his ordinary conversation, that we can hardly believe they came from the same mind.
The first quality which strikes an examiner of these exercises in English composition is their _falseness_. No boy or youth writes what he personally thinks and feels, but writes what a good boy or youth is expected to think or feel. This hypocrisy vitiates his writing from first to last, and is not absent in his “Class Oration,” or in his “Speech at Commencement.” I have a vivid memory of the first time the boys of my class, in a public school, were called upon to write “composition.” The themes selected were the prominent moral virtues or vices. How we poor innocent urchins were tormented by the task imposed upon us! How we put more ink on our hands and faces than we shed upon the white paper on our desks! Our conclusions generally agreed with those announced by the greatest moralists of the world. Socrates and Plato, Cicero and Seneca, Cudworth and Butler, could not have been more austerely moral than were we little rogues, as we relieved the immense exertion involved in completing a single short baby-like sentence, by shying at one companion a rule, or hurling at another a paper pellet intended to light plump on his forehead or nose. Our custom was to begin every composition with the proposition that such or such a virtue “was one of the greatest blessings we enjoy”; and this triumph of accurate statement was not discovered by our teacher to be purely mechanical, until one juvenile thinker, having avarice to deal with, declared it to be “one of the greatest evils we enjoy.” The whole thing was such a piece of monstrous hypocrisy, that I once timidly suggested to the schoolmaster that it would be well to allow me to select my own subject. The request was granted; and, as narrative is the natural form of composition which a boy adopts when he has his own way, I filled, in less than half the time heretofore consumed in writing a quarter of a page, four pages of letter-paper with an account of my being in a ship taken by a pirate; of the heroic defiance I launched at the pirate captain; and the sagacity I evinced in escaping the fate of my fellow-passengers, in not being ordered to “walk the plank.” The story, though trashy enough, was so much better than any of the moral essays of the other pupils, that the teacher commanded me to read it before the whole school, as an evidence of the rapid strides I had made in the art of “composition.”
This falseness of thought and feeling is but too apt to characterize the writing of the student, after he has passed from the common school to the academy or the college. The term “Sophomorical” is used to describe speeches which are full of emotion which the speaker does not feel, full of words in four or five syllables that mean nothing, and, in respect to imagery and illustrations, blazing with the cheap jewelry of rhetoric,–with those rubies and diamonds that can be purchased for a few pennies an ounce. The danger is that this “Sophomorical” style may continue to afflict the student after he has become a clergyman, a lawyer, or a legislator.
Practical men who may not be “college educated” still have the great virtue of using the few words they employ as identical with facts. When they meet a man who has half the dictionary at his disposal, and yet gives no evidence of apprehending the real import and meaning of one word among the many thousands he glibly pours forth, they naturally distrust him, as a person who does not know the vital connection of all good words with the real things they represent. Indeed, the best rule that a Professor of Rhetoric could adopt would be to insist that no student under his care should use an unusual word until he had _earned the right to use it_ by making it the verbal sign of some new advance in his thinking, in his acquirements, or in his feelings. Shakspeare, the greatest of English writers, and perhaps the greatest of all writers, required fifteen thousand words to embody all that his vast exceptional intelligence acquired, thought, imagined, and discovered; and he had earned the right to use every one of them. Milton found that eight thousand words could fairly and fully represent all the power, grandeur, and creativeness of his almost seraphic soul, when he attempted to express his whole nature in a literary form. All the words used by Shakspeare and Milton are _alive_; “cut them and they will _bleed_.” But it is ridiculous for a college student to claim that he has the mighty resources of the English language at his supreme disposal, when he has not verified, by his own thought, knowledge, and experience, one in a hundred of the words he presumptuously employs.
Now Daniel Webster passed safely through all the stages of the “Sophomoric” disease of the mind, as he passed safely through the measles, the chicken-pox, and other eruptive maladies incident to childhood and youth. The process, however, by which he purified his style from this taint, and made his diction at last as robust and as manly, as simple and as majestic, as the nature it expressed, will reward a little study.
The mature style of Webster is perfect of its kind, being in words the express image of his mind and character,–plain, terse, clear, forcible; and rising from the level of lucid statement and argument into passages of superlative eloquence only when his whole nature is stirred by some grand sentiment of freedom, patriotism, justice, humanity, or religion, which absolutely lifts him, by its own inherent force and inspiration, to a region above that in which his mind habitually lives and moves. At the same time it will be observed that these thrilling passages, which the boys of two generations have ever been delighted to declaim in their shrillest tones, are strictly illustrative of the main purpose of the speech in which they appear. They are not mere purple patches of rhetoric, loosely stitched on the homespun gray of the reasoning, but they seem to be inwoven with it and to be a vital part of it. Indeed we can hardly decide, in reading these magnificent bursts of eloquence in connection with what precedes and follows them, whether the effect is due to the logic of the orator becoming suddenly morally impassioned, or to his moral passion becoming suddenly logical. What gave Webster his immense influence over the opinions of the people of New England was, first, his power of so “putting things” that everybody could understand his statements; secondly, his power of so framing his arguments that all the steps, from one point to another, in a logical series, could be clearly apprehended by every intelligent farmer or mechanic who had a thoughtful interest in the affairs of the country; and thirdly, his power of inflaming the sentiment of patriotism in all honest and well-intentioned men by overwhelming appeals to that sentiment, so that, after convincing their understandings, he clinched the matter by sweeping away their wills.
Perhaps to these sources of influence may be added another which many eminent statesmen have lacked. With all his great superiority to average men in force and breadth of mind, he had a genuine respect for the intellect, as well as for the manhood, of average men. He disdained the ignoble office of misleading the voters he aimed to instruct; and the farmers and mechanics who read his speeches felt ennobled when they found that the greatest statesman of the country frankly addressed them, as man to man, without pluming himself on his exceptional talents and accomplishments. Up to the crisis of 1850, he succeeded in domesticating himself at most of the pious, moral, and intelligent firesides of New England. Through his speeches he seemed to be almost bodily present wherever the family, gathered in the evening around the blazing hearth, discussed the questions of the day. It was not the great Mr. Webster, “the godlike Daniel,” who had a seat by the fire. It was a person who talked _to_ them, and argued _with_ them, as though he was “one of the folks,”–a neighbor dropping in to make an evening call; there was not the slightest trace of assumption in his manner; but suddenly, after the discussion had become a little tiresome, certain fiery words would leap from his lips and make the whole household spring to their feet, ready to sacrifice life and property for “the Constitution and the Union.” That Webster was thus a kind of invisible presence in thousands of homes where his face was never seen, shows that his rhetoric had caught an element of power from his early recollections of the independent, hard-headed farmers whom he met when a boy in his father’s house. The bodies of these men had become tough and strong in their constant struggle to force scanty harvests from an unfruitful soil, which only persistent toil could compel to yield any thing; and their brains, though forcible and clear, were still not stored with the important facts and principles which it was his delight to state and expound. In truth, he ran a race with the demagogues of his time in an attempt to capture such men as these, thinking them the very backbone of the country. Whether he succeeded or failed, it would be vain to hunt through his works to find a single epithet in which he mentioned them with contempt. He was as incapable of insulting one member of this landed democracy,–sterile as most of their acres were,–as of insulting the memory of his father, who belonged to this class.
The late Mr. Peter Harvey used to tell with much zest a story illustrating the hold which these early associations retained on Webster’s mind throughout his life. Some months after his removal from Portsmouth to Boston, a servant knocked at his chamber door late in an April afternoon in the year 1817, with the announcement that three men were in the drawing-room who insisted on seeing him. Webster was overwhelmed with fatigue, the result of his Congressional labors and his attendance on courts of law; and he had determined, after a night’s sleep, to steal a vacation in order to recruit his energies by a fortnight’s fishing and hunting. He suspected that the persons below were expectant clients; and he resolved, in descending the stairs, not to accept their offer. He found in the parlor three plain, country-bred, honest-looking men, who were believers in the innocence of Levi and Laban Kenniston, accused of robbing a certain Major Goodridge on the highway, and whose trial would take place at Ipswich the next day. They could find, they said, no member of the Essex bar who would undertake the defence of the Kennistons, and they had come to Boston to engage the services of Mr. Webster. Would he go down to Ipswich and defend the accused? Mr. Webster stated that he could not and would not go. He had made arrangements for an excursion to the sea-side; the state of his health absolutely demanded a short withdrawal from all business cares; and that no fee could tempt him to abandon his purpose. “Well,” was the reply of one of the delegation, “it isn’t the fee that we think of at all, though we are willing to pay what you may charge; but it’s justice. Here are two New Hampshire men who are believed in Exeter, and Newbury, and Newburyport, and Salem to be rascals; but we in Newmarket believe, in spite of all evidence against them, that they are the victims of some conspiracy. We think you are the man to unravel it, though it seems a good deal tangled even to us. Still we suppose that men whom we know to have been honest all their lives can’t have become such desperate rogues all of a sudden.” “But I cannot take the case,” persisted Mr. Webster; “I am worn to death with over-work. I have not had any real sleep for forty-eight hours. Besides, I know nothing of the case.” “It’s hard, I can see,” continued the leader of the delegation; “but you’re a New Hampshire man, and the _neighbors_ thought that you would not allow two innocent New Hampshire men, however humble they may be in their circumstances, to suffer for lack of your skill in exposing the wiles of this scoundrel Goodridge. The _neighbors_ all desire you to take the case.” That phrase “the neighbors” settled the question. No resident of a city knows what the phrase means. But Webster knew it in all the intense significance of its meaning. His imagination flew back to the scattered homesteads of a New England village, where mutual sympathy and assistance are the necessities, as they are the commonplaces, of village life. The phrase remotely meant to him the combination of neighbors to resist an assault of Indian savages, or to send volunteers to the war which wrought the independence of the nation. It specially meant to him the help of neighbor to neighbor, in times of sickness, distress, sorrow, and calamity. In his childhood and boyhood the Christian question, “Who is my neighbor?” was instantly solved the moment a matron in good health heard that the wife of Farmer A, or Farmer B, was stricken down by fever, and needed a friendly nurse to sit by her bedside all night, though she had herself been toiling hard all day. Every thing philanthropists mean when they talk of brotherhood and sisterhood among men and women was condensed in that homely phrase, “the neighbors.” “Oh!” said Webster, ruefully, “if the neighbors think I may be of service, of course I must go”;–and, with his three companions, he was soon seated in the stage for Ipswich, where he arrived at about midnight. The court met the next morning; and his management of the case is still considered one of his masterpieces of legal acumen and eloquence. His cross-examination of Goodridge rivalled, in mental torture, every thing martyrologists tell us of the physical agony endured by the victim of the inquisitor, when roasted before slow fires or stretched upon the rack. Still it seemed impossible to assign any motive for the self-robbery and the self-maiming of Goodridge, which any judge or jury would accept as reasonable. The real motive has never been discovered. Webster argued that the motive might have originated in a desire to escape from the payment of his debts, or in a whimsical ambition to have his name sounded all over Maine and Massachusetts as the heroic tradesman who had parted with his money only when overpowered by superior force. It is impossible to say what motives may impel men who are half-crazed by vanity, or half-demonized by malice. Coleridge describes Iago’s hatred of Othello as the hatred which a base nature instinctively feels for a noble one, and his assignment of motives for his acts as the mere “motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity.”
