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Daniel Webster by Henry Cabot Lodge

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rejoicing in the confident expectation that the Northern champion would
suffer failure and defeat.

In the midst of the hush of expectation, in that dead silence which is so
peculiarly oppressive because it is possible only when many human beings
are gathered together, Mr. Webster rose. He had sat impassive and immovable
during all the preceding days, while the storm of argument and invective
had beaten about his head. At last his time had come; and as he rose and
stood forth, drawing himself up to his full height, his personal grandeur
and his majestic calm thrilled all who looked upon him. With perfect
quietness, unaffected apparently by the atmosphere of intense feeling about
him, he said, in a low, even tone: "Mr. President: When the mariner has
been tossed for many days in thick weather and on an unknown sea, he
naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest
glance of the sun, to take his latitude and ascertain how far the elements
have driven him from his true course. Let us imitate this prudence; and,
before we float farther on the waves of this debate, refer to the point
from which we departed, that we may, at least, be able to conjecture where
we now are. I ask for the reading of the resolution before the Senate."
This opening sentence was a piece of consummate art. The simple and
appropriate image, the low voice, the calm manner, relieved the strained
excitement of the audience, which might have ended by disconcerting the
speaker if it had been maintained. Every one was now at his ease; and when
the monotonous reading of the resolution ceased Mr. Webster was master of
the situation, and had his listeners in complete control. With breathless
attention they followed him as he proceeded. The strong masculine
sentences, the sarcasm, the pathos, the reasoning, the burning appeals to
love of State and country, flowed on unbroken. As his feelings warmed the
fire came into his eyes; there was a glow on his swarthy cheek; his strong
right arm seemed to sweep away resistlessly the whole phalanx of his
opponents, and the deep and melodious cadences of his voice sounded like
harmonious organ-tones as they filled the chamber with their music. As the
last words died away into silence, those who had listened looked
wonderingly at each other, dimly conscious that they had heard one of the
grand speeches which are land-marks in the history of eloquence; and the
men of the North and of New England went forth full of the pride of
victory, for their champion had triumphed, and no assurance was needed to
prove to the world that this time no answer could be made.

As every one knows, this speech contains much more than the argument
against nullification, which has just been discussed, and exhibits all its
author's intellectual gifts in the highest perfection. Mr. Hayne had
touched on every conceivable subject of political importance, including
slavery, which, however covered up, was really at the bottom of every
Southern movement, and was certain sooner or later to come to the surface.
All these various topics Mr. Webster took up, one after another, displaying
a most remarkable strength of grasp and ease of treatment. He dealt with
them all effectively and yet in just proportion. Throughout there are
bursts of eloquence skilfully mingled with statement and argument, so that
the listeners were never wearied by a strained and continuous rhetorical
display; and yet, while the attention was closely held by the even flow of
lucid reasoning, the emotions and passions were from time to time deeply
aroused and strongly excited. In many passages of direct retort Mr. Webster
used an irony which he employed always in a perfectly characteristic way.
He had a strong natural sense of humor, but he never made fun or descended
to trivial efforts to excite laughter against his opponent. He was not a
witty man or a maker of epigrams. But he was a master in the use of a cold,
dignified sarcasm, which at times, and in this instance particularly, he
used freely and mercilessly. Beneath the measured sentences there is a
lurking smile which saves them from being merely savage and cutting
attacks, and yet brings home a keen sense of the absurdity of the
opponent's position. The weapon resembled more the sword of Richard than
the scimetar of Saladin, but it was none the less a keen and trenchant
blade. There is probably no better instance of Mr. Webster's power of
sarcasm than the famous passage in which he replied to Hayne's taunt about
the "murdered coalition," which was said to have existed between Adams and
Calhoun. In a totally different vein is the passage about Massachusetts,
perhaps in its way as good an example as we have of Webster's power of
appealing to the higher and more tender feelings of human nature. The
thought is simple and even obvious, and the expression unadorned, and yet
what he said had that subtle quality which stirred and still stirs the
heart of every man born on the soil of the old Puritan Commonwealth.

The speech as a whole has all the qualities which made Mr. Webster a great
orator, and the same traits run through his other speeches. An analysis of
the reply to Hayne, therefore, gives us all the conditions necessary to
forming a correct idea of Mr. Webster's eloquence, of its characteristics
and its value. The Attic school of oratory subordinated form to thought to
avoid the misuse of ornament, and triumphed over the more florid practice
of the so-called "Asiatics." Rome gave the palm to Atticism, and modern
oratory has gone still farther in the same direction, until its predominant
quality has become that of making sustained appeals to the understanding.
Logical vigilance and long chains of reasoning, avoided by the ancients,
are the essentials of our modern oratory. Many able men have achieved
success under these conditions as forcible and convincing speakers. But the
grand eloquence of modern times is distinguished by the bursts of feeling,
of imagery or of invective, joined with convincing argument. This
combination is rare, and whenever we find a man who possesses it we may be
sure that, in greater or less degree, he is one of the great masters of
eloquence as we understand it. The names of those who in debate or to a
jury have been in every-day practice strong and effective speakers, and
also have thrilled and shaken large masses of men, readily occur to us. To
this class belong Chatham and Burke, Fox, Sheridan and Erskine, Mirabeau
and Vergniaud, Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster.

Mr. Webster was of course essentially modern in his oratory. He relied
chiefly on the sustained appeal to the understanding, and he was a
conspicuous example of the prophetic character which Christianity, and
Protestantism especially, has given to modern eloquence. At the same time
Mr. Webster was in some respects more classical, and resembled more closely
the models of antiquity, than any of those who have been mentioned as
belonging to the same high class. He was wont to pour forth the copious
stream of plain, intelligible observations, and indulge in the varied
appeals to feeling, memory, and interest, which Lord Brougham sets down as
characteristic of ancient oratory. It has been said that while Demosthenes
was a sculptor, Burke was a painter. Mr. Webster was distinctly more of the
former than the latter. He rarely amplified or developed an image or a
description, and in this he followed the Greek rather than the Englishman.
Dr. Francis Lieber wrote: "To test Webster's oratory, which has ever been
very attractive to me, I read a portion of my favorite speeches of
Demosthenes, and then read, always aloud, parts of Webster; then returned
to the Athenian; and Webster stood the test." Apart from the great
compliment which this conveys, such a comparison is very interesting as
showing the similarity between Mr. Webster and the Greek orator. Not only
does the test indicate the merit of Mr. Webster's speeches, but it also
proves that he resembled the Athenian, and that the likeness was more
striking than the inevitable difference born of race and time. Yet there
is no indication that Webster ever made a study of the ancient models or
tried to form himself upon them.

The cause of the classic self-restraint in Webster was partly due to the
artistic sense which made him so devoted to simplicity of diction, and
partly to the cast of his mind. He had a powerful historic imagination, but
not in the least the imagination of the poet, which

"Bodies forth the forms of things unknown."

He could describe with great vividness, brevity, and force what had
happened in the past, what actually existed, or what the future promised.
But his fancy never ran away with him or carried him captive into the
regions of poetry. Imagination of this sort is readily curbed and
controlled, and, if less brilliant, is safer than that defined by
Shakespeare. For this reason, Mr. Webster rarely indulged in long,
descriptive passages, and, while he showed the highest power in treating
anything with a touch of humanity about it, he was sparing of images drawn
wholly from nature, and was not peculiarly successful in depicting in words
natural scenery or phenomena. The result is, that in his highest flights,
while he is often grand and affecting, full of life and power, he never
shows the creative imagination. But if he falls short on the poetic side,
there is the counterbalancing advantage that there is never a false note
nor an overwrought description which offends our taste and jars upon our

Mr. Webster showed his love of direct simplicity in his style even more
than in his thought or the general arrangement and composition of his
speeches. His sentences are, as a rule, short, and therefore pointed and
intelligible, but they never become monotonous and harsh, the fault to
which brevity is always liable. On the contrary, they are smooth and
flowing, and there is always a sufficient variety of form. The choice of
language is likewise simple. Mr. Webster was a remorseless critic of his
own style, and he had an almost extreme preference for Anglo-Saxon words
and a corresponding dislike of Latin derivatives. The only exception he
made was in his habit of using "commence" instead of its far superior
synonym "begin." His style was vigorous, clear, and direct in the highest
degree, and at the same time warm and full of vitality. He displayed that
rare union of strength with perfect simplicity, the qualities which made
Swift the great master of pure and forcible English.

Charles Fox is credited with saying that a good speech never reads well.
This opinion, taken in the sense in which it was intended, that a
carefully-prepared speech, which reads like an essay, lacks the freshness
and glow that should characterize the oratory of debate, is undoubtedly
correct. But it is equally true that when a speech which we know to have
been good in delivery is equally good in print, a higher intellectual plane
is reached and a higher level of excellence is attained than is possible to
either the mere essay or to the effective retort or argument, which loses
its flavor with the occasion which draws it forth. Mr. Webster's speeches
on the tariff, on the bank, and on like subjects, able as they are, are
necessarily dry, but his speeches on nobler themes are admirable reading.
This is, of course, due to the variety and ease of treatment, to their
power, and to the purity of the style. At the same time, the immediate
effect of what he said was immense, greater, even, than the intrinsic merit
of the speech itself. There has been much discussion as to the amount of
preparation which Mr. Webster made. His occasional orations were, of
course, carefully written out beforehand, a practice which was entirely
proper; but in his great parliamentary speeches, and often in legal
arguments as well, he made but slight preparation in the ordinary sense of
the term. The notes for the two speeches on Foote's resolution were jotted
down on a few sheets of note-paper. The delivery of the second one, his
masterpiece, was practically extemporaneous, and yet it fills seventy
octavo pages and occupied four hours. He is reported to have said that his
whole life had been a preparation for the reply to Hayne. Whether he said
it or not, the statement is perfectly true. The thoughts on the Union and
on the grandeur of American nationality had been garnered up for years, and
this in a greater or less degree was true of all his finest efforts. The
preparation on paper was trifling, but the mental preparation extending
over weeks or days, sometimes, perhaps, over years, was elaborate to the
last point. When the moment came, a night's work would put all the
stored-up thoughts in order, and on the next day they would pour forth with
all the power of a strong mind thoroughly saturated with its subject, and
yet with the vitality of unpremeditated expression, having the fresh glow
of morning upon it, and with no trace of the lamp.