Whatever may have been Goodridge’s motive in his attempt to ruin the innocent men he falsely accused, it is certain that Webster saved these men from the unjust punishment of an imputed crime. Only the skeleton of his argument before the jury has been preserved; but what we have of it evidently passed under his revision. He knew that the plot of Goodridge had been so cunningly contrived, that every man of the twelve before him, whose verdict was to determine the fate of his clients, was inwardly persuaded of their guilt. Some small marked portions of the money which Goodridge swore he had on his person on the night of the pretended robbery were found in their house. Circumstantial evidence brought their guilt with a seemingly irresistible force literally “home” to them. It was the conviction of the leaders of the Essex bar that no respectable lawyer could appear in their defence without becoming, in some degree, their accomplice. But Webster, after damaging the character of the prosecutor by his stern cross-examination, addressed the jury, not as an advocate bearing down upon them with his arguments and appeals, but rather as a thirteenth juryman, who had cosily introduced himself into their company, and was arguing the case with them after they had retired for consultation among themselves. The simplicity of the language employed is not more notable than the power evinced in seizing the main points on which the question of guilt or innocence turned. At every quiet but deadly stab aimed at the theory of the prosecution, he is careful to remark, that “it is for the jury to say under their oaths” whether such inconsistencies or improbabilities should have any effect on their minds. Every strong argument closes with the ever-recurring phrase, “It is for the jury to say”; and, at the end, the jury, thoroughly convinced, said, “Not guilty.” The Kennistons were vindicated; and the public, which had been almost unanimous in declaring them fit tenants for the State prison, soon blamed the infatuation which had made them the accomplices of a villain in hunting down two unoffending citizens, and of denouncing every lawyer who should undertake their defence as a legal rogue.
The detected scoundrel fled from the place where his rascality had been exposed, to seek some other locality, where the mingled jeers and curses of his dupes would be unheard. Some twenty years after the trial, Mr. Webster, while travelling in Western New York, stopped at an obscure village tavern to get a glass of water. The hand of the man behind the bar, who gave it to him, trembled violently; and Webster, wondering at the cause, looked the fellow steadily in the eye. He recognized Goodridge, and understood at once that Goodridge had just before recognized _him_. Not a word passed between the felon and the intrepid advocate who had stripped his villany of all its plausible disguises; but what immense meaning must there have been in the swift interchange of feeling as their eyes met! Mr. Webster entered his carriage and proceeded on his journey; but Goodridge,–who has since ever heard of him?
This story is a slight digression, but it illustrates that hold on reality, that truth to fact, which was one of the sources of the force and simplicity of Mr. Webster’s mature style. He, however, only obtained these good qualities of rhetoric by long struggles with constant temptations, in his early life, to use resounding expressions and flaring images which he had not earned the right to use. His Fourth of July oration at Hanover, when he was only eighteen, and his college addresses, must have been very bad in their diction if we can judge of them by the style of his private correspondence at the time. The verses he incorporates in his letters are deformed by all the faults of false thinking and borrowed expression which characterized contemporary American imitators of English imitators of Pope and Gray. Think of the future orator, lawyer, and senator writing, even at the age of twenty, such balderdash as this!
“And Heaven grant me, whatever luck betide, Be fame or fortune given or denied,
Some cordial friend to meet my warm desire, Honest as John and good as Nehemiah.”
In reading such couplets we are reminded of the noted local poet of New Hampshire (or was it Maine?) who wrote “The Shepherd’s Songs,” and some of whose rustic lines still linger in the memory to be laughed at, such, for instance, as these:–
“This child who perished in the fire,– His father’s name was Nehemiah.”
“Napoleon, that great ex_ile_,
Who scoured all Europe like a file.”
And Webster’s prose was then almost as bad as his verse, though it was modelled on what was considered fine writing at the opening of the present century. He writes to his dearest student friends in a style which is profoundly insincere, though the thoughts are often good, and the fact of his love for his friends cannot be doubted. He had committed to memory Fisher Ames’s noble speech on the British Treaty, and had probably read some of Burke’s great pamphlets on the French Revolution. The stripling statesman aimed to talk in their high tone and in their richly ornamented language, before he had earned the right even to mimic their style of expression. There is a certain swell in some of his long sentences, and a kind of good sense in some of his short ones, which suggest that the writer is a youth endowed with elevation as well as strength of nature, and is only making a fool of himself because he thinks he must make a fool of himself in order that he may impress his correspondents with the idea that he is a master of the horrible jargon which all bright young fellows at that time innocently supposed to constitute eloquence. Thus, in February, 1800, he writes thus to his friend Bingham: “In my melancholy moments I presage the most dire calamities. I already see in my imagination the time when the banner of civil war shall be unfurled; when Discord’s hydra form shall set up her hideous yell, and from her hundred mouths shall howl destruction through our empire; and when American blood shall be made to flow in rivers by American swords! But propitious Heaven prevent such dreadful calamities! Internally secure, we have nothing to fear. Let Europe pour her embattled millions around us, let her thronged cohorts cover our shores, from St. Lawrence to St. Marie’s, yet United Columbia shall stand unmoved; the manes of her deceased Washington shall guard the liberties of his country, and direct the sword of freedom in the day of battle.” And think of this, not in a Fourth of July oration, but in a private letter to an intimate acquaintance! The bones of Daniel Webster might be supposed to have moved in their coffin at the thought that this miserable trash–so regretted and so amply atoned for–should have ever seen the light; but it is from such youthful follies that we measure the vigor of the man who outgrows them.
It was fortunate that Webster, after he was admitted to the bar, came into constant collision, in the courts of New Hampshire, with one of the greatest masters of the common law that the country has ever produced, Jeremiah Mason. It has been said that Mr. Mason educated Webster into a lawyer by opposing him. He did more than this; he cured Webster of all the florid foolery of his early rhetorical style. Of all men that ever appeared before a jury, Mason was the most pitiless realist, the most terrible enemy of what is–in a slang term as vile almost as itself–called “Hifalutin”; and woe to the opposing lawyer who indulged in it! He relentlessly pricked all rhetorical bubbles, reducing them at once to the small amount of ignominious suds, which the orator’s breath had converted into colored globes, having some appearance of stability as well as splendor. Six feet and seven inches high, and corpulent in proportion, this inexorable representative of good sense and sound law stood, while he was arguing a case, “quite near to the jury,” says Webster,–“so near that he might have laid his finger on the foreman’s nose; and then he talked to them in a plain conversational way, in short sentences, and using no word that was not level to the comprehension of the least educated man on the panel. This led me,” he adds, “to examine my own style, and I set about reforming it altogether.”
Mr. Mason was what the lawyers call a “cause-getting man,” like Sir James Scarlett, Brougham’s great opponent at the English bar. It was said of Scarlett, that he gained his verdicts because there were twelve Scarletts in the jury-box; and Mason so contrived to blend his stronger mind with the minds of the jurymen, that his thoughts appeared to be theirs, expressed in the same simple words and quaint illustrations which they would have used if asked to give their opinions on the case. It is to be added, that Mason’s almost cynical disregard of ornament in his addresses to the jury gave to an opponent like Webster the advantage of availing himself of those real ornaments of speech which spring directly from a great heart and imagination. Webster, without ever becoming so supremely plain and simple in style as Mason, still strove to emulate, in his legal statements and arguments, the homely, robust common-sense of his antagonist; but, wherever the case allowed of it, he brought into the discussion an element of _un_-common sense, the gift of his own genius and individuality, which Mason could hardly comprehend sufficiently to controvert, but which was surely not without its effect in deciding the verdicts of juries.
It is probable that Webster was one of the few lawyers and statesmen that Mason respected. Mason’s curt, sharp, “vitriolic” sarcasms on many men who enjoyed a national reputation, and who were popularly considered the lights of their time, still remain in the memories of his surviving associates, as things which may be quoted in conversation, but which it would be cruel to put into print. Of Webster, however, he never seems to have spoken a contemptuous word. Indeed, Mason, though fourteen years older than Webster, and fighting him at the Portsmouth bar with all the formidable force of his logic and learning, was from the first his cordial friend. That friendship, early established between strong natures so opposite in character, was never disturbed by any collision in the courts. In a letter written, I think, a few weeks after he had made that “Reply to Hayne” which is conceded to be one of the great masterpieces of eloquence in the recorded oratory of the world, Webster wrote jocularly to Mason: “I have been written to, to go to New Hampshire, to try a cause against you next August…. If it were an easy and plain case on our side, I might be willing to go; but I have some of your _pounding in my bones yet_, and I don’t care about any more till that wears out.”
It may be said that Webster’s argument in the celebrated “Dartmouth College Case,” before the Supreme Court of the United States, placed him, at the age of thirty-six, in the foremost rank of the constitutional lawyers of the country. For the main points of the reasoning, and for the exhaustive citation of authorities by which the reasoning was sustained, he was probably indebted to Mason, who had previously argued the case before the Superior Court of New Hampshire; but his superiority to Mason was shown in the eloquence, the moral power, he infused into his reasoning, so as to make the dullest citation of legal authority _tell_ on the minds he addressed.