More than all this, however, in the immediate effect of Mr. Webster's
speeches was the physical influence of the man himself. We can but half
understand his eloquence and its influence if we do not carefully study his
physical attributes, his temperament and disposition. In face, form, and
voice, nature did her utmost for Daniel Webster. No envious fairy was
present at his birth to mar these gifts by her malign influence. He seemed
to every one to be a giant; that, at least, is the word we most commonly
find applied to him, and there is no better proof of his enormous physical
impressiveness than this well-known fact, for Mr. Webster was not a man of
extraordinary stature. He was five feet ten inches in height, and, in
health, weighed a little less than two hundred pounds. These are the
proportions of a large man, but there is nothing remarkable about them. We
must look elsewhere than to mere size to discover why men spoke of Webster
as a giant. He had a swarthy complexion and straight black hair. His head
was very large, the brain weighing, as is well known, more than any on
record, except those of Cuvier and of the celebrated bricklayer. At the
same time his head was of noble shape, with a broad and lofty brow, and his
features were finely cut and full of massive strength. His eyes were
extraordinary. They were very dark and deep-set, and, when he began to
rouse himself to action, shone with the deep light of a forge-fire, getting
ever more glowing as excitement rose. His voice was in harmony with his
appearance. It was low and musical in conversation; in debate it was high
but full, ringing out in moments of excitement like a clarion, and then
sinking to deep notes with the solemn richness of organ-tones, while the
words were accompanied by a manner in which grace and dignity mingled in
complete accord. The impression which he produced upon the eye and ear it
is difficult to express. There is no man in all history who came into the
world so equipped physically for speech. In this direction nature could do
no more. The mere look of the man and the sound of his voice made all who
saw and heard him feel that he must be the embodiment of wisdom, dignity,
and strength, divinely eloquent, even if he sat in dreamy silence or
uttered nothing but heavy commonplaces.

It is commonly said that no one of the many pictures of Mr. Webster gives a
true idea of what he was. We can readily believe this when we read the
descriptions which have come down to us. That indefinable quality which we
call personal magnetism, the power of impressing by one's personality every
human being who comes near, was at its height in Mr. Webster. He never, for
instance, punished his children, but when they did wrong he would send for
them and look at them silently. The look, whether of anger or sorrow, was
punishment and rebuke enough. It was the same with other children. The
little daughter of Mr. Wirt once came into a room where Mr. Webster was
sitting with his back toward her, and touched him on the arm. He turned
suddenly, and the child started back with an affrighted cry at the sight of
that dark, stern, melancholy face. But the cloud passed as swiftly as the
shadows on a summer sea, and the next moment the look of affection and
humor brought the frightened child into Mr. Webster's arms, and they were
friends and playmates in an instant.

The power of a look and of changing expression, so magical with a child,
was hardly less so with men. There have been very few instances in history
where there is such constant reference to merely physical attributes as in
the case of Mr. Webster. His general appearance and his eyes are the first
and last things alluded to in every contemporary description. Every one is
familiar with the story of the English navvy who pointed at Mr. Webster in
the streets of Liverpool and said, "There goes a king." Sidney Smith
exclaimed when he saw him, "Good heavens, he is a small cathedral by
himself." Carlyle, no lover of America, wrote to Emerson:--

"Not many days ago I saw at breakfast the notablest of all your
notabilities, Daniel Webster. He is a magnificent specimen. You
might say to all the world, 'This is our Yankee Englishman; such
limbs we make in Yankee land!' As a logic fencer, or parliamentary
Hercules, one would incline to back him at first sight against all
the extant world. The tanned complexion; that amorphous crag-like
face; the dull black eyes under the precipice of brows, like dull
anthracite furnaces needing only to be _blown_; the mastiff mouth
accurately closed; I have not traced so much of _silent Berserkir
rage_ that I remember of in any man. 'I guess I should not like to
be your nigger!' Webster is not loquacious, but he is pertinent,
conclusive; a dignified, perfectly bred man, though not English in
breeding; a man worthy of the best reception among us, and meeting
such I understand."

Such was the effect produced by Mr. Webster when in England, and it was a
universal impression. Wherever he went men felt in the depths of their
being the amazing force of his personal presence. He could control an
audience by a look, and could extort applause from hostile listeners by a
mere glance. On one occasion, after the 7th of March speech, there is a
story that a noted abolitionist leader was present in the crowd gathered to
hear Mr. Webster, and this bitter opponent is reported to have said
afterwards, "When Webster, speaking of secession, asked 'what is to become
of me,' I was thrilled with a sense of some awful impending calamity." The
story may be apocryphal, but there can be no doubt of its essential truth
so far as the effect of Mr. Webster's personal presence goes. People looked
at him, and that was enough. Mr. Parton in his essay speaks of seeing
Webster at a public dinner, sitting at the head of the table with a bottle
of Madeira under his yellow waistcoat, and looking like Jove. When he
presided at the Cooper memorial meeting in New York he uttered only a few
stately platitudes, and yet every one went away with the firm conviction
that they had heard him speak words of the profoundest wisdom and grandest

The temptation to rely on his marvellous physical gifts grew on him as he
became older, which was to be expected with a man of his temperament. Even
in his early days, when he was not in action, he had an impassible and
slumberous look; and when he sat listening to the invective of Hayne, no
emotion could be traced on his cold, dark, melancholy face, or in the
cavernous eyes shining with a dull light. This all vanished when he began
to speak, and, as he poured forth his strong, weighty sentences, there was
no lack of expression or of movement. But Mr. Webster, despite his capacity
for work, and his protracted and often intense labor, was constitutionally
indolent, and this sluggishness of temperament increased very much as he
grew older. It extended from the periods of repose to those of action
until, in his later years, a direct stimulus was needed to make him exert
himself. Even to the last the mighty power was still there in undiminished
strength, but it was not willingly put forth. Sometimes the outside impulse
would not come; sometimes the most trivial incident would suffice, and like
a spark on the train of gunpowder would bring a sudden burst of eloquence,
electrifying all who listened. On one occasion he was arguing a case to the
jury. He was talking in his heaviest and most ponderous fashion, and with
half-closed eyes. The court and the jurymen were nearly asleep as Mr.
Webster argued on, stating the law quite wrongly to his nodding listeners.
The counsel on the other side interrupted him and called the attention of
the court to Mr. Webster's presentation of the law. The judge, thus
awakened, explained to the jury that the law was not as Mr. Webster stated
it. While this colloquy was in progress Mr. Webster roused up, pushed back
his thick hair, shook himself, and glanced about him with the look of a
caged lion. When the judge paused, he turned again to the jury, his eyes no
longer half shut but wide open and glowing with excitement. Raising his
voice, he said, in tones which made every one start: "If my client could
recover under the law as I stated it, how much more is he entitled to
recover under the law as laid down by the court;" and then, the jury now
being thoroughly awake, he poured forth a flood of eloquent argument and
won his case. In his latter days Mr. Webster made many careless and dull
speeches and carried them through by the power of his look and manner, but
the time never came when, if fairly aroused, he failed to sway the hearts
and understandings of men by a grand and splendid eloquence. The lion slept
very often, but it never became safe to rouse him from his slumber.

It was soon after the reply to Hayne that Mr. Webster made his great
argument for the government in the White murder case. One other address to
a jury in the Goodridge case, and the defence of Judge Prescott before the
Massachusetts Senate, which is of similar character, have been preserved to
us. The speech for Prescott is a strong, dignified appeal to the sober, and
yet sympathetic, judgment of his hearers, but wholly free from any attempt
to confuse or mislead, or to sway the decision by unwholesome pathos. Under
the circumstances, which were very adverse to his client, the argument was
a model of its kind, and contains some very fine passages full of the
solemn force so characteristic of its author. The Goodridge speech is
chiefly remarkable for the ease with which Mr. Webster unravelled a
complicated set of facts, demonstrated that the accuser was in reality the
guilty party, and carried irresistible conviction to the minds of the
jurors. It was connected with a remarkable exhibition of his power of
cross-examination, which was not only acute and penetrating, but extremely
terrifying to a recalcitrant witness. The argument in the White case, as a
specimen of eloquence, stands on far higher ground than either of the other
two, and, apart from the nature of the subject, ranks with the very best of
Mr. Webster's oratorical triumphs. The opening of the speech, comprising
the account of the murder and the analysis of the workings of a mind seared
with the remembrance of a horrid crime, must be placed among the very
finest masterpieces of modern oratory. The description of the feelings of
the murderer has a touch of the creative power, but, taken in conjunction
with the wonderful picture of the deed itself, the whole exhibits the
highest imaginative excellence, and displays the possession of an
extraordinary dramatic force such as Mr. Webster rarely exerted. It has the
same power of exciting a kind of horror and of making us shudder with a
creeping, nameless terror as the scene after the murder of Duncan, when
Macbeth rushes out from the chamber of death, crying, "I have done the
deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?" I have studied this famous exordium
with extreme care, and I have sought diligently in the works of all the
great modern orators, and of some of the ancient as well, for similar
passages of higher merit. My quest has been in vain. Mr. Webster's
description of the White murder, and of the ghastly haunting sense of guilt
which pursued the assassin, has never been surpassed in dramatic force by
any speaker, whether in debate or before a jury. Perhaps the most
celebrated descriptive passage in the literature of modern eloquence is the
picture drawn by Burke of the descent of Hyder Ali upon the plains of the
Carnatic, but even that certainly falls short of the opening of Webster's
speech in simple force as well as in dramatic power. Burke depicted with
all the ardor of his nature and with a wealth of color a great invasion
which swept thousands to destruction. Webster's theme was a cold-blooded
murder in a quiet New England town. Comparison between such topics, when
one is so infinitely larger than the other, seems at first sight almost
impossible. But Mr. Webster also dealt with the workings of the human heart
under the influence of the most terrible passions, and those have furnished
sufficient material for the genius of Shakespeare. The test of excellence
is in the treatment, and in this instance Mr. Webster has never been
excelled. The effect of that exordium, delivered as he alone could have
delivered it, must have been appalling. He was accused of having been
brought into the case to hurry the jury beyond the law and evidence, and
his whole speech was certainly calculated to drive any body of men,
terror-stricken by his eloquence, wherever he wished them to go. Mr.
Webster did not have that versatility and variety of eloquence which we
associate with the speakers who have produced the most startling effect
upon that complex thing called a jury. He never showed that rapid
alternation of wit, humor, pathos, invective, sublimity, and ingenuity
which have been characteristic of the greatest advocates. Before a jury as
everywhere else he was direct and simple. He awed and terrified jurymen; he
convinced their reason; but he commanded rather than persuaded, and carried
them with him by sheer force of eloquence and argument, and by his
overpowering personality.