There is one incident connected with this speech which proves what immense force is given to simple words when a great man–great in his emotional nature as well as great in logical power–is behind the words. “It is, sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it.” At this point the orator’s lips quivered, his voice choked, his eyes filled with tears,–all the memories of sacrifices endured by his father and mother, his brothers and sisters, in order that he might enjoy its rather scanty advantages of a liberal education, and by means of which he was there to plead its cause before the supreme tribunal of the nation, rushed suddenly upon his mind in an overwhelming flood. The justices of the Supreme Court–great lawyers, tried and toughened by experience into a certain obdurate sense of justice, and insensible to any common appeal to their hearts–melted into unwonted tenderness, as, in broken words, the advocate proceeded to state his own indebtedness to the “small college,” whose rights and privileges he was there to defend. Chief Justice Marshall’s eyes were filled with tears; and the eyes of the other justices were suffused with a moisture similar to that which afflicted the eyes of the Chief. As the orator gradually recovered his accustomed stern composure of manner, he turned to the counsel on the other side,–one of whom, at least, was a graduate of Dartmouth,–and in his deepest and most thrilling tones, thus concluded his argument: “Sir, I know not how others may feel; but for myself, when I see my Alma Mater surrounded, like Caesar in the senate-house, by those who are reiterating stab after stab, I would not, for this right hand, have her turn to me and say, _Et tu quoque, mi fili!_–And thou too, my son.” The effect was overwhelming; yet by what simple means was it produced, and with what small expenditure of words! The eloquence was plainly “in the man, in the subject, and in the occasion,” but most emphatically was it in the MAN.
Webster’s extreme solicitude to make his style thoroughly _Websterian_–a style unimitated because it is in itself inimitable–is observable in the care he took in revising all his speeches and addresses which were published under his own authority. His great Plymouth oration of 1820 did not appear in a pamphlet form until a year after its delivery. The chief reason of this delay was probably due to his desire of stating the main political idea of the oration, that government is founded on property, so clearly that it could not be misconceived by any honest mind, and could only be perverted from its plain democratic meaning by the ingenious malignity of such minds as are deliberately dishonest, and consider lying as justifiable when lying will serve a party purpose. It is probable that Webster would have been President of the United States had it not been for one short sentence in this oration,–“Government is founded on property.” It was of no use for his political friends to prove that he founded on this general proposition the most democratic views as to the distribution of property, and advised the enactment of laws calculated to frustrate the accumulation of large fortunes in a few hands. There were the words, words horrible to the democratic imagination, and Webster was proclaimed an aristocrat, and an enemy to the common people. But the delay in the publication of the oration may also be supposed to have been due to his desire to prune all its grand passages of eloquence of every epithet and image which should not be rigorously exact as expressions of his genuine sentiments and principles. It is probable that the Plymouth oration, as we possess it in print, is a better oration, in respect to composition, than that which was heard by the applauding crowd before which it was originally delivered. It is certain that the largeness, the grandeur, the weight of Webster’s whole nature, were first made manifest to the intelligent portion of his countrymen by this noble commemorative address.
Yet it is also certain that he was not himself altogether satisfied with this oration; and his dissatisfaction with some succeeding popular speeches, memorable in the annals of American eloquence, was expressed privately to his friends in the most emphatic terms. On the day he completed his magnificent Bunker Hill oration, delivered on the 17th of June, 1825, he wrote to Mr. George Ticknor: “I did the deed this morning, i.e. I finished my speech; and I am pretty well persuaded that it will _finish_ me as far as reputation is concerned. There is no more tone in it than in the weather in which it has been written; it is perpetual dissolution and thaw.” Every critic will understand the force of that word “tone.” He seemed to feel that it had not enough robust manliness,–that the ribs and backbone, the facts, thoughts, and real substance of the address, were not sufficiently prominent, owing to the frequency of those outbursts of magnetic eloquence, which made the immense audience that listened to it half crazy with the vehemence of their applause. On the morning after he had delivered his eulogy on Adams and Jefferson, he entered his office with his manuscript in his hand, and threw it down on the desk of a young student at law whom he specially esteemed, with the request, “There, Tom, please to take that discourse, and weed out all the Latin words.”
Webster’s liking for the Saxon element of our composite language was, however, subordinate to his main purpose of self-expression. Every word was good, whether of Saxon or Latin derivation, which aided him to embody the mood of mind dominant at the time he was speaking or writing. No man had less of what has been called “the ceremonial cleanliness of academical pharisees;” and the purity of expression he aimed at was to put into a form, at once intelligible and tasteful, his exact thoughts and emotions. He tormented reporters, proof-readers, and the printers who had the misfortune to be engaged in putting one of his performances into type, not because this or that word was or was not Saxon or Latin, but because it was inadequate to convey perfectly his meaning. Mr. Kemble, a great Anglo-Saxon scholar, once, in a company of educated gentlemen, defied anybody present to mention a single Latin phrase in our language for which he could not furnish a more forcible Saxon equivalent. “The impenetrability of matter” was suggested; and Kemble, after half a minute’s reflection, answered, “The un-thorough-fareableness of stuff.” Still, no English writer would think of discarding such an abstract, but convenient and accurate, term as “impenetrability,” for the coarsely concrete and terribly ponderous word which declares that there is no possible thoroughfare, no road, by which we can penetrate that substance which we call “matter,” and which our Saxon forefathers called “stuff.” Wherever the Latin element in our language comes in to express ideas and sentiments which were absent from the Anglo-Saxon mind, Webster uses it without stint; and some of the most resounding passages of his eloquence owe to it their strange power to suggest a certain vastness in his intellect and sensibility, which the quaint, idiomatic, homely prose of his friend, Mason, would have been utterly incompetent to convey. Still, he preferred a plain, plump, simple verb or noun to any learned phrase, whenever he could employ it without limiting his opulent nature to a meagre vocabulary, incompetent fully to express it.
Yet he never departed from simplicity; that is, he rigidly confined himself to the use of such words as he had earned the right to use. Whenever the report of one of his extemporaneous speeches came before him for revision, he had an instinctive sagacity in detecting every word that had slipped unguardedly from his tongue, which he felt, on reflection, did not belong to _him_. Among the reporters of his speeches, he had a particular esteem for Henry J. Raymond, afterwards so well known as the editor of the New York Times. Mr. Raymond told me that, after he had made a report of one of Webster’s speeches, and had presented it to him for revision, his conversation with him was always a lesson in rhetoric. “Did I use that phrase? I hope not. At any rate, substitute for it this more accurate definition.” And then again: “That word does not express my meaning. Wait a moment, and I will give you a better one. That sentence is slovenly,–that image is imperfect and confused. I believe, my young friend, that you have a remarkable power of reporting what I say; but, if I said that, and that, and that, it must have been owing to the fact that I caught, in the hurry of the moment, such expressions as I could command at the moment; and you see they do not accurately represent the idea that was in my mind.” And thus, Mr. Raymond said, the orator’s criticism upon his own speech would go on,–correction following correction,–until the reporter feared he would not have it ready for the morning edition of his journal.
Webster had so much confidence in Raymond’s power of reporting him accurately, that, when he intended to make an important speech in the Senate, he would send a note to him, asking him to come to Washington as a personal favor; for he knew that the accomplished editor had a rare power of apprehending a long train of reasoning, and of so reporting it that the separate thoughts would not only be exactly stated, but the relations of the thoughts to each other–a much more difficult task–would be preserved throughout, and that the argument would be presented in the symmetrical form in which it existed in the speaker’s mind. Then would follow, as of old, the severe scrutiny of the phraseology of the speech; and Webster would give, as of old, a new lesson in rhetoric to the accomplished reporter who was so capable of following the processes of his mind.
The great difficulty with speakers who may be sufficiently clear in statement and cogent in argument is that turn in their discourse when their language labors to become figurative. Imagery makes palpable to the bodily eye the abstract thought seen only by the eye of the mind; and all orators aim at giving vividness to their thinking by thus making their thoughts _visible_. The investigation of the process of imagination by which this end is reached is an interesting study. Woe to the speaker who is ambitious to rise into the region of imagination without possessing the faculty! Everybody remembers the remark of Sheridan, when Tierney, the prosaic Whig leader of the English House of Commons, ventured to bring in, as an illustration of his argument, the fabulous but favorite bird of untrained orators, the phoenix, which is supposed always to spring up alive out of its own ashes. “It was,” said Sheridan, “a poulterer’s description of a phoenix.” That is, Tierney, from defect of imagination, could not lift his poetic bird above the rank of a common hen or chicken.
The test that may be most easily applied to all efforts of the imagination is sincerity; for, like other qualities of the mind, it acts strictly within the limits of a man’s character and experience. The meaning of the word “experience,” however, must not be confined to what he has personally seen and felt, but is also to be extended to every thing he has seen and felt through vital sympathy with facts, scenes, events, and characters, which he has learned by conversation with other men and through books. Webster laid great emphasis on conversation as one of the most important sources of imagery as well as of positive knowledge. “In my education,” he once remarked to Charles Sumner, “I have found that conversation with the intelligent men I have had the good fortune to meet has done more for me than books ever did; for I learn more from them in a talk of half an hour than I could possibly learn from their books. Their minds, in conversation, come into intimate contact with my own mind; and I absorb certain secrets of their power, whatever may be its quality, which I could not have detected in their works. Converse, _converse_, CONVERSE with living men, face to face, and mind to mind,–that is one of the best sources of knowledge.”
But my present object is simply to give what may be called the natural history of metaphor, comparison, image, trope, and the like, whether imagery be employed by an uneducated husbandman, or by a great orator and writer. Many readers may recollect the anecdote of the New Hampshire farmer, who was once complimented on the extremely handsome appearance of a horse which he was somewhat sullenly urging on to perform its work. “Yaas,” was the churlish reply, “the critter looks well enough, but then he is as slow as–as–as–well, as slow as cold molasses.” This perfectly answers to Bacon’s definition of imagination, as “thought immersed in matter.” The comparison is exactly on a level with the experience of the person who used it. He had seen his good wife, on so many bitter winter mornings, when he was eager for his breakfast, turn the molasses-jug upside down, and had noted so often the reluctance of the congealed sweetness to assume its liquid nature, that the thing had become to him the visible image of the abstract notion of slowness of movement. An imaginative dramatist or novelist, priding himself on the exactness with which he represented character, could not have invented a more appropriate comparison to be put into the mouth of an imagined New England farmer.