The extravagant admiration which Mr. Webster excited among his followers
has undoubtedly exaggerated his greatness in many respects; but, high as
the praise bestowed upon him as an orator has been, in that direction at
least he has certainly not been overestimated. The reverse rather is true.
Mr. Webster was, of course, the greatest orator this country has ever
produced. Patrick Henry's fame rests wholly on tradition. The same is true
of Hamilton, who, moreover, never had an opportunity adequate to his
talents, which were unquestionably of the first order. Fisher Ames's
reputation was due to a single speech which is distinctly inferior to many
of Webster's. Clay's oratory has not stood the test of time; his speeches,
which were so wonderfully effective when he uttered them, seem dead and
cold and rather thin as we read them to-day. Calhoun was a great debater,
but was too dry and hard for the highest eloquence. John Quincy Adams,
despite his physical limitations, carried the eloquence of combat and
bitter retort to the highest point in the splendid battles of his
congressional career, but his learning, readiness, power of expression,
argument, and scathing sarcasm were not rounded into a perfect whole by the
more graceful attributes which also form an essential part of oratory.

Mr. Webster need not fear comparison with any of his countrymen, and he has
no reason to shun it with the greatest masters of speech in England. He had
much of the grandeur of Chatham, with whom it is impossible to compare him
or indeed any one else, for the Great Commoner lives only in fragments of
doubtful accuracy. Sheridan was universally considered to have made the
most splendid speech of his day. Yet the speech on the Begums as given by
Moore does not cast Webster's best work at all into the shade. Webster did
not have Sheridan's brilliant wit, but on the other hand he was never
forced, never involved, never guilty of ornament, which fastidious judges
would now pronounce tawdry. Webster's best speeches read much better than
anything of Sheridan, and, so far as we can tell from careful descriptions,
his manner, look, and delivery were far more imposing. The "manly
eloquence" of Fox seems to have resembled Webster's more closely than that
of any other of his English rivals. Fox was more fertile, more brilliant,
more surprising than Webster, and had more quickness and dash, and a
greater ease and charm of manner. But he was often careless, and sometimes
fell into repetitions, from which, of course, no great speaker can be
wholly free any more than he can keep entirely clear of commonplaces.
Webster gained upon him by superior finish and by greater weight of
argument. Before a jury Webster fell behind Erskine as he did behind
Choate, although neither of them ever produced anything at all comparable
to the speech on the White murder; but in the Senate, and in the general
field of oratory, he rises high above them both. The man with whom Webster
is oftenest compared, and the last to be mentioned, is of course Burke. It
may be conceded at once that in creative imagination, and in richness of
imagery and language, Burke ranks above Webster. But no one would ever have
said of Webster as Goldsmith did of Burke:--

"Who, too deep for his hearers, still went on refining,
And thought of convincing while they thought of dining."

Webster never sinned by over refinement or over ingenuity, for both were
utterly foreign to his nature. Still less did he impair his power in the
Senate as Burke did in the Commons by talking too often and too much. If he
did not have the extreme beauty and grace of which Burke was capable, he
was more forcible and struck harder and more weighty blows. He was greatly
aided in this by his brief and measured periods, and his strength was never
wasted in long and elaborate sentences. Webster, moreover, would never have
degenerated into the ranting excitement which led Burke to draw a knife
from his bosom and cast it on the floor of the House. This illustrates what
was, perhaps, Mr. Webster's very strongest point,--his absolute good taste.
He may have been ponderous at times in his later years. We know that he was
occasionally heavy, pompous, and even dull, but he never violated the rules
of the nicest taste. Other men have been more versatile, possessed of a
richer imagination, and more gorgeous style, with a more brilliant wit and
a keener sarcasm, but there is not one who is so absolutely free from
faults of taste as Webster, or who is so uniformly simple and pure in
thought and style, even to the point of severity.[1]

[Footnote 1: A volume might be written comparing Mr. Webster with other
great orators. Only the briefest and most rudimentary treatment of the
subject is possible here. A most excellent study of the comparative
excellence of Webster's eloquence has been made by Judge Chamberlain,
Librarian of the Boston Public Library, in a speech at the dinner of the
Dartmouth Alumni, which has since been printed as a pamphlet.]

It is easy to compare Mr. Webster with this and the other great orator,
and to select points of resemblance and of difference, and show where Mr.
Webster was superior and where he fell behind. But the final verdict must
be upon all his qualities taken together. He had the most extraordinary
physical gifts of face, form, and voice, and employed them to the best
advantage. Thus equipped, he delivered a long series of great speeches
which can be read to-day with the deepest interest, instruction, and
pleasure. He had dignity, grandeur, and force, a strong historic
imagination, and great dramatic power when he chose to exert it. He
possessed an unerring taste, a capacity for vigorous and telling sarcasm, a
glow and fire none the less intense because they were subdued, perfect
clearness of statement joined to the highest skill in argument, and he was
master of a style which was as forcible as it was simple and pure. Take him
for all in all, he was not only the greatest orator this country has ever
known, but in the history of eloquence his name will stand with those of
Demosthenes and Cicero, of Chatham and Burke.



In the year preceding the delivery of his great speech Mr. Webster had lost
his brother Ezekiel by sudden death, and he had married for his second wife
Miss Leroy of New York. The former event was a terrible grief to him, and
taken in conjunction with the latter seemed to make a complete break with
the past, and with its struggles and privations, its joys and successes.
The slender girl whom he had married in Salisbury church and the beloved
brother were both gone, and with them went those years of youth in which,--

"He had sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired, been happy."

One cannot come to this dividing line in Mr. Webster's life without regret.
There was enough of brilliant achievement and substantial success in what
had gone before to satisfy any man, and it had been honest, simple, and
unaffected. A wider fame and a greater name lay before him, but with them
came also ugly scandals, bitter personal attacks, an ambition which warped
his nature, and finally a terrible mistake. One feels inclined to say of
these later years, with the Roman lover:--

"Shut them in
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest,
Love is best."

The home changed first, and then the public career. The reply which, as
John Quincy Adams said, "utterly demolished the fabric of Hayne's speech
and left scarcely a wreck to be seen," went straight home to the people of
the North. It gave eloquent expression to the strong but undefined feeling
in the popular mind. It found its way into every house and was read
everywhere; it took its place in the school books, to be repeated by shrill
boy voices, and became part of the literature and of the intellectual life
of the country. In those solemn sentences men read the description of what
the United States had come to be under the Constitution, and what American
nationality meant in 1830. The leaders of the young war party in 1812 were
the first to arouse the national sentiment, but no one struck the chord
with such a master hand as Mr. Webster, or drew forth such long and deep
vibrations. There is no single utterance in our history which has done so
much by mere force of words to strengthen the love of nationality and
implant it deeply in the popular heart, as the reply to Hayne.

Before the delivery of that speech Mr. Webster was a distinguished
statesman, but the day after he awoke to a national fame which made all his
other triumphs pale. Such fame brought with it, of course, as it always
does in this country, talk of the presidency. The reply to Hayne made Mr.
Webster a presidential candidate, and from that moment he was never free
from the gnawing, haunting ambition to win the grand prize of American
public life. There was a new force in his career, and in all the years to
come the influence of that force must be reckoned and remembered.

Mr. Webster was anxious that the party of opposition to General Jackson,
which then passed by the name of National Republicans, should be in some
way strengthened, solidified, and placed on a broad platform of distinct
principles. He saw with great regret the ruin which was threatened by the
anti-masonic schism, and it would seem that he was not indisposed to take
advantage of this to stop the nomination of Mr. Clay, who was peculiarly
objectionable to the opponents of masonry. He earnestly desired the
nomination himself, but even his own friends in the party told him that
this was out of the question, and he acquiesced in their decision. Mr.
Clay's personal popularity, moreover, among the National Republicans was,
in truth, invincible, and he was unanimously nominated by the convention at
Baltimore. The action of the anti-masonic element in the country doomed
Clay to defeat, which he was likely enough to encounter in any event; but
the consolidation of the party so ardently desired by Mr. Webster was
brought about by acts of the administration, which completely overcame any
intestine divisions among its opponents.

The session of 1831-1832, when the country was preparing for the coming
presidential election, marks the beginning of the fierce struggle with
Andrew Jackson which was to give birth to a new and powerful organization
known in our history as the Whig party, and destined, after years of
conflict, to bring overwhelming defeat to the "Jacksonian democracy." There
is no occasion here to enter into a history of the famous bank controversy.
Established in 1816, the bank of the United States, after a period of
difficulties, had become a powerful and valuable financial organization. In
1832 it applied for a continuance of its charter, which then had three
years still to run. Mr. Webster did not enter into the personal contest
which had already begun, but in a speech of great ability advocated a
renewal of the charter, showing, as he always did on such themes, a
knowledge and a grasp of the principles and intricacies of public finance
unequalled in our history except by Hamilton. In a second speech he made a
most effective and powerful argument against a proposition to give the
States authority to tax the bank, defending the doctrines laid down by
Chief Justice Marshall in McCullough vs. Maryland, and denying the power of
Congress to give the States the right of such taxation, because by so doing
they violated the Constitution. The amendment was defeated, and the bill
for the continuance of the charter passed both Houses by large majorities.

Jackson returned the bill with a veto. He had the audacity to rest his veto
upon the ground that the bill was unconstitutional, and that it was the
duty of the President to decide upon the constitutionality of every measure
without feeling in the least bound by the opinion of Congress or of the
Supreme Court. His ignorance was so crass that he failed to perceive the
distinction between a new bill and one to continue an existing law, while
his vanity and his self-assumption were so colossal that he did not
hesitate to assert that he had the right and the power to declare an
existing law, passed by Congress, approved by Madison, and held to be
constitutional by an express decision of the Supreme Court, to be invalid,
because he thought fit to say so. To overthrow such doctrines was not
difficult, but Mr. Webster refuted them with a completeness and force which
were irresistible. At the same time he avoided personal attack in the
dignified way which was characteristic of him, despite the extraordinary
temptation to indulge in invective and telling sarcasm to which Jackson by
his ignorance and presumption had so exposed himself. The bill was lost,
the great conflict with the bank was begun, and the Whig party was founded.

Another event of a different character, which had occurred not long before,
helped to widen the breach and to embitter the contest between the parties
of the administration and of the opposition. When in 1829 Mr. McLane had
received his instructions as Minister to England, he had been directed by
Mr. Van Buren to reopen negotiations on the subject of the West Indian
trade, and in so doing the Secretary of State had reflected on the previous
administration, and had said that the party in power would not support the
pretensions of its predecessors. Such language was, of course, at variance
with all traditions, was wholly improper, and was mean and contemptible in
dealing with a foreign nation. In 1831 Mr. Van Buren was nominated as
Minister to England, and came up for confirmation in the Senate some time
after he had actually departed on his mission. Mr. Webster opposed the
confirmation in an eloquent speech full of just pride in his country and of
vigorous indignation against the slight which Mr. Van Buren had put upon
her by his instructions to Mr. McLane. He pronounced a splendid "rebuke
upon the first instance in which an American minister had been sent abroad
as the representative of his party and not as the representative of his
country." The opposition was successful, and Mr. Van Buren's nomination
was rejected. It is no doubt true that the rejection was a political
mistake, and that, as was commonly said at the time, it created sympathy
for Mr. Van Buren and insured his succession to the presidency. Yet no one
would now think as well of Mr. Webster if, to avoid awakening popular
sympathy and party enthusiasm in behalf of Mr. Van Buren, he had silently
voted for that gentleman's confirmation. To do so was to approve the
despicable tone adopted in the instructions to McLane. As a patriotic
American, above all as a man of intense national feelings, Mr. Webster
could not have done otherwise than resist with all the force of his
eloquence the confirmation of a man who had made such an undignified and
unworthy exhibition of partisanship. Politically he may have been wrong,
but morally he was wholly right, and his rebuke stands in our history as a
reproach which Mr. Van Buren's subsequent success can neither mitigate nor

There was another measure, however, which had a far different effect from
those which tended to build up the opposition to Jackson and his followers.
A movement was begun by Mr. Clay looking to a revision and reduction of the
tariff, which finally resulted in a bill reducing duties on many articles
to a revenue standard, and leaving those on cotton and woollen goods and
iron unchanged. In the debates which occurred during the passage of this
bill Mr. Webster took but little part, but they caused a furious outbreak
on the part of the South Carolinians led by Hayne, and ended in the
confirmation of the protective policy. When Mr. Webster spoke at the New
York dinner in 1831, he gave his hearers to understand very clearly that
the nullification agitation was not at an end, and after the passage of the
new tariff bill he saw close at hand the danger which he had predicted.

In November, 1832, South Carolina in convention passed her famous ordinance
nullifying the revenue laws of the United States, and her Legislature,
which assembled soon after, enacted laws to carry out the ordinance, and
gave an open defiance to the Federal government. The country was filled
with excitement. It was known that Mr. Calhoun, having published a letter
in defence of nullification, had resigned the vice-presidency, accepted the
senatorship of South Carolina, and was coming to the capital to advocate
his favorite doctrine. But the South Carolinians had made one trifling
blunder. They had overlooked the President. Jackson was a Southerner and a
Democrat, but he was also the head of the nation, and determined to
maintain its integrity. On December 10, before Congress assembled, he
issued his famous proclamation in which he took up rigorously the position
adopted by Mr. Webster in his reply to Hayne, and gave the South
Carolinians to understand that he would not endure treason, but would
enforce constitutional laws even though he should be compelled to use
bayonets to do it. The Legislature of the recalcitrant State replied in an
offensive manner which only served to make Jackson angry. He, too, began to
say some pretty violent things, and, as he generally meant what he said,
the gallant leaders of nullification and other worthy people grew very
uneasy. There can be no doubt that the outlook was very threatening, and
the nullifiers were extremely likely to be the first to suffer from the
effects of the impending storm.

Mr. Webster was in New Jersey, on his way to Washington, when he first
received the proclamation, and at Philadelphia he met Mr. Clay, and from a
friend of that gentleman received a copy of a bill which was to do away
with the tariff by gradual reductions, prevent the imposition of any
further duties, and which at the same time declared against protection and
in favor of a tariff for revenue only. This headlong plunge into concession
and compromise was not at all to Mr. Webster's taste. He was opposed to the
scheme for economical reasons, but still more on the far higher ground that
there was open resistance to laws of undoubted constitutionality, and until
that resistance was crushed under foot any talk of compromise was a blow at
the national dignity and the national existence which ought not to be
tolerated for an instant. His own course was plain. He proposed to sustain
the administration, and when the national honor should be vindicated and
all unconstitutional resistance ended, then would come the time for
concessions. Jackson was not slow in giving Mr. Webster something to
support. At the opening of the session a message was sent to Congress
asking that provision might be made to enable the President to enforce the
laws by means of the land and naval forces if necessary. The message was
referred to a committee, who at once reported the celebrated "Force Bill,"
which embodied the principles of the message and had the entire approval of
the President. But Jackson's party broke, despite the attitude of their
chief, for many of them were from the South and could not bring themselves
to the point of accepting the "Force Bill." The moment was critical, and
the administration turned to Mr. Webster and took him into their councils.
On February 8 Mr. Webster rose, and, after explaining in a fashion which no
one was likely to forget, that this was wholly an administration measure,
he announced his intention, as an independent senator, of giving it his
hearty and inflexible support. The combination thus effected was
overwhelming. Mr. Calhoun was now thoroughly alarmed, and we can well
imagine that the threats of hanging, in which it was rumored that the
President had indulged, began to have a good deal of practical significance
to a gentleman who, as Secretary of War, had been familiar with the
circumstances attending the deaths of Arbuthnot and Ambrister. At all
events, Mr. Calhoun lost no time in having an interview with Mr. Clay, and
the result was, that the latter, on February 11, announced that he should,
on the following day, introduce a tariff bill, a measure of the same sort
having already been started in the House. The bill as introduced did not
involve such a complete surrender as that which Mr. Webster had seen in
Philadelphia, but it necessitated most extensive modifications and gave all
that South Carolina could reasonably demand. Mr. Clay advocated it in a
brilliant speech, resting his defence on the ground that this was the only
way to preserve the tariff, and that it was founded on the great
constitutional doctrine of compromise. Mr. Webster opposed the bill
briefly, and then introduced a series of resolutions combating the proposed
measure on economical principles and on those of justice, and especially
assailing the readiness to abandon the rightful powers of Congress and
yield them up to any form of resistance. Before, however, he could speak in
support of his resolutions, the "Force Bill" came up, and Mr. Calhoun made
his celebrated argument in support of nullification. This Mr. Webster was
obliged to answer, and he replied with the great speech known in his works
as "The Constitution not a compact between sovereign States." In a general
way the same criticism is applicable to this debate as to that with Hayne,
but there were some important differences. Mr. Calhoun's argument was
superior to that of his follower. It was dry and hard, but it was a
splendid specimen of close and ingenious reasoning, and, as was to be
expected, the originator and master surpassed the imitator and pupil. Mr.
Webster's speech, on the other hand, in respect to eloquence, was decidedly
inferior to the masterpiece of 1830. Mr. Curtis says, "Perhaps there is no
speech ever made by Mr. Webster that is so close in its reasoning, so
compact, and so powerful." To the first two qualities we can readily
assent, but that it was equally powerful may be doubted. So long as Mr.
Webster confined himself to defending the Constitution as it actually was
and as what it had come to mean in point of fact, he was invincible. Just
in proportion as he left this ground and attempted to argue on historical
premises that it was a fundamental law, he weakened his position, for the
historical facts were against him. In the reply to Hayne he touched but
slightly on the historical, legal, and theoretical aspects of the case, and
he was overwhelming. In the reply to Calhoun he devoted his strength
chiefly to these topics, and, meeting his keen antagonist on the latter's
own chosen ground, he put himself at a disadvantage. In the actual present
and in the steady course of development, the facts were wholly with Mr.
Webster. Whatever the people of the United States understood the
Constitution to mean in 1789, there can be no question that a majority in
1833 regarded it as a fundamental law, and not as a compact--an opinion
which has now become universal. But it was quite another thing to argue
that what the Constitution had come to mean was what it meant when it was
adopted. The identity of meaning at these two periods was the proposition
which Mr. Webster undertook to maintain, and he upheld it as well and as
plausibly as the nature of the case admitted. His reasoning was close and
vigorous; but he could not destroy the theory of the Constitution as held
by leaders and people in 1789, or reconcile the Virginia and Kentucky
resolutions or the Hartford Convention with the fundamental-law doctrines.
Nevertheless, it would be an error to suppose that because the facts of
history were against Mr. Webster in these particulars, this able,
ingenious, and elaborate argument was thrown away. It was a fitting
supplement and complement to the reply to Hayne. It reiterated the national
principles, and furnished those whom the statement and demonstration of an
existing fact could not satisfy, with an immense magazine of lucid
reasoning and plausible and effective arguments. The reply to Hayne gave
magnificent expression to the popular feeling, while that to Calhoun
supplied the arguments which, after years of discussion, converted that
feeling into a fixed opinion, and made it strong enough to carry the North
through four years of civil war. But in his final speech in this debate Mr.
Webster came back to his original ground, and said, in conclusion, "Shall
we have a general government? Shall we continue the union of States under a
_government_ instead of a league? This vital and all-important question the
people will decide." The vital question went to the great popular jury, and
they cast aside all historical premises and deductions, all legal
subtleties and refinements, and gave their verdict on the existing facts.
The world knows what that verdict was, and will never forget that it was
largely due to the splendid eloquence of Daniel Webster when he defended
the cause of nationality against the slave-holding separatists of South