The only objection to such rustic poets is, that a comparatively few images serve them for a lifetime; and one tires of such “originals” after a few days’ conversation has shown the extremely limited number of apt illustrations they have added to the homely poetry of agricultural life. The only person, belonging to this class, that I ever met, who possessed an imagination which was continually creative in quaint images, was a farmer by the name of Knowlton, who had spent fifty years in forcing some few acres of the rocky soil of Cape Ann to produce grass, oats, potatoes, and, it may be added, those ugly stone walls which carefully distinguish, at the cape, one patch of miserable sterile land from another. He was equal, in quickness of imaginative illustration, to the whole crowd of clergymen, lawyers, poets, and artists, who filled the boarding-houses of “Pigeon Cove”; and he was absolutely inexhaustible in fresh and original imagery. On one hot summer day, the continuation of fourteen hot summer days, when there was fear all over Cape Ann that the usual scanty crops would be withered up by the intense heat, and the prayer for rain was in almost every farmer’s heart, I met Mr. Knowlton, as he was looking philosophically over one of his own sun-smitten fields of grass. Thinking that I was in full sympathy with his own feeling at the dolorous prospect before his eyes, I said, in accosting him, that it was bad weather for the farmers. He paused for half a minute; and then his mind flashed back on an incident of his weekly experience,–that of his wife “ironing” the somewhat damp clothes of the Monday’s “washing,”–and he replied: “I see you’ve been talking with our farmers, who are too stupid to know what’s for their good. Ye see the spring here was uncommonly rainy, and the ground became wet and cold; but now, for the last fortnight, _God has been putting his flat-iron over it_, and ’twill all come out right in the end.”
Thus Mr. Knowlton went on, year after year, speaking poetry without knowing it, as Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain found he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it. But the conception of the sun as God’s flat-iron, smoothing out and warming the moist earth, as a housewife smooths and warms the yet damp shirts, stockings, and bed-linen brought into the house from the clothes-lines in the yard, is an astounding illustration of that “familiar grasp of things divine,” which obtains in so many of our rustic households. Dante or Chaucer, two of the greatest poets of the world, would, had they happened to be “uneducated” men, have seized on just such an image to express their idea of the Divine beneficence.
This natural, this instinctive operation of the imaginative faculty, is often observed in children. Numberless are the stories told by fond mothers of the wonderful things uttered by their babies, shortly after they have left their cradles. The most striking peculiarity running through them all is the astonishing audacity with which the child treats the most sacred things. He or she seems to have no sense of awe. All children are taught to believe that God resides above them in the sky; and I shall never forget the shock of surprise I felt at the answer of a boy of five years–whom I found glorying over the treasures of his first paint-box–to my question: “Which color do you like best?” “Oh,” he carelessly replied, “I like best sky-blue,–God’s color.” And the little rogue went on, daubing the paper before him with a mixture of all colors, utterly unconscious that he had said any thing remarkable; and yet what Mrs. Browning specially distinguishes as the characteristic of the first and one of the greatest of English poets, Chaucer, namely, his “familiar grasp of things Divine,” could not have found a more appropriate illustration than in this chance remark of a mere child, expressing the fearlessness of his faith in the Almighty Father above him.
Now in all these instinctive operations of the imagination, whether in the mind of a child or in that of a grown man, it is easy to discern the mark of sincerity. If the child is petted, and urged by his mother to display his brightness before a company of other mothers and other babies, he is in danger of learning early that trick of falsehood, which clings to him when he goes to school, when he leaves the school for the college, and when he leaves the college for the pursuits of professional life. The farmer or mechanic, not endowed with “college larnin’,” is sure to become a bad declaimer, perhaps a demagogue, when he abandons those natural illustrations and ornaments of his speech which spring from his individual experience, and strives to emulate the grandiloquence of those graduates of colleges who have the heathen mythology at the ends of their fingers and tongues, and can refer to Jove, Juno, Minerva, Diana, Venus, Vulcan, and Neptune, as though they were resident deities and deesses of the college halls. The trouble with most “uneducated” orators is, that they become enamored of these shining gods and goddesses, after they have lost, through repetition, all of their old power to give point or force to any good sentence of modern oratory. During the times when, to be a speaker at Abolitionist meetings, the speaker ran the risk of being pelted with rotten eggs, I happened to be present, as one of a small antislavery audience, gathered in an equally small hall. Among the speakers was an honest, strong-minded, warm-hearted young mechanic, who, as long as he was true to his theme, spoke earnestly, manfully, and well; but alas! he thought he could not close without calling in some god or goddess to give emphasis–after the method of college students–to his previous statements. He selected, of course, that unfortunate phantom whom he called the Goddess of Liberty. “Here, in Boston,” he thundered, “where she was cradled in Faneuil Hall, can it be that Liberty should be trampled under foot, when, after two generations have passed,–yes, sir, have elapsed,–she has grown–yes, sir, I repeat it, has grown–grown up, sir, into a great man?” The change in sex was, in this case, more violent than usual; but how many instances occur to everybody’s recollection, where that poor Goddess has been almost equally outraged, through a puerile ambition on the part of the orator to endow her with an exceptional distinction by senseless rhodomontade, manufactured by the word-machine which he presumes to call his imagination! All imitative imagery is the grave of common-sense.
Now let us pass to an imagination which is, perhaps, the grandest in American oratory, but which was as perfectly natural as that of the “cold molasses,” or “God’s flat-iron,” of the New England farmer,–as natural, indeed, as the “sky-blue, God’s color,” of the New England boy. Daniel Webster, standing on the heights of Quebec at an early hour of a summer morning, heard the ordinary morning drum-beat which called the garrison to their duty. Knowing that the British possessions belted the globe, the thought occurred to him that the morning drum would go on beating in some English post to the time when it would sound again in Quebec. Afterwards, in a speech on President Jackson’s Protest, he dwelt on the fact that our Revolutionary forefathers engaged in a war with Great Britain on a strict question of principle, “while actual suffering was still afar off.” How could he give most effect to this statement? It would have been easy for him to have presented statistical tables, showing the wealth, population, and resources of England, followed by an enumeration of her colonies and military stations, all going to prove the enormous strength of the nation against which the United American colonies raised their improvised flag. But the thought which had heretofore occurred to him at Quebec happily recurred to his mind the moment it was needed; and he flashed on the imagination an image of British power which no statistics could have conveyed to the understanding,–“a Power,” he said, “which has dotted over the surface of the whole globe with her possessions and military posts, whose morning drum-beat, following the sun, and keeping company with the hours, circles the earth with one continuous and unbroken strain of the martial airs of England.” Perhaps a mere rhetorician might consider superfluous the word “whole,” as applied to “globe,” and “unbroken,” as following “continuous”; yet they really add to the force and majesty of the expression. It is curious that, in Great Britain, this magnificent impersonation of the power of England is so little known. It is certain that it is unrivalled in British patriotic oratory. Not Chatham, not even Burke, ever approached it in the noblest passages in which they celebrated the greatness and glory of their country. Webster, it is to be noted, introduced it in his speech, not for the purpose of exalting England, but of exalting our Revolutionary forefathers, whose victory, after a seven years’ war of terrible severity, waged in vindication of a principle, was made all the more glorious from having been won over an adversary so formidable and so vast.
It is reported that, at the conclusion of this speech on the President’s Protest, John Sergeant, of Philadelphia, came up to the orator, and, after cordially shaking hands with him, eagerly asked, “Where, Webster, did you get that idea of the morning drum-beat?” Like other public men, accustomed to address legislative assemblies, he was naturally desirous of knowing the place, if place there was, where such images and illustrations were to be found. The truth was that, if Webster had ever read Goethe’s Faust,–which he of course never had done,–he might have referred his old friend to that passage where Faust, gazing at the setting sun, aches to follow it in its course for ever. “See,” he exclaims, “how the green-girt cottages shimmer in the setting sun. He bends and sinks,–the day is outlived. Yonder he hurries off, and quickens other life. Oh, that I have no wing to lift me from the ground, to struggle after–for ever after–him! I should see, in everlasting evening beams, the stilly world at my feet, every height on fire, every vale in repose, the silver brook flowing into golden streams. The rugged mountain, with all its dark defiles, would not then break my godlike course. Already the sea, with its heated bays, opens on my enraptured sight. Yet the god seems at last to sink away. But the new impulse wakes. I hurry on to drink his everlasting light,–_the day before me and the night behind_,–and under me the waves.” In Faust, the wings of the mind follow the setting sun; in Webster, they follow the rising sun; but the thought of each circumnavigates the globe, in joyous companionship with the same centre of life, light, and heat,–though the suggestion which prompts the sublime idea is widely different. The sentiment of Webster, calmly meditating on the heights of Quebec, contrasts strangely with the fiery feeling of Faust, raging against the limitations of his mortal existence. A humorist, Charles Dickens, who never read either Goethe or Webster, has oddly seized on the same general idea: “The British empire,” as he says, in one of his novels,–“on which the sun never sets, and where the tax-gatherer never goes to bed.”
This celebrated image of the British “drum-beat” is here cited simply to indicate the natural way in which all the faculties of Webster are brought into harmonious co-operation, whenever he seriously discusses any great question. His understanding and imagination, when both are roused into action, always cordially join hands. His statement of facts is so combined with the argument founded on them, that they are interchangeable; his statement having the force of argument, and his argument having the “substantiality” which properly belongs to statement; and to these he commonly adds an imaginative illustration, which gives increased reality to both statement and argument. In rapidly turning over the leaves of the six volumes of his Works, one can easily find numerous instances of this instinctive operation of his mind. In his first Bunker Hill oration, he announces that “the _principle_ of free governments adheres to the American soil. It is bedded in it, immovable as its mountains.” Again he says: “A call for the representative system, wherever it is not enjoyed, and where there is already intelligence enough to estimate its value, is perseveringly made. Where men may speak out, they demand it where the bayonet is at their throats, they pray for it.” And yet again: “If the true spark of religious and civil liberty be kindled, it will burn. Human agency cannot extinguish it. Like the earth’s central fire, it may be smothered for a time; the ocean may overwhelm it; mountains may press it down; but its inherent and unconquerable force will heave both the ocean and the land, and at some time or other, in some place or other, the volcano will break out, and flame up to heaven.” It would be difficult to find in any European literature a similar embodiment of an elemental sentiment of humanity, in an image which is as elemental as the sentiment to which it gives vivid expression.
And then with what majesty, with what energy, and with what simplicity, can he denounce a political transaction which, had it not attracted his ire, would hardly have survived in the memory of his countrymen! Thus, in his Protest against Mr. Benton’s Expunging Resolution, speaking for himself and his Senatorial colleague, he says: “We rescue our own names, character, and honor from all participation in this matter; and, whatever the wayward character of the times, the headlong and plunging spirit of party devotion, or the fear or the love of power, may have been able to bring about elsewhere, we desire to thank God that they have not, as yet, overcome the love of liberty, fidelity to true republican principles, and a sacred regard for the Constitution in that State whose soil was drenched to a mire by the first and best blood of the Revolution.” Perhaps the peculiar power of Webster in condemning a measure by a felicitous epithet, such as that he employs in describing “the _plunging_ spirit of party devotion,” was never more happily exercised. In that word “plunging,” he intended to condense all his horror and hatred of a transaction which he supposed calculated to throw the true principles of constitutional government into a bottomless abyss of personal government, where right constitutional principles would cease to have existence, as well as cease to have authority.