While this great debate was in progress, and Mr. Webster and the faithful
adherents of Jackson were pushing the "Force Bill" to a vote, Mr. Clay was
making every effort to carry the compromise tariff. In spite of his
exertions, the Force Bill passed on February 20, but close behind came the
tariff, which Mr. Webster opposed, on its final passage, in a vigorous
speech. There is no need to enter into his economical objections, but he
made his strongest stand against the policy of sacrificing great interests
to soothe South Carolina. Mr. Clay replied, but did not then press a vote,
for, with that dexterous management which he had exhibited in 1820 and was
again to display in 1850, he had succeeded in getting his tariff bill
carried rapidly through the House, in order to obviate the objection that
all money bills must originate in the lower branch. The House bill passed
the Senate, Mr. Webster voting against it, and became law. There was no
further need of the Force Bill. Clay, Calhoun, even the daring Jackson
ultimately, were very glad to accept the easy escape offered by a
compromise. South Carolina had in reality prevailed, although Mr. Clay had
saved protection in a modified form. Her threats of nullification had
brought the United States government to terms, and the doctrines of Calhoun
went home to the people of the South with the glory of substantial victory
about them, to breed and foster separatism and secession, and prepare the
way for armed conflict with the nobler spirit of nationality which Mr.
Webster had roused in the North.

Speaking of Mr. Webster at this period, Mr. Benton says:--

"He was the colossal figure on the political stage during that
eventful time, and his labors, splendid in their day, survive for
the benefit of distant posterity."... "It was a splendid era in his
life, both for his intellect and his patriotism. No longer the
advocate of classes or interests, he appeared as the great
defender of the Union, of the Constitution, of the country, and of
the administration to which he was opposed. Released from the bonds
of party and the narrow confines of class and corporation advocacy,
his colossal intellect expanded to its full proportions in the
field of patriotism, luminous with the fires of genius, and
commanding the homage not of party but of country. His magnificent
harangues touched Jackson in his deepest-seated and ruling feeling,
love of country, and brought forth the response which always came
from him when the country was in peril and a defender presented
himself. He threw out the right hand of fellowship, treated Mr.
Webster with marked distinction, commended him with public praise,
and placed him on the roll of patriots. And the public mind took
the belief that they were to act together in future, and that a
cabinet appointment or a high mission would be the reward of his
patriotic service. It was a crisis in the life of Mr. Webster. He
stood in public opposition to Mr. Clay and Mr. Calhoun. With Mr.
Clay he had a public outbreak in the Senate. He was cordial with
Jackson. The mass of his party stood by him on the proclamation. He
was at a point from which a new departure might be taken: one at
which he could not stand still; from which there must be either
advance or recoil. It was a case in which _will_ more than
_intellect_ was to rule. He was above Mr. Clay and Mr. Calhoun in
intellect, below them in will: and he was soon seen cooperating
with them (Mr. Clay in the lead) in the great measure condemning
President Jackson."

This is of course the view of a Jacksonian leader, but it is none the less
full of keen analysis and comprehension of Mr. Webster, and in some
respects embodies very well the conditions of the situation. Mr. Benton
naturally did not see that an alliance with Jackson was utterly impossible
for Mr. Webster, whose proper course was therefore much less simple than it
appeared to the Senator from Missouri. There was in reality no common
ground possible between Webster and Jackson except defence of the national
integrity. Mr. Webster was a great orator, a splendid advocate, a trained
statesman and economist, a remarkable constitutional lawyer, and a man of
immense dignity, not headstrong in temper and without peculiar force of
will. Jackson, on the other hand, was a rude soldier, unlettered,
intractable, arbitrary, with a violent temper and a most despotic will. Two
men more utterly incompatible it would have been difficult to find, and
nothing could have been more wildly fantastic than to suppose an alliance
between them, or to imagine that Mr. Webster could ever have done anything
but oppose utterly those mad gyrations of personal government which the
President called his "policy."

Yet at the same time it is perfectly true that just after the passage of
the tariff bill Mr. Webster was at a great crisis in his life. He could not
act with Jackson. That way was shut to him by nature, if by nothing else.
But he could have maintained his position as the independent and unbending
defender of nationality and as the foe of compromise. He might then have
brought Mr. Clay to his side, and remained himself the undisputed head of
the Whig party. The coalition between Clay and Calhoun was a hollow,
ill-omened thing, certain to go violently to pieces, as, in fact, it did,
within a few years, and then Mr. Clay, if he had held out so long, would
have been helpless without Mr. Webster. But such a course required a very
strong will and great tenacity of purpose, and it was on this side that Mr.
Webster was weak, as Mr. Benton points out. Instead of waiting for Mr. Clay
to come to him, Mr. Webster went over to Clay and Calhoun, and formed for a
time the third in that ill-assorted partnership. There was no reason for
his doing so. In fact every good reason was against it. Mr. Clay had come
to Mr. Webster with his compromise, and had been met with the reply "that
it would be yielding great principles to faction; and that the time had
come to test the strength of the Constitution and the government." This was
a brave, manly answer, but Mr. Clay, nationalist as he was, had straightway
deserted his friend and ally, and gone over to the separatists for support.
Then a sharp contest had occurred between Mr. Webster and Mr. Clay in the
debate on the tariff; and when it was all over, the latter wrote with frank
vanity and a slight tinge of contempt: "Mr. Webster and I came in
conflict, and I have the satisfaction to tell you that he gained nothing.
My friends flatter me with my having completely triumphed. There is no
permanent breach between us. I think he begins already to repent his
course." Mr. Clay was intensely national, but his theory of preserving the
Union was by continual compromise, or, in other words, by constant yielding
to the aggressive South. Mr. Webster's plan was to maintain a firm
attitude, enforce absolute submission to all constitutional laws, and prove
that agitation against the Union could lead only to defeat. This policy
would not have resulted in rebellion, but, if it had, the hanging of
Calhoun and a few like him, and the military government of South Carolina,
by the hero of New Orleans, would have taught slave-holders such a lesson
that we should probably have been spared four years of civil war. Peaceful
submission, however, would have been the sure outcome of Mr. Webster's
policy. But a compromise appealed as it always does to the timid,
balance-of-power party. Mr. Clay prevailed, and the manufacturers of New
England, as well as elsewhere, finding that he had secured for them the
benefit of time and of the chapter of accidents, rapidly came over to his
support. The pressure was too much for Mr. Webster. Mr. Clay thought that
if Mr. Webster "had to go over the work of the last few weeks he would have
been for the compromise, which commands the approbation of a great
majority." Whether Mr. Webster repented his opposition to the compromise no
one can say, but the change of opinion in New England, the general assent
of the Whig party, and the dazzling temptations of presidential candidacy
prevailed with him. He fell in behind Mr. Clay, and remained there in a
party sense and as a party man for the rest of his life.

The terrible prize of the presidency was indeed again before his eyes. Mr.
Clay's overthrow at the previous election had removed him, for the time
being at least, from the list of candidates, and thus freed Mr. Webster
from his most dangerous rival. In the summer of 1833 Mr. Webster made a
tour through the Western States, and was received everywhere with
enthusiasm, and hailed as the great expounder and defender of the
Constitution. The following winter he stood forward as the preeminent
champion of the Bank against the President. Everything seemed to point to
him as the natural candidate of the opposition. The Legislature of
Massachusetts nominated him for the presidency, and he himself deeply
desired the office, for the fever now burned strongly within him. But the
movement came to nothing. The anti-masonic schism still distracted the
opposition. The Kentucky leaders were jealous of Mr. Webster, and thought
him "no such man" as their idol Henry Clay. They admitted his greatness and
his high traits of character, but they thought his ambition mixed with too
much self-love. Governor Letcher wrote to Mr. Crittenden in 1836 that Clay
was more elevated, disinterested and patriotic than Webster, and that the
verdict of the country had had a good effect on the latter. Despite the
interest and enthusiasm which Mr. Webster aroused in the West, he had no
real hold upon that section or upon the masses of the people and the
Western Whigs turned to Harrison. There was no hope in 1836 for Mr.
Webster, or, for that matter, for his party either. He received the
electoral vote of faithful Massachusetts, and that was all. As it was then,
so it had been at the previous election, and so it was to continue to be at
the end of every presidential term. There never was a moment when Mr.
Webster had any real prospect of attaining to the presidency. Unfortunately
he never could realize this. He would have been more than human, perhaps,
if he had done so. The tempting bait hung always before his eyes. The prize
seemed to be always just coming within his reach, and was really never near
it. But the longing had entered his soul. He could not rid himself of the
idea of this final culmination to his success; and it warped his feelings
and actions, injured his career, and embittered his last years.

This notice of the presidential election of 1836 has somewhat anticipated
the course of events. Soon after the tariff compromise had been effected,
Mr. Webster renewed his relations with Mr. Clay, and, consequently, with
Mr. Calhoun, and their redoutable antagonist in the President's chair soon
gave them enough to do. The most immediate obstacle to Mr. Webster's
alliance with General Jackson was the latter's attitude in regard to the
bank. Mr. Webster had become satisfied that the bank was, on the whole, a
useful and even necessary institution. No one was better fitted than he to
decide on such a question, and few persons would now be found to differ
from his judgment on this point. In a general way he may be said to have
adopted the Hamiltonian doctrine in regard to the expediency and
constitutionality of a national bank. There were intimations in the spring
of 1833 that the President, not content with preventing the re-charter of
the bank, was planning to strike it down, and practically deprive it of
even the three years of life which still remained to it by law. The scheme
was perfected during the summer, and, after changing his Secretary of the
Treasury until he got one who would obey, President Jackson dealt his great
blow. On September 26 Mr. Taney signed the order removing the deposits of
the government from the Bank of the United States. The result was an
immediate contraction of loans, commercial distress, and great confusion.

The President had thrown down the gage, and the leaders of the opposition
were not slow to take it up. Mr. Clay opened the battle by introducing two
resolutions,--one condemning the action of the President as
unconstitutional, the other attacking the policy of removal, and a long and
bitter debate ensued. A month later, Mr. Webster came forward with
resolutions from Boston against the course of the President. He presented
the resolutions in a powerful and effective speech, depicting the
deplorable condition of business, and the injury caused to the country by
the removal of the deposits. He rejected the idea of leaving the currency
to the control of the President, or of doing away entirely with paper, and
advocated the re-charter of the present bank, or the creation of a new one;
and, until the time for that should arrive, the return of the deposits,
with its consequent relief to business and a restoration of stability and
of confidence for the time being at least. He soon found that the
administration had determined that no law should be passed, and that the
doctrine that Congress had no power to establish a bank should be upheld.
He also discovered that the constitutional pundit in the White House, who
was so opposed to a single national bank, had created, by his own fiat, a
large number of small national banks in the guise of state banks, to which
the public deposits were committed, and the collection of the public
revenues intrusted. Such an arbitrary policy, at once so ignorant,
illogical, and dangerous, aroused Mr. Webster thoroughly, and he entered
immediately upon an active campaign against the President. Between the
presentation of the Boston resolutions and the close of the session he
spoke on the bank, and the subjects necessarily connected with it, no less
than sixty-four times. He dealt entirely with financial topics,--chiefly
those relating to the currency, and with the constitutional questions
raised by the extension of the executive authority. This long series of
speeches is one of the most remarkable exhibitions of intellectual power
ever made by Mr. Webster, or indeed by any public man in our history. In
discussing one subject in all its bearings, involving of necessity a
certain amount of repetition, he not only displayed an extraordinary grasp
of complicated financial problems and a wide knowledge of their scientific
meaning and history, but he showed an astonishing fertility in argument,
coupled with great variety and clearness of statement and cogency of
reasoning. With the exception of Hamilton, Mr. Webster is the only
statesman in our history who was capable of such a performance on such a
subject, when a thorough knowledge had to be united with all the resources
of debate and all the arts of the highest eloquence.

The most important speech of all was that delivered in answer to Jackson's
"Protest," sent in as a reply to Mr. Clay's resolutions which had been
sustained by Mr. Webster as chairman of the Committee on Finance. The
"Protest" asserted, in brief, that the Legislature could not order a
subordinate officer to perform certain duties free from the control of the
President; that the President had the right to put his own conception of
the law into execution; and, if the subordinate officer refused to obey,
then to remove such officer; and that the Senate had therefore no right to
censure his removal of the Secretary of the Treasury, in order to reach the
government deposits. To this doctrine Mr. Webster replied with great
elaboration and ability. The question was a very nice one. There could be
no doubt of the President's power of removal, and it was necessary to show
that this power did not extend to the point of depriving Congress of the
right to confer by law specified and independent powers upon an inferior
officer, or of regulating the tenure of office. To establish this
proposition, in such a way as to take it out of the thick and heated
atmosphere of personal controversy, and put it in a shape to carry
conviction to the popular understanding, was a delicate and difficult task,
requiring, in the highest degree, lucidity and ingenuity of argument. It is
not too high praise to say that Mr. Webster succeeded entirely. The real
contest was for the possession of that debatable ground which lies between
the defined limits of the executive and legislative departments. The
struggle consolidated and gave coherence to the Whig party as representing
the opposition to executive encroachments. At the time Jackson, by his
imperious will and marvellous personal popularity, prevailed and obtained
the acceptance of his doctrines. But the conflict has gone on, and the
balance of advantage now rests with the Legislature. This tendency is quite
as dangerous as that of which Jackson was the exponent, if not more so. The
executive department has been crippled; and the influence and power of
Congress, and especially of the Senate, have become far greater than they
should be, under the system of proportion and balance embodied in the
Constitution. Despite Jackson's victory there is, to-day, far more danger
of undue encroachments on the part of the Senate than on that of the

At the next session the principal subject of discussion was the trouble
with France. Irritated at the neglect of the French government to provide
funds for the payment of their debt to us, Jackson sent in a message
severely criticising them, and recommending the passage of a law
authorizing reprisals on French property. The President and his immediate
followers were eager for war, Calhoun and his faction regarded the whole
question as only matter for "an action of assumpsit," while Mr. Webster and
Mr. Clay desired to avoid hostilities, but wished the country to maintain a
firm and dignified attitude. Under the lead of Mr. Clay, the recommendation
of reprisals was rejected, and under that of Mr. Webster a clause smuggled
into the Fortification Bill to give the President three millions to spend
as he liked was struck out and the bill was subsequently lost. This affair,
which brought us to the verge of war with France, soon blew over, however,
and caused only a temporary ripple, although Mr. Webster's attack on the
Fortification Bill left a sting behind.

In this same session Mr. Webster made an exhaustive speech on the question
of executive patronage and the President's power of appointment and
removal. He now went much farther than in his answer to the "Protest,"
asserting not only the right of Congress to fix the tenure of office, but
also that the power of removal, like the power of appointment, was in the
President and Senate jointly. The speech contained much that was valuable,
but in its main doctrine was radically unsound. The construction of 1789,
which decided that the power of removal belonged to the President alone,
was clearly right, and Mr. Webster failed to overthrow it. His theory,
embodied in a bill which provided that the President should state to the
Senate, when he appointed to a vacancy caused by removal, his reasons for
such removal, was thoroughly mischievous. It was more dangerous than
Jackson's doctrine, for it tended to take the power of patronage still more
from a single and responsible person and vest it in a large and therefore
wholly irresponsible body which has always been too much inclined to
degenerate into an office-broking oligarchy, and thus degrade its high and
important functions. Mr. Webster argued his proposition with his usual
force and perspicuity, but the speech is strongly partisan and exhibits the
disposition of an advocate to fit the Constitution to his particular case,
instead of dealing with it on general and fundamental principles.

The session closed with a resolution offered by Mr. Benton to expunge the
resolutions of censure upon the President, which was overwhelmingly
defeated, and was then laid upon the table, on the motion of Mr. Webster.
He also took the first step to prevent the impending financial disaster
growing out of the President's course toward the bank, by carrying a bill
to stop the payment of treasury warrants by the deposit banks in current
banknotes, and to compel their payment in gold and silver. The rejection of
Benton's resolutions served to embitter the already intense conflict
between the President and his antagonists, and Mr. Webster's bill, while it
showed the wisdom of the opposition, was powerless to remedy the mischief
which was afoot.

In this same year (1835) the independence of Texas was achieved, and in the
session of 1835-36 the slavery agitation began its march, which was only to
terminate on the field of battle and in the midst of contending armies.
Mr. Webster's action at this time in regard to this great question, which
was destined to have such an effect upon his career, can be more fitly
narrated when we come to consider his whole course in regard to slavery in
connection with the "7th of March" speech. The other matters of this
session demand but a brief notice. The President animadverted in his
message upon the loss of the Fortification Bill, due to the defeat of the
three million clause. Mr. Webster defended himself most conclusively and
effectively, and before the session closed the difficulties with France
were practically settled. He also gave great attention to the ever-pressing
financial question, trying to mitigate the evils which the rapid
accumulation of the public funds was threatening to produce. He felt that
he was powerless, that nothing indeed could be done to avert the
approaching disaster; but he struggled to modify its effects and delay its

Complications increased rapidly during the summer. The famous "Specie
Circular," issued by the Secretary of the Treasury without authority of
law, weakened all banks which did not hold the government deposits, forced
them to contract their loans, and completed the derangement of domestic
exchange. This grave condition of affairs confronted Congress when it
assembled in December, 1836. A resolution was introduced to rescind the
Specie Circular, and Mr. Webster spoke at length in the debate, defining
the constitutional duties of the government toward the regulation of the
currency, and discussing in a masterly manner the intricate questions of
domestic exchanges and the excessive circulation of bank notes. On another
occasion he reiterated his belief that a national bank was the true remedy
for existing ills, but that only hard experience could convince the country
of its necessity.