There is one passage in his oration at the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument, which may be quoted as an illustration of his power of compact statement, and which, at the same time, may save readers from the trouble of reading many excellent histories of the origin and progress of the Spanish dominion in America, condensing, as it does, all which such histories can tell us in a few smiting sentences. “Spain,” he says, “stooped on South America, like a vulture on its prey. Every thing was force. Territories were acquired by fire and sword. Cities were destroyed by fire and sword. Hundreds of thousands of human beings fell by fire and sword. Even conversion to Christianity was attempted by fire and sword.” One is reminded, in this passage, of Macaulay’s method of giving vividness to his confident generalization of facts by emphatic repetitions of the same form of words. The repetition of “fire and sword,” in this series of short, sharp sentences, ends in forcing the reality of what the words mean on the dullest imagination; and the climax is capped by affirming that “fire and sword” were the means by which the religion of peace was recommended to idolaters, whose heathenism was more benignant, and more intrinsically Christian, than the military Christianity which was forced upon them.
And then, again, how easily Webster’s imagination slips in, at the end of a comparatively bald enumeration of the benefits of a good government, to vitalize the statements of his understanding! “Everywhere,” he says, “there is order, everywhere there is security. Everywhere the law reaches to the highest, and reaches to the lowest, to protect all in their rights, and to restrain all from wrong; and over all hovers liberty,–that liberty for which our fathers fought and fell on this very spot, with her eye ever watchful, and her eagle wing ever wide outspread.” There is something astonishing in the dignity given in the last clause of this sentence to the American eagle,–a bird so degraded by the rhodomontade of fifth-rate declaimers, that it seemed impossible that the highest genius and patriotism could restore it to its primacy among the inhabitants of the air, and its just eminence as a symbol of American liberty. It is also to be noted, that Webster here alludes to “the bird of freedom” only as it appears on the American silver dollar that passes daily from hand to hand, where the watchful eye and the outspread wing are so inartistically represented that the critic is puzzled to account for the grandeur of the image which the orator contrived to evolve from the barbaric picture on the ugliest and clumsiest of civilized coins.
The compactness of Webster’s statements occasionally reminds us of the epigrammatic point which characterizes so many of the statements of Burke. Thus, in presenting a memorial to Congress, signed by many prominent men of business, against President Jackson’s system of finance, he saw at once that the Democrats would denounce it as another manifesto of the “moneyed aristocracy.” Accordingly Webster introduced the paper to the attention of the Senate, with the preliminary remark: “The memorialists are not unaware, that, if rights are attacked, attempts will be made to render odious those whose rights are violated. Power always seeks such subjects on which to try its experiments.” It is difficult to resist the impression that Webster must have been indebted to Burke for this maxim. Again, we are deluded into the belief that we must be reading Burke, when Webster refers to the _minimum_ principle as the right one to be followed in imposing duties on certain manufactures. “It lays the impost,” he says, “exactly where it will do good, and leaves the rest free. It is an intelligent, discerning, discriminating principle; not a blind, headlong, generalizing, uncalculating operation. Simplicity undoubtedly, is a great beauty in acts of legislation, as well as in the works of art; but in both it must be a simplicity resulting from congruity of parts and adaptation to the end designed; not a rude generalization, which either leaves the particular object unaccomplished, or, in accomplishing it, accomplishes a dozen others also, which were not desired. It is a simplicity wrought out by knowledge and skill; not the rough product of an undistinguishing, sweeping general principle.”
An ingenuous reader, who has not learned from his historical studies that men generally act, not from arguments addressed to their understandings, but from vehement appeals which rouse their passions to defend their seeming interests, cannot comprehend why Webster’s arguments against Nullification and Secession, which were apparently unanswerable, and which were certainly unanswered either by Hayne or Calhoun, should not have settled the question in debate between the North and the South. Such a reader, after patiently following all the turns and twists of the logic, all the processes of the reasoning employed on both sides of the intellectual contest, would naturally conclude that the party defeated in the conflict would gracefully acknowledge the fact of its defeat; and, as human beings, gifted with the faculty of reason, would cheerfully admit the demonstrated results of its exercise. He would find it difficult to comprehend why the men who were overcome in a fair gladiatorial strife in the open arena of debate, with brain pitted against brain, and manhood against manhood, should resort to the rough logic of “blood and iron,” when the nobler kind of logic, that which is developed in the struggle of mind with mind, had failed to accomplish the purposes which their hearts and wills, independent of their understandings, were bent on accomplishing.
It may be considered certain that so wise a statesman as Webster–a statesman whose foresight was so palpably the consequence of his insight, and whose piercing intellect was so admirably adapted to read events in their principles–never indulged in such illusions as those which cheered so many of his own adherents, when they supposed his triumph in argumentation was to settle a matter which was really based on organic differences in the institutions of the two sections of the Union. He knew perfectly well that, while the Webster men were glorying in his victory over Calhoun, the Calhoun men were equally jubilant in celebrating Calhoun’s victory over him. Which of them had the better in the argument was of little importance in comparison with the terrible fact that the people of the Southern States were widening, year by year, the distance which separated them from the people of the Northern States. We have no means of judging whether Webster clearly foresaw the frightful civil war between the two sections, which followed so soon after his own death. We only know that, to him, it was a conflict constantly impending, and which could be averted for the time only by compromises, concessions, and other temporary expedients. If he allowed his mind to pass from the pressing questions of the hour, and to consider the radical division between the two sections of the country which were only formally united, it would seem that he must have felt, as long as the institution of negro slavery existed, that he was only laboring to postpone a conflict which it was impossible for him to prevent.
But my present purpose is simply to indicate the felicity of Webster’s intrepid assault on the principles which the Southern disunionists put forward in justification of their acts. Mr. Calhoun’s favorite idea was this,–that Nullification was a conservative principle, to be exercised within the Union, and in accordance with a just interpretation of the Constitution. “To begin with nullification,” Webster retorted, “with the avowed intent, nevertheless, not to proceed to secession, dismemberment, and general revolution, is as if one were to take the plunge of Niagara, and cry out that he would stop half-way down. In the one case, as in the other, the rash adventurer must go to the bottom of the dark abyss below, were it not that the abyss has no discovered bottom.”
How admirable also is his exposure of the distinction attempted to be drawn between secession, as a State right to be exercised under the provisions of what was called “the Constitutional Compact,” and revolution. “Secession,” he says, “as a revolutionary right, is intelligible; as a right to be proclaimed in the midst of civil commotions, and asserted at the head of armies, I can understand it. But as a practical right, existing under the Constitution, and in conformity with its provisions, it seems to me nothing but a plain absurdity; for it supposes resistance to government, under the authority of government itself; it supposes dismemberment, without violating the principles of union; it supposes opposition to law, without crime, it supposes the total overthrow of government, without revolution.”
After putting some pertinent interrogatories–which are arguments in themselves–relating to the inevitable results of secession, he adds, that “every man must see that these are all questions which can arise only after a revolution. They presuppose the breaking up of the government. While the Constitution lasts, they are repressed”;–and then, with that felicitous use of the imagination as a handmaid of the understanding, which is the peculiar characteristic of his eloquence, he closes the sentence by saying, that “they spring up to annoy and startle us only from its grave.” A mere reasoner would have stopped at the word “repressed”; the instantaneous conversion of “questions” into spectres, affrighting and annoying us as they spring up from the grave of the Constitution,–which is also by implication impersonated,–is the work of Webster’s ready imagination; and it thoroughly vitalizes the statements which precede it.
A great test of the sincerity of a statesman’s style is his moderation. Now, if we take the whole body of Mr. Webster’s speeches, whether delivered in the Senate or before popular assemblies, during the period of his opposition to President Jackson’s administration, we may well be surprised at their moderation of tone and statement. Everybody old enough to recollect the singular virulence of political speech at that period must remember it as disgraceful equally to the national conscience and the national understanding. The spirit of party, always sufficiently fierce and unreasonable, was then stimulated into a fury resembling madness. Almost every speaker, Democrat or Whig, was in that state of passion which is represented by the physical sign of “foaming at the mouth.” Few mouths then opened that did not immediately begin to “foam.” So many fortunes were suddenly wrecked by President Jackson’s financial policy, and the business of the country was so disastrously disturbed, that, whether the policy was right or wrong, those who assailed and those who defended it seemed to be equally devoid of common intellectual honesty. “I do well to be angry,” appears to have been the maxim which inspired Democratic and Whig orators alike; and what reason there was on either side was submerged in the lies and libels, in the calumnies and caricatures, in the defamations and execrations, which accompanied the citation of facts and the affirmation of principles. Webster, during all this time, was selected as a shining mark, at which every puny writer or speaker who opposed him hurled his small or large contribution of verbal rotten eggs; and yet Webster was almost the only Whig statesman who preserved sanity of understanding during the whole progress of that political riot, in which the passions of men became the masters of their understandings. Pious Whig fathers, who worshipped the “godlike Daniel,” went almost to the extent of teaching their children to curse Jackson in their prayers; equally pious Democratic fathers brought up their sons and daughters to anathematize the fiend-like Daniel as the enemy of human rights; and yet, in reading Webster’s speeches, covering the whole space between 1832 and 1836, we can hardly find a statement which an historian of our day would not admit as a candid generalization of facts, or an argument which would not stand the test of logical examination. Such an historian might entirely disagree with the opinions of Webster; but he would certainly award to him the praise of being an honest reasoner and an honest rhetorician, in a time when reason was used merely as a tool of party passion, and when rhetoric rushed madly into the worst excesses of rhodomontade.