At this session the resolution to expunge the vote of censure of 1833 was
again brought forward by Mr. Benton. The Senate had at last come under the
sway of the President, and it was clear that the resolution would pass.
This precious scheme belongs to the same category of absurdities as the
placing Oliver Cromwell's skull on Temple Bar, and throwing Robert Blake's
body on a dung-hill by Charles Stuart and his friends. It was not such a
mean and cowardly performance as that of the heroes of the Restoration, but
it was far more "childish-foolish." The miserable and ludicrous nature of
such a proceeding disgusted Mr. Webster beyond measure. Before the vote was
taken he made a brief speech that is a perfect model of dignified and
severe protest against a silly outrage upon the Constitution and upon the
rights of senators, which he was totally unable to prevent. The original
censure is part of history. No "black lines" can take it out. The expunging
resolution, which Mr. Curtis justly calls "fantastic and theatrical," is
also part of history, and carries with it the ineffaceable stigma affixed
by Mr. Webster's indignant protest.

Before the close of the session Mr. Webster made up his mind to resign his
seat in the Senate. He had private interests which demanded his attention,
and he wished to travel both in the United States and in Europe. He may
well have thought, also, that he could add nothing to his fame by remaining
longer in the Senate. But besides the natural craving for rest, it is quite
possible that he believed that a withdrawal from active and official
participation in politics was the best preparation for a successful
candidacy for the presidency in 1840. This certainly was in his mind in the
following year (1838), when the rumor was abroad that he was again
contemplating retirement from the Senate; and it is highly probable that
the same motive was at bottom the controlling one in 1837. But whatever the
cause of his wish to resign, the opposition of his friends everywhere, and
of the Legislature of Massachusetts, formally and strongly expressed, led
him to forego his purpose. He consented to hold his seat for the present,
at least, and in the summer of 1837 made an extended tour through the West,
where he was received as before with the greatest admiration and

The distracted condition of the still inchoate Whig party in 1836, and the
extraordinary popularity of Jackson, resulted in the complete victory of
Mr. Van Buren. But the General's chosen successor and political heir found
the great office to which he had been called, and which he so eagerly
desired, anything but a bed of roses. The ruin which Jackson's wild policy
had prepared was close at hand, and three months after the inauguration the
storm burst with full fury. The banks suspended specie payments and
universal bankruptcy reigned throughout the country. Our business interests
were in the violent throes of the worst financial panic which had ever been
known in the United States. The history of Mr. Van Buren's administration,
in its main features, is that of a vain struggle with a hopeless network of
difficulties, and with the misfortune and prostration which grew out of
this wide-spread disaster. It is not necessary here to enter into the
details of these events. Mr. Webster devoted himself in the Senate to
making every effort to mitigate the evils which he had prophesied, and to
prevent their aggravation by further injudicious legislation. His most
important speech was delivered at the special session against the first
sub-treasury bill and Mr. Calhoun's amendment. Mr. Calhoun, who had wept
over the defeat of the bank bill in 1815, was now convinced that all banks
were mistakes, and wished to prevent the acceptance of the notes of specie
paying banks for government dues. Mr. Webster's speech was the fullest and
most elaborate he ever made on the subject of the currency, and the
relations of the government to it. His theme was the duty and right of the
general government under the Constitution to regulate and control the
currency, and his masterly argument was the best that has ever been made,
leaving in fact nothing to be desired.

In the spring of 1839 there was talk of sending Mr. Webster to London as
commissioner to settle the boundary disputes, but it came to nothing, and
in the following summer he went to England in his private capacity
accompanied by his family. The visit was in every way successful. It
brought rest and change as well as pleasure, and was full of interest. Mr.
Webster was very well received, much attention was paid him, and much
admiration shown for him. He commanded all this, not only by his
appearance, his reputation, and his intellectual force, but still more by
the fact that he was thoroughly and genuinely American in thought, feeling,
and manner.

He reached New York on his return at the end of December, and was there met
by the news of General Harrison's nomination by the Whigs. In the previous
year it had seemed as if, with Clay out of the way by the defeat of 1832,
and Harrison by that of 1836, the great prize must fall to Mr. Webster. His
name was brought forward by the Whigs of Massachusetts, but it met with no
response even in New England. It was the old story; Mr. Clay and his
friends were cool, and the masses of the party did not desire Mr. Webster.
The convention turned from the Massachusetts statesman and again nominated
the old Western soldier.

Mr. Webster did not hesitate as to the course he should pursue upon his
return. He had been reelected to the Senate in January, 1839, and after the
session closed in July, 1840, he threw himself into the campaign in support
of Harrison. The people did not desire Mr. Webster to be their President,
but there was no one whom they so much wished to hear. He was besieged from
all parts of the country with invitations to speak, and he answered
generously to the call thus made upon him.

On his way home from Washington, in March, 1837, more than three years
before, he had made a speech at Niblo's Garden in New York,--the greatest
purely political speech which he ever delivered. He then reviewed and
arraigned with the greatest severity the history of Jackson's
administration, abstaining in his characteristic way from all personal
attack, but showing, as no one else could show, what had been done, and the
results of the policy, which were developing as he had predicted. He also
said that the worst was yet to come. The speech produced a profound
impression. People were still reading it when the worst really came, and
the great panic broke over the country. Mr. Webster had, in fact, struck
the key-note of the coming campaign in the Niblo-Garden speech of 1837. In
the summer of 1840 he spoke in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and
Virginia, and was almost continually upon the platform. The great feat of
1833-34, when he made sixty-four speeches in the Senate on the bank
question, was now repeated under much more difficult conditions. In the
first instance he was addressing a small and select body of trained
listeners, all more or less familiar with the subject. In 1840 he was
obliged to present these same topics, with all their infinite detail and
inherent dryness, to vast popular audiences, but nevertheless he achieved a
marvellous success. The chief points which he brought out were the
condition of the currency, the need of government regulation, the
responsibility of the Democrats, the miserable condition of the country,
and the exact fulfillment of the prophecies he had made. The argument and
the conclusion were alike irresistible, but Mr. Webster showed, in handling
his subject, not only the variety, richness, and force which he had
displayed in the Senate, but the capacity of presenting it in a way
thoroughly adapted to the popular mind, and yet, at the same time, of
preserving the impressive tone of a dignified statesman, without any
degeneration into mere stump oratory. This wonderful series of speeches
produced the greatest possible effect. They were heard by thousands and
read by tens of thousands. They fell, of course, upon willing ears. The
people, smarting under bankruptcy, poverty, and business depression, were
wild for a change; but nothing did so much to swell the volume of public
resentment against the policy of the ruling party as these speeches of Mr.
Webster, which gave character and form to the whole movement. Jackson had
sown the wind, and his unlucky successor was engaged in the agreeable task
of reaping the proverbial crop. There was a political revolution. The Whigs
swept the country by an immense majority, the great Democratic party was
crushed to the earth, and the ignorant misgovernment of Andrew Jackson
found at last its fit reward. General Harrison, as soon as he was elected,
turned to the two great chiefs of his party to invite them to become the
pillars of his administration. Mr. Clay declined any cabinet office, but
Mr. Webster, after some hesitation, accepted the secretaryship of state. He
resigned his seat in the Senate February 22, 1841, and on March 4 following
took his place in the cabinet, and entered upon a new field of public



There is one feature in the history, or rather in the historic scenery of
this period, which we are apt to overlook. The political questions, the
debates, the eloquence of that day, give us no idea of the city in which
the history was made, or of the life led by the men who figured in that
history. Their speeches might have been delivered in any great centre of
civilization, and in the midst of a brilliant and luxurious society. But
the Washington of 1841, when Mr. Webster took the post which is officially
the first in the society of the capital and of the country, was a very odd
sort of place, and widely different from what it is to-day. It was not a
village, neither was it a city. It had not grown, but had been created for
a special purpose. A site had been arbitrarily selected, and a city laid
out on the most magnificent scale. But there was no independent life, for
the city was wholly official in its purposes and its existence. There were
a few great public buildings, a few large private houses, a few hotels and
boarding houses, and a large number of negro shanties. The general effect
was of attempted splendor, which had resulted in slovenliness and
straggling confusion. The streets were unpaved, dusty in summer, and deep
with mud in winter, so that the mere difficulty of getting from place to
place was a serious obstacle to general society. Cattle fed in the streets,
and were milked by their owners on the sidewalk. There was a grotesque
contrast between the stately capitol where momentous questions were
eloquently discussed and such queerly primitive and rude surroundings. Few
persons were able to entertain because few persons had suitable houses.
Members of Congress usually clubbed together and took possession of a
house, and these "messes," as they were called,--although without doubt
very agreeable to their members,--did not offer a mode of life which was
easily compatible with the demands of general society. Social enjoyments,
therefore, were pursued under difficulties; and the city, although
improving, was dreary enough.

Society, too, was in a bad condition. The old forms and ceremonies of the
men of 1789 and the manners and breeding of our earliest generation of
statesmen had passed away, and the new democracy had not as yet a system of
its own. It was a period of transition. The old customs had gone, the new
ones had not crystallized. The civilization was crude and raw, and in
Washington had no background whatever,--such as was to be found in the old
cities and towns of the original thirteen States. The tone of the men in
public life had deteriorated and was growing worse, approaching rapidly its
lowest point, which it reached during the Polk administration. This was due
partly to the Jacksonian democracy, which had rejected training and
education as necessary to statesmanship, and had loudly proclaimed the
great truths of rotation in office, and the spoils to the victors, and
partly to the slavery agitation which was then beginning to make itself
felt. The rise of the irrepressible conflict between freedom and slavery
made the South overbearing and truculent; it produced that class of
politicians known as "Northern men with Southern principles," or, in the
slang of the day, as "doughfaces;" and it had not yet built up a strong,
vigorous, and aggressive party in the North. The lack of proper social
opportunities, and this deterioration among men in public life, led to an
increasing violence and roughness in debate, and to a good deal of coarse
dissipation in private. There was undoubtedly a brighter side, but it was
limited, and the surroundings of the distinguished men who led our
political parties in 1841 at the national capital, do not present a very
cheerful or attractive picture.