It is also to be said that Webster rarely indulged in personalities. When we consider how great were his powers of sarcasm and invective, how constant were the provocations to exercise them furnished by his political enemies, and how atrociously and meanly allusions to his private affairs were brought into discussions which should have been confined to refuting his reasoning, his moderation in this matter is to be ranked as a great virtue. He could not take a glass of wine without the trivial fact being announced all over the country as indisputable proof that he was an habitual drunkard, though the most remarkable characteristic of his speeches is their temperance,–their “total abstinence” from all the intoxicating moral and mental “drinks” which confuse the understanding and mislead the conscience. He could not borrow money on his note of hand, like any other citizen, without the circumstance being trumpeted abroad as incontrovertible evidence that Nick Biddle had paid him that sum to defend his diabolical Bank in the Senate of the United States. The plain fact that his speeches were confined strictly to the exposition and defence of sound opinions on trade and finance, and that it was difficult to answer them, only confirmed his opponents in the conviction that old Nick was at the bottom of it all. His great intellect was admitted; but on the high, broad brow, which was its manifestation to the eye, his enemies pasted the words, “To be let,” or, “For sale.” The more impersonal he became in his statements and arguments, the more truculently was he assailed by the personalities of the political gossip and scandal-monger. Indeed, from the time he first came to the front as a great lawyer, statesman, and patriot, he was fixed upon by the whole crew of party libellers as a man whose arguments could be answered most efficiently by staining his character. He passed through life with his head enveloped “in a cloud of poisonous flies”; and the head was the grandest-looking head that had ever been seen on the American continent. It was so pre-eminently noble and impressive, and promised so much more than it could possibly perform, that only one felicitous sarcasm of party malice, among many thousands of bad jokes, has escaped oblivion; and that was stolen from Charles Fox’s remark on Lord Chancellor Thurlow, as Fox once viewed him sitting on the wool-sack, frowning on the English House of Lords, which he dominated by the terror of his countenance, and by the fear that he might, at any moment, burst forth in one of his short bullying, thundering retorts, should any comparatively weak baron, earl, marquis, or duke dare to oppose him. “Thurlow,” said Fox, “must be an impostor, for nobody can be as wise as he looks.” The American version of this was, “Webster must be a charlatan, for no one can be as great as he looks.”
But during all the time that his antagonists attempted to elude the force of his arguments by hunting up the evidences of his debts, and by trying to show that the most considerate, the most accurate, and the most temperate of his lucid statements were the products of physical stimulants, Webster steadily kept in haughty reserve his power of retaliation. In his speech in reply to Hayne he hinted that, if he were imperatively called upon to meet blows with blows, he might be found fully equal to his antagonists in that ignoble province of intellectual pugilism; but that he preferred the more civilized struggle of brain with brain, in a contest which was to decide questions of principle. In the Senate, where he could meet his political opponents face to face, few dared to venture to degrade the subject in debate from the discussion of principles to the miserable subterfuge of imputing bad motives as a sufficient answer to good arguments; but still many of these dignified gentlemen smiled approval on the efforts of the low-minded, small-minded caucus-speakers of their party, when they declared that Webster’s logic was unworthy of consideration, because he was bought by the Bank, or bought by the manufacturers of Massachusetts, or bought by some other combination of persons who were supposed to be the deadly enemies of the laboring men of the country. On some rare occasions Webster’s wrath broke out in such smiting words that his adversaries were cowed into silence, and cursed the infatuation which had led them to overlook the fact that the “logic-machine” had in it invectives more terrible than its reasonings. But generally he refrained from using the giant’s power “like a giant”; and it is almost pathetic to remember that, when Mr. Everett undertook to edit, in 1851, the standard edition of his works, Webster gave directions to expunge all personalities from his speeches, even when those personalities were the just punishment of unprovoked attacks on his integrity as a man. Readers will look in vain, in this edition of his works, for some of the most pungent passages which originally attracted their attention in the first report of the Defence of the Treaty of Washington. At the time these directions were given, Webster was himself the object of innumerable personalities, which were the natural, the inevitable results of his speech of the 7th of March, 1850.
It seems to be a law, that the fame of all public men shall be “half disfame.” We are specially warned to beware of the man of whom all men speak well. Burke, complimenting his friend Fox for risking every thing, even his “darling popularity,” on the success of the East India Bill, nobly says: “He is traduced and abused for his supposed motives. He will remember, that obloquy is a necessary ingredient in all true glory; he will remember, that it was not only in the Roman customs, but it is in the nature of human things, that calumny and abuse are essential parts of triumph.”
It may be said, however, that Webster’s virtue in this general abstinence from personalities is to be offset by the fact that he could throw into a glance of his eye, a contortion of his face, a tone of his voice, or a simple gesture of his hand, more scorn, contempt, and hatred than ordinary debaters could express by the profuse use of all the scurrilous terms in the English language. Probably many a sentence, which we now read with an even pulse, was, as originally delivered, accompanied by such pointing of the finger, or such flashing of the eye, or such raising of the voice, that the seemingly innocent words were poisoned arrows that festered in the souls of those against whom they were directed, and made deadly enemies of a number of persons whom he seems, in his printed speeches, never to have mentioned without the respect due from one Senator to another. In his speech in defence of the Treaty of Washington, he had to repel Mr. Ingersoll’s indecent attack on his integrity, and his dreadful retort is described by those who heard it as coming within the rules which condemn cruelty to animals. But the “noble rage” which prompted him to indulge in such unwonted invective subsided with the occasion that called it forth, and he was careful to have it expunged when the speech was reprinted. An eminent judge of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, in commending the general dignity and courtesy which characterized Webster’s conduct of a case in a court of law, noted one exception. “When,” he said, “the opposite counsel had got him into a corner, the way he ‘trampled out’ was something frightful to behold. The court itself could hardly restrain him in his gigantic efforts to extricate himself from the consequences of a blunder or an oversight.”
Great writers and orators are commonly economists in the use of words. They compel common words to bear a burden of thought and emotion, which mere rhetoricians, with all the resources of the language at their disposal, would never dream of imposing upon them. But it is also to be observed, that some writers have the power of giving a new and special significance to a common word, by impressing on it a wealth of meaning which it cannot claim for itself. Three obvious examples of this peculiar power may be cited. Among poets, Chaucer infused into the simple word “green” a poetic ecstasy which no succeeding English poet, not even Wordsworth, has ever rivalled, in describing an English landscape in the month of May. Jonathan Edwards fixed upon the term “sweetness” as best conveying his loftiest conception of the bliss which the soul of the saint can attain to on earth, or expect to be blessed with in heaven; but not one of his theological successors has ever caught the secret of using “sweetness” in the sense attached to it by him. Dr. Barrow gave to the word “rest,” as embodying his idea of the spiritual repose of the soul fit for heaven, a significance which it bears in the works of no other great English divine. To descend a little, Webster was fond of certain words, commonplace enough in themselves, to which he insisted on imparting a more than ordinary import. Two of these, which meet us continually in reading his speeches, are “interesting” and “respectable.” The first of these appears to him competent to express that rapture of attention called forth by a thing, an event, or a person, which other writers convey by such a term as “absorbing,” or its numerous equivalents. If we should select one passage from his works which, more than any other, indicates his power of seeing and feeling, through a process of purely imaginative vision and sympathy, it is that portion of his Plymouth oration, where he places himself and his audience as spectators on the barren shore, when the _Mayflower_ came into view. He speaks of “the _interesting_ group upon the deck” of the little vessel. The very word suggests that we are to have a very commonplace account of the landing, and the circumstances which followed it. In an instant, however, we are made to “feel the cold which benumbed, and listen to the winds which pierced” this “interesting” group; and immediately after, the picture is flashed upon the imagination of “chilled and shivering childhood, houseless, but for a mother’s arms, couchless, but for a mother’s breast,”–an image which shows that the orator had not only transported himself into a spectator of the scene, but had felt his own blood “almost freeze” in intense sympathy with the physical sufferings of the shelterless mothers and children.
There is no word which the novelists, satirists, philanthropic reformers, and Bohemians of our day have done so much to discredit, and make dis-respectable to the heart and the imagination, as the word “respectable.” Webster always uses it as a term of eulogy. A respectable man is, to his mind, a person who performs all his duties to his family, his country, and his God; a person who is not only virtuous, but who has a clear perception of the relation which connects one virtue with another by “the golden thread” of moderation, and who, whether he be a man of genius, or a business man of average talent, or an intelligent mechanic, or a farmer of sound moral and mental character, is to be considered “respectable” because he is one of those citizens whose intelligence and integrity constitute the foundation on which the Republic rests. As late as 1843, in his noble oration on the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument, he declared that if our American institutions had done nothing more than to produce the character of Washington, that alone would entitle them to the respect of mankind. “Washington is all our own!… I would cheerfully put the question to-day to the intelligence of Europe and the world, what character of the century, upon the whole, stands out in the relief of history, most pure, most _respectable_, most sublime; and I doubt not, that, by a suffrage approaching to unanimity, the answer would be Washington!” It is needless to quote other instances of the peculiar meaning he put into the word “respectable,” when we thus find him challenging the Europe of the eighteenth century to name a match for Washington, and placing “most respectable” after “most pure,” and immediately preceding “most sublime,” in his enumeration of the three qualities in which Washington surpassed all men of his century.
It has been often remarked that Webster adapted his style, even his habits of mind and modes of reasoning, to the particular auditors he desired to influence; but that, whether he addressed an unorganized crowd of people, or a jury, or a bench of judges, or the Senate of the United States, he ever proved himself an orator of the first class.
His admirers commonly confine themselves to the admirable sagacity with which he discriminated between the kind of reasoning proper to be employed when he addressed courts and juries, and the kind of reasoning which is most effective in a legislative assembly. The lawyer and the statesman were, in Webster, kept distinct, except so far as he was a lawyer who had argued before the Supreme Court questions of constitutional law. An amusing instance of this abnegation of the lawyer, while incidentally bringing in a lawyer’s knowledge of judicial decisions, occurs in a little episode in his debate with Mr. Calhoun, in 1849, as to the relation of Congress to the Territories. Mr. Calhoun said that he had been told that the Supreme Court of the United States had decided, in _one_ case, that the Constitution did not extend to the Territories, but that he was “incredulous of the fact.” “Oh!” replied Mr. Webster, “I can remove the gentleman’s incredulity very easily, for I can assure him that the same thing has been decided by the United States courts over and over again for the last thirty years.” It will be observed, however, that Mr. Webster, after communicating this important item of information, proceeded to discuss the question as if the Supreme Court had no existence, and bases his argument on the plain terms of the Constitution, and the plain facts recorded in the history of the government established by it.
Macaulay, in his lively way, has shown the difficulty of manufacturing English statesmen out of English lawyers, though, as lawyers, their rank in the profession may be very high. “Their arguments,” he says, “are intellectual prodigies, abounding with the happiest analogies and the most refined distinctions. The principles of their arbitrary science being once admitted, the statute-books and the reports being once assumed as the foundations of reasoning, these men must be allowed to be perfect masters of logic. But if a question arises as to the postulates on which their whole system rests, if they are called upon to vindicate the fundamental maxims of that system which they have passed their lives in studying, these very men often talk the language of savages or of children. Those who have listened to a man of this class in his own court, and who have witnessed the skill with which he analyzes and digests a vast mass of evidence, or reconciles a crowd of precedents which at first sight seem contradictory, scarcely know him again when, a few hours later, they hear him speaking on the other side of Westminster Hall in his capacity of legislator. They can scarcely believe that the paltry quirks which are faintly heard through a storm of coughing, and which do not impose on the plainest country gentleman, can proceed from the same sharp and vigorous intellect which had excited their admiration under the same roof, and on the same day.” And to this keen distinction between an English lawyer, and an English lawyer as a member of the House of Commons, may be added the peculiar kind of sturdy manliness which is demanded in any person who aims to take a leading part in Parliamentary debates. Erskine, probably the greatest advocate who ever appeared in the English courts of law, made but a comparatively poor figure in the House of Commons, as a member of the Whig opposition. “The truth is, Erskine,” Sheridan once said to him, “you are afraid of Pitt, and that is the flabby part of your character.”
But Macaulay, in another article, makes a point against the leaders of party themselves. His definition of Parliamentary government is “government by speaking”; and he declares that the most effective speakers are commonly ill-informed, shallow in thought, devoid of large ideas of legislation, hazarding the loosest speculations with the utmost intellectual impudence, and depending for success on volubility of speech, rather than on accuracy of knowledge or penetration of intelligence. “The tendency of institutions like those of England,” he adds, “is to encourage readiness in public men, at the expense both of fulness and of exactness. The keenest and most vigorous minds of every generation, minds often admirably fitted for the investigation of truth, are habitually employed in producing arguments such as no man of sense would ever put into a treatise intended for publication, arguments which are just good enough to be used once, when aided by fluent delivery and pointed language.” And he despairingly closes with the remark, that he “would sooner expect a great original work on political science, such a work, for example, as the Wealth of Nations, from an apothecary in a country town, or from a minister in the Hebrides, than from a statesman who, ever since he was one-and-twenty, had been a distinguished debater in the House of Commons.”
Now it is plain that neither of these contemptuous judgments applies to Webster. He was a great lawyer; but as a legislator the precedents of the lawyer did not control the action or supersede the principles of the statesman. He was one of the most formidable debaters that ever appeared in a legislative assembly; and yet those who most resolutely grappled with him in the duel of debate would be the last to impute to him inaccuracy of knowledge or shallowness of thought. He carried into the Senate of the United States a trained mind, disciplined by the sternest culture of his faculties, disdaining any plaudits which were not the honest reward of robust reasoning on generalized facts, and “gravitating” in the direction of truth, whether he hit or missed it. In his case, at least, there was nothing in his legal experience, or in his legislative experience, which would have unfitted him for producing a work on the science of politics. The best speeches in the House of Commons of Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell appear very weak indeed, as compared with the Reply to Hayne, or the speech on “The Constitution not a Compact between Sovereign States,” or the speech on the President’s Protest.
In this connection it may be said, when we remember the hot contests between the two men, that there is something plaintive in Calhoun’s dying testimony to Webster’s austere intellectual conscientiousness. Mr. Venables, who attended the South Carolina statesman in his dying hours, wrote to Webster: “When your name was mentioned he remarked that ‘Mr. Webster has as high a standard of truth as any statesman I have met in debate. Convince him, and he cannot reply; he is silenced; he cannot look truth in the face and oppose it by argument. I think that it can be readily perceived by his manner when he felt the unanswerable force of a reply.’ He often spoke of you in my presence, and always kindly and most respectfully.” Now it must be considered that, in debate, the minds of Webster and Calhoun had come into actual contact and collision. Each really felt the force of the other. An ordinary duel might be ranked among idle pastimes when compared with the stress and strain and pain of their encounters in the duel of debate. A sword-cut or pistol-bullet, maiming the body, was as nothing in comparison with the wounds they mutually inflicted on that substance which was immortal in both. It was a duel, or series of duels, in which mind was opposed to mind, and will to will, and where the object appeared to be to inflict moral and mental annihilation on one of the combatants. There never passed a word between them on which the most ingenious Southern jurists, in their interpretations of the “code” of honor, could have found matter for a personal quarrel; and yet these two proud and strong personalities knew that they were engaged in a mortal contest, in which neither gave quarter nor expected quarter. Mr. Calhoun’s intellectual egotism was as great as his intellectual ability. He always supposed that he was the victor in every close logical wrestle with any mind to which his own was opposed. He never wrestled with a mind, until he met Webster’s, which in tenacity, grasp, and power was a match for his own. He, of course, thought his antagonist was beaten by his superior strength and amplitude of argumentation; but it is still to be noted that he, the most redoubtable opponent that Webster ever encountered, testified, though in equivocal terms, to Webster’s intellectual honesty. When he crept, half dead, into the Senate-Chamber to hear Webster’s speech of the 7th of March, 1850, he objected emphatically at the end to Webster’s declaration that the Union could not be dissolved. After declaring that Calhoun’s supposed case of justifiable resistance came within the definition of the ultimate right of revolution, which is lodged in all oppressed communities, Webster added that he did not at that time wish to go into a discussion of the nature of the United States government. “The honorable gentleman and myself,” he said, “have broken lances sufficiently often before on that subject.” “I have no desire to do it now,” replied Calhoun; and Webster blandly retorted, “I presume the gentleman has not, and I have quite as little.” One is reminded here of Dr. Johnson’s remark, when he was stretched on a sick-bed, with his gladiatorial powers of argument suspended by physical exhaustion. “If that fellow Burke were now present,” the Doctor humorously murmured, “he would certainly kill me.”
But to Webster’s eminence as a lawyer and a statesman, it is proper to add, that he has never been excelled as a writer of state papers among the public men of the United States. Mr. Emerson has a phrase which is exactly applicable to these efforts of Webster’s mind. That phrase is, “superb propriety.” Throughout his despatches, he always seems to feel that he impersonates his country; and the gravity and weight of his style are as admirable as its simplicity and majestic ease. “Daniel Webster, his mark,” is indelibly stamped on them all. When the Treaty of Washington was criticised by the Whigs in the English Parliament, Macaulay specially noticed the difference in the style of the two negotiators. Lord Ashburton, he said, had compromised the honor of his country by “the humble, caressing, wheedling tone” of his letters, a tone which contrasted strangely with “the firm, resolute, vigilant, and unyielding manner” of the American Secretary of State. It is to be noticed that no other opponent of Sir Robert Peel’s administration, not even Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell, struck at the essential weakness of Lord Ashburton’s despatches with the force and sagacity which characterized Macaulay’s assault on the treaty. Indeed, a rhetorician and critic less skilful than Macaulay can easily detect that “America” is represented fully in Webster’s despatches, while “Britannia” has a very amiable, but not very forcible, representative in Lord Ashburton. Had Palmerston been the British plenipotentiary, we can easily imagine how different would have been the task imposed on Webster. As the American Secretary was generally in the right in every position he assumed, he would probably have triumphed even over Palmerston; but the letters of the “pluckiest” of English statesmen would, we may be sure, have never been criticised in the House of Commons as “humble, wheedling, and caressing.”
In addition, however, to his legal arguments, his senatorial speeches, and his state papers, Webster is to be considered as the greatest orator our country has produced in his addresses before miscellaneous assemblages of the people. In saying this we do not confine the remark to such noble orations as those on the “First Settlement of New England,” “The Bunker Hill Monument,” and “Adams and Jefferson,” but extend it so as to include speeches before great masses of people who could be hardly distinguished from a mob, and who were under no restraint but that imposed by their own self-respect and their respect for the orator. On these occasions he was uniformly successful. It is impossible to detect, in any reports of these popular addresses, that he ever stooped to employ a style of speech or mode of argument commonly supposed appropriate to a speaker on the “stump”; and yet he was the greatest “stump” orator that our country has ever seen. He seemed to delight in addressing five, or ten, or even twenty thousand people, in the open air, trusting that the penetrating tones of his voice would reach even the ears of those who were on the ragged edges of the swaying crowd before him; and he would thus speak to the sovereign people, in their unorganized state as a collection of uneasy and somewhat belligerent individuals, with a dignity and majesty similar to the dignity and majesty which characterized his arguments before the Senate of the United States, or before a bench of judges. A large portion of his published works consist of such speeches, and they rank only second among the remarkable productions of his mind.
The question arises, How could he hold the attention of such audiences without condescending to flatter their prejudices, or without occasionally acting the part of the sophist and the buffoon? Much may be said, in accounting for this phenomenon, about his widely extended reputation, his imposing presence, the vulgar curiosity to see a man whom even the smallest country newspaper thought of sufficient importance to defame, his power of giving vitality to simple words which the most ignorant of his auditors could easily understand, and the instinctive respect which the rudest kind of men feel for a grand specimen of robust manhood. But the real, the substantial source of his power over such audiences proceeded from his respect for _them_; and their respect for him was more or less consciously founded on the perception of this fact.
Indeed, a close scrutiny of his speeches will show how conscientiously he regards the rights of other minds, however inferior they may be to his own; and this virtue, for it is a virtue, is never more apparent than in his arguments and appeals addressed to popular assemblies. No working-man, whether farmer, mechanic, factory “hand,” or day-laborer, ever deemed himself insulted by a word from the lips of Daniel Webster; he felt himself rather exalted in his own esteem, for the time, by coming in contact with that beneficent and comprehensive intelligence, which cherished among its favorite ideas a scheme for lifting up the American laborer to a height of comfort and respectability which the European laborer could hardly hope to attain. Prominent politicians, men of wealth and influence, statesmen of high social and political rank, may, at times, have considered Webster as arrogant and bad-tempered, and may, at times, have felt disposed to fasten a quarrel upon him; even in Massachusetts this disposition broke out in conventions of the party to which he belonged; but it would be in vain to find a single laboring-man, whether he met Webster in private, or half pushed and half fought his way into a mass meeting, in order to get his ears into communication with the orator’s voice, who ever heard a word from him which did not exalt the dignity of labor, or which was not full of sympathy for the laborer’s occasional sorrows and privations. Webster seemed to have ever present to his mind the poverty of the humble home of his youth. His father, his brothers, he himself, had all been brought up to consider manual toil a dignified occupation, and as consistent with the exercise of all the virtues which flourish under the domestic roof. More than this, it may be said that, with the exception of a few intimate friends, his sympathies to the last were most warmly with common laborers. Indeed, if we closely study the private correspondence of this statesman, who was necessarily brought into relations, more or less friendly, with the conventionally great men of the world, European as well as American, we shall find that, after all, he took more real interest in Seth Peterson, and John Taylor, and Porter Wright, men connected with him in fishing and farming, than he did in the ambassadors of foreign states whom he met as Senator or as Secretary of State, or in all the members of the polite society of Washington, New York, and Boston. He was very near to Nature himself; and the nearer a man was to Nature, the more he esteemed him. Thus persons who superintended his farms and cattle, or who pulled an oar in his boat when he ventured out in search of cod and halibut, thought “Squire Webster” a man who realized their ideal and perfection of good-fellowship while it may confidently be said that many of his closest friends among men of culture, including lawyers, men of letters, and statesmen of the first rank, must have occasionally resented the “anfractuosities” of his mood and temper. But Seth Peterson, and Porter Wright, and John Taylor, never complained of these “anfractuosities.” Webster, in fact, is one of the few public men of the country in whose championship of the rights and sympathy with the wrongs of labor there is not the slightest trace of the arts of the demagogue; and in this fact we may find the reason why even the “roughs,” who are present in every mass meeting, always treated him with respect. Perhaps it would not be out of place to remark here, that, in his Speech of the 7th of March, he missed a grand opportunity to vindicate Northern labor, in the reference he made to a foolish tirade of a Senator from Louisiana, who “took pains to run a contrast between the slaves of the South and the laboring people of the North, giving the preference, in all points of condition, of comfort, and happiness, to the slaves of the South.” Webster made a complete reply to this aspersion on Northern labor; but, as his purpose was to conciliate, he did not blast the libeller by quoting the most eminent example that could be named demonstrating the falsehood of the slave-holding Senator’s assertion. Without deviating from the conciliatory attitude he had assumed, one could easily imagine him as lifting his large frame to its full height, flashing from his rebuking eyes a glance of scorn at the “amiable Senator,” and simply saying, “_I_ belong to the class which the Senator from Louisiana stigmatizes as more degraded than the slaves of the South.” There was not at the time any Senator from the South, except Mr. Calhoun, that the most prejudiced Southern man would have thought of comparing with Webster in respect to intellectual eminence; and, if Webster had then and there placed himself squarely on his position as the son of a Northern laborer, we should have been spared all the rhetoric about Northern “mud-sills,” with which the Senate was afterwards afflicted. Webster was our man of men; and it would seem that he should have crushed such talk at the outset, by proudly assuming that Northern labor was embodied and impersonated in him,–that HE had sprung from its ranks, and was proud of his ancestry.
An ingenious and powerful, but paradoxical thinker, once told me that I was mistaken in calling Jonathan Edwards and Daniel Webster great reasoners. “They were bad reasoners,” he added, “but great poets.” Without questioning the right of the author of “An Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notion of that Freedom of the Will, which is supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency,” to be ranked among the most eminent of modern logicians, I could still understand why he was classed among poets; for whether Edwards paints the torments of hell or the bliss of heaven, his imagination almost rivals that of Dante in intensity of realization. But it was at first puzzling to comprehend why Webster should be depressed as a reasoner in order to be exalted as a poet. The images and metaphors scattered over his speeches are so evidently brought in to illustrate and enforce his statements and arguments, that, grand as they often are, the imagination displayed in them is still a faculty strictly subsidiary to the reasoning power. It was only after reflecting patiently for some time on the seeming paradox that I caught a glimpse of my friend’s meaning; and it led me at once to consider an entirely novel question, not heretofore mooted by any of Webster’s critics, whether friendly or unfriendly, in their endeavors to explain the reason of his influence over the best minds of the generation to which he belonged. In declaring that, as a poet, he far exceeded any capacity he evinced as a reasoner, my paradoxical friend must have meant that Webster had the poet’s power of so _organizing_ a speech, that it stood out to the eye of the mind as a palpable intellectual product and fact, possessing, not merely that vague reality which comes from erecting a plausible mental structure of deductive argumentation, based on strictly limited premises, but a positive reality, akin to the products of Nature herself, when she tries her hand in constructing a ledge of rocks or rearing a chain of hills.
In illustration, it may be well to cite the example of poets with whom Webster, of course, cannot be compared. Among the great mental facts, palpable to the eyes of all men interested in literature, are such creations as the Iliad, the Divine Comedy, the great Shakspearian dramas, the Paradise Lost, and Faust. The commentaries and criticisms on these are numerous enough to occupy the shelves of a large library; some of them attempt to show that Homer, Dante, Shakspeare, Milton, and Goethe were all wrong in their methods of creation; but they still cannot obscure, to ordinary vision, the lustre of these luminaries as they placidly shine in the intellectual firmament, which is literally _over_ our heads. They are as palpable, to the eye of the mind, as Sirius, Arcturus, the Southern Cross, and the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, are to the bodily sense. M. Taine has recently assailed the Paradise Lost with the happiest of French epigrams; he tries to prove that, in construction, it is the most ridiculously inartistic monstrosity that the imagination of a great mind ever framed out of chaos; but, after we have thoroughly enjoyed the play of his wit, there the Paradise Lost remains, an undisturbed object in the intellectual heavens, disdaining to justify its right to exist on any other grounds than the mere fact of its existence; and, certainly, not more ridiculous than Saturn himself, as we look at him through a great equatorial telescope, swinging through space encumbered with his clumsy ring, and his wrangling family of satellites, but still, in spite of peculiarities on which M. Taine might exercise his wit until doomsday, one of the most beautiful and sublime objects which the astronomer can behold in the whole phenomena of the heavens.
Indeed, in reading criticisms on such durable poetic creations and organizations as we have named, one is reminded of Sydney Smith’s delicious chaffing of his friend Jeffrey, on account of Jeffrey’s sensitiveness of literary taste, and his inward rage that events, men, and books, outside of him, do not correspond to the exacting rules which are the products of his own subjective and somewhat peevish intelligence. “I like,” says Sydney, “to tell you these things, because you never do so well as when you are humbled and frightened, and, if _you could be alarmed into the semblance of modesty_, you would charm everybody; but remember my joke against you about the moon: ‘D–n the solar system! bad light–planets too distant–pestered with comets–feeble contrivance; could make a better with great ease.'”
Now when a man, in whatever department or direction of thought his activity is engaged, succeeds in organizing, or even welding together, the materials on which he works, so that the product, as a whole, is _visible_ to the mental eye, as a new creation or construction, he has an immense advantage over all critics of his performance. Refined reasonings are impotent to overthrow it; epigrams glance off from it, as rifle-bullets rebound when aimed at a granite wall; and it stands erect long after the reasonings and the epigrams are forgotten. Even when its symmetry is destroyed by a long and destructive siege, a pile of stones still remains, as at Fort Sumter, to attest what power of resistance it opposed to all the resources of modern artillery.
If we look at Webster’s greatest speeches, as, for instance, “The Reply to Hayne,” “The Constitution not a Compact between Sovereign States,” “The President’s Protest,” and others that might be mentioned, we shall find that they partake of the character of organic formations, or at least of skilful engineering or architectural constructions. Even Mr. Calhoun never approached him in this art of giving objective reality to a speech, which, after all, is found, on analysis, to consist only of a happy collocation and combination of words, but in Webster the words are either all alive with the creative spirit of the poet, or, at the worst, resemble the blocks of granite or marble which the artisan piles, one on the other, and the result of which, though it may represent a poor style of architecture, is still a rude specimen of a Gothic edifice. The artist and artificer are both observable in Webster’s work; but the reality and solidity of the construction cannot be questioned. At the present time, an educated reader would be specially interested in the mental processes by which Webster thus succeeded in giving objective existence and validity to the operations of his mind, and, whether sympathizing with his opinions or not, would as little think of refusing to read them because of their Whiggism, as he would think of refusing to read Homer because of his heathenism, or Dante because of his Catholicism, or Milton because of his compound of Arianism and Calvinism, or Goethe because of his Pantheism. The fact which would most interest such a reader would be, that Webster had, in some mysterious way, translated and transformed his abstract propositions into concrete substance and form. The form might offend his reason, his taste, or his conscience; but he could not avoid admitting that it _had_ a form, while most speeches, even those made by able men, are comparatively formless, however lucid they may be in the array of facts, and plausible in the order and connection of arguments.
In trying to explain this power, the most obvious comparison which would arise in the mind of an intelligent reader would be, that Webster, as a rhetorician, resembled Vauban and Cohorn as military engineers. In the war of debate, he so _fortified_ the propositions he maintained, that they could not be carried by direct assault, but must be patiently besieged. The words he employed were simple enough, and fell short of including the vocabulary of even fifth-rate declaimers; but he had the art of so disposing them that, to an honest reasoner, the position he took appeared to be impregnable. To assail it by the ordinary method of passionate protest and illogical reasoning, was as futile as a dash of light cavalry would have been against the defences of such cities as Namur and Lille. Indeed, in his speech, “The Constitution not a Compact between Sovereign States,” he erected a whole Torres Vedras line of fortifications, on which legislative Massenas dashed themselves in vain, and, however strong in numbers in respect to the power of voting him down, recoiled defeated in every attempt to reason him down.
In further illustration of this peculiar power of Webster, the Speech of the 7th of March, 1850, may be cited, for its delivery is to be ranked with the most important historical events. For some years it was the object of the extremes of panegyric and the extremes of execration. But this effort is really the most loosely constructed of all the great productions of Webster’s mind. In force, compactness, and completeness, in closeness of thought to things, in closeness of imagery to the reasoning it illustrates, and in general intellectual fibre, muscle, and bone, it cannot be compared to such an oration as that on the “First Settlement of New England,” or such a speech as that which had for its theme, “The Constitution not a Compact between Sovereign States”; but, after all deductions have been made, it was still a speech which frowned upon its opponents as a kind of verbal fortress constructed both for the purpose of defence and aggression. Its fame is due, in a great degree, to its resistance to a storm of assaults, such as had rarely before been concentrated on any speech delivered in either branch of the Congress of the United States. Indeed, a very large portion of the intellect, the moral sentiment, and the moral passion of the free States was directed against it. There was not a weapon in the armory of the dialectician or the rhetorician which was not employed with the intent of demolishing it. Contempt of Webster was vehemently taught as the beginning of political wisdom. That a speech, thus assailed, should survive the attacks made upon it, appeared to be impossible. And yet it did survive, and is alive now, while better speeches, or what the present writer thought, at the time, to be more convincing speeches, have not retained