When the new President appeared upon the scene he was followed by a general
rush of hungry office-seekers, who had been starving for places for many
years. General Harrison was a brave, honest soldier and pioneer, simple in
heart and manners, unspoiled and untaught by politics of which he had had a
good share. He was not a great man, but he was honorable and well
intentioned. He wished to have about him the best and ablest men of his
party, and to trust to their guidance for a successful administration. But
although he had no desire to invent a policy, or to draft state papers, he
was determined to be the author of his own inaugural speech, and he came to
Washington with a carefully-prepared manuscript in his pocket. When Mr.
Webster read this document he found it full of gratitude to the people, and
abounding in allusions to Roman history. With his strong sense of humor,
and of the unities and proprieties as well, he was a good deal alarmed at
the proposed speech; and after much labor, and the expenditure of a good
deal of tact, he succeeded in effecting some important changes and
additions. When he came home in the evening, Mrs. Seaton, at whose house he
was staying, remarked that he looked worried and fatigued, and asked if
anything had happened. Mr. Webster replied, "You would think that something
had happened if you knew what I have done. I have killed seventeen Roman
proconsuls." It was a terrible slaughter for poor Harrison, for the
proconsuls were probably very dear to his heart. His youth had been passed
in the time when the pseudo classicism of the French Republic and Empire
was rampant, and now that, in his old age, he had been raised to the
presidency, his head was probably full of the republics of antiquity, and
of Cincinnatus called from the plough, to take the helm of state.

M. de Bacourt, the French minister at this period, a rather shallow and
illiberal man who disliked Mr. Webster, gives, in his recently published
correspondence, the following amusing account of the presentation of the
diplomatic corps to President Harrison,--a little bit of contemporary
gossip which carries us back to those days better than anything else could
possibly do. The diplomatic corps assembled at the house of Mr. Fox, the
British minister, who was to read a speech in behalf of the whole body, and
thence proceeded to the White House where

"the new Secretary of State, Mr. Webster, who is much embarrassed
by his new functions, came to make his arrangements with Mr. Fox.
This done, we were ranged along the wall in order of seniority, and
after too long a delay for a country where the chief magistrate has
no right to keep people waiting, the old General came in, followed
by all the members of his Cabinet, who walked in single file, and
so kept behind him. He then advanced toward Mr. Fox, whom Mr.
Webster presented to him. Mr. Fox read to him his address. Then the
President took out his spectacles and read his reply. Then, after
having shaken hands with the English minister, he walked from one
end of our line to the other, Mr. Webster presenting each of us by
name, and he shaking hands with each one without saying a word.
This ceremony finished he returned to the room whence he had come,
and reappeared with Mrs. Harrison--the widow of his eldest
son--upon his arm, whom he presented to the diplomatic corps _en
masse_. Mr. Webster, who followed, then presented to us Mrs.
Finley, the mother of this Mrs. Harrison, in the following terms:
'Gentlemen, I introduce to you Mrs. Finley, the lady who attends
Mrs. Harrison;' and observe that this good lady who attends the
others--takes care of them--is blind. Then all at once, a crowd of
people rushed into the room. They were the wives, sisters,
daughters, cousins, and lady friends of the President and of all
his ministers, who were presented to us, and _vice versa_, in the
midst of an inconceivable confusion."

Fond, however, as Mr. Webster was of society, and punctilious as he was in
matters of etiquette and propriety, M. de Bacourt to the contrary
notwithstanding, he had far more important duties to perform than those of
playing host and receiving foreign ministers. Our relations with England
when he entered the cabinet were such as to make war seem almost
inevitable. The northeastern boundary, undetermined by the treaty of 1783,
had been the subject of continual and fruitless negotiation ever since that
time, and was still unsettled and more complicated than ever. It was agreed
that there should be a new survey and a new arbitration, but no agreement
could be reached as to who should arbitrate or what questions should be
submitted to the arbitrators, and the temporary arrangements for the
possession of the territory in dispute were unsatisfactory and precarious.
Much more exciting and perilous than this old difficulty was a new one and
its consequences growing out of the Canadian rebellion in 1837. Certain of
the rebels fled to the United States, and there, in conjunction with
American citizens, prepared to make incursions into Canada. For this
purpose they fitted out an American steamboat, the Caroline. An expedition
from Canada crossed the Niagara River to the American shore, set fire to
the Caroline, and let her drift over the Falls. In the fray which occurred,
an American named Durfree was killed. The British government avowed this
invasion to be a public act and a necessary measure of self-defence; but it
was a question when Mr. Van Buren went out of office whether this avowal
had been made in an authentic manner. There was another incident, however,
also growing out of this affair, even more irritating and threatening than
the invasion itself. In November, 1840, one Alexander McLeod came from
Canada to New York, where he boasted that he was the slayer of Durfree, and
thereupon was at once arrested on a charge of murder and thrown into
prison. This aroused great anger in England, and the conviction of McLeod
was all that was needed to cause immediate war. In addition to these
complications was the question of the right of search for the impressment
of British seamen and for the suppression of the slave-trade. Our
government was, of course, greatly hampered in action by the rights of
Maine and Massachusetts on the northeastern boundary, and by the fact that
McLeod was within the jurisdiction and in the power of the New York courts,
and wholly out of reach of those of the United States. The character of the
national representatives on both sides in London tended, moreover, to
aggravate the growing irritation between the two countries. Lord Palmerston
was sharp and domineering, and Mr. Stevenson, our minister, was by no means
mild or conciliatory. Between them they did what they could to render
accommodation impossible.

To evolve a satisfactory and permanent peace from these conditions was the
task which confronted Mr. Webster, and he was hardly in office before he
received a demand from Mr. Fox for the release of McLeod, in which full
avowal was made that the burning of the Caroline was a public act. Mr.
Webster determined that the proper method of settling the boundary
question, when that subject should be reached, was to agree upon a
conventional and arbitrary line, and that in the mean time the only way to
dispose of McLeod was to get him out of prison, separate him,
diplomatically speaking, from the affair of the Caroline, and then take
that up as a distinct matter for negotiation with the British government.
The difficulty in regard to McLeod was the most pressing, and so to that he
gave his immediate attention. His first step was to instruct the
Attorney-General to proceed to Lockport, where McLeod was imprisoned, and
communicate with the counsel for the defence, furnishing them with
authentic information that the destruction of the Caroline was a public
act, and that therefore McLeod could not be held responsible. He then
replied to the British minister that McLeod could, of course, be released
only by judicial process, but he also informed Mr. Fox of the steps which
had been taken by the administration to assure the prisoner a complete
defence based on the avowal of the British government that the attack on
the Caroline was a public act. This threw the responsibility for McLeod,
and for consequent peace or war, where it belonged, on the New York
authorities, who seemed, however, but little inclined to assist the general
government. McLeod came before the Supreme Court of New York in July, on a
writ of _habeas corpus_, but they refused to release him on the grounds set
forth in Mr. Webster's instructions to the Attorney-General, and he was
remanded for trial in October, which was highly embarrassing to our
government, as it kept this dangerous affair open.

But this and all other embarrassments to the Secretary of State sank into
insignificance beside those caused him by the troubles in his own political
party. Between the time of the instructions to the Attorney-General and
that of the letter to Mr. Fox, President Harrison died, after only a month
of office. Mr. Tyler, of whose views but little was known, at once
succeeded, and made no change in the cabinet of his predecessor. On the
last day of May, Congress, called in extra session by President Harrison,
convened. A bill establishing a bank was passed, and Mr. Tyler vetoed it on
account of constitutional objections to some of its features. The
triumphant Whigs were filled with wrath at this unlooked-for check. Mr.
Clay reflected on the President with great severity in the Senate, the
members of the party in the House were very violent in their expressions of
disapproval, and another measure, known as the "Fiscal Corporation Act,"
was at once prepared. Mr. Webster regarded this state of affairs with great
anxiety and alarm. He said that such a contest, if persisted in, would ruin
the party and deprive them of the fruits of their victory, besides
imperilling the important foreign policy then just initiated. He strove to
allay the excitement, and resisted the passage of any new bank measure,
much as he wished the establishment of such an institution, advising
postponement and delay for the sake of procuring harmony if possible. But
the party in Congress would not be quieted. They were determined to force
Mr. Tyler's hand at all hazards, and while the new bill was pending, Mr.
Clay, stung by the taunts of Mr. Buchanan, made a savage attack upon the
President. As a natural consequence, the "Fiscal Corporation" scheme shared
the fate of its predecessor. The breach between the President and his party
was opened irreparably, and four members of the cabinet at once resigned.
Mr. Webster was averse to becoming a party to an obvious combination
between the Senate and the cabinet to harass the President, and he was
determined not to sacrifice the success of his foreign negotiations to a
political quarrel. He therefore resolved to remain in the cabinet for the
present, at least, and, after consulting the Massachusetts delegation in
Congress, who fully approved his course, he announced his decision to the
public in a letter to the "National Intelligencer." His action soon became
the subject of much adverse criticism from the Whigs, but at this day no
one would question that he was entirely right. It was not such an easy
thing to do, however, as it now appears, for the excitement was running
high among the Whigs, and there was great bitterness of feeling toward the
President. Mr. Webster behaved in an independent and patriotic manner,
showing a liberality of spirit, a breadth of view, and a courage of opinion
which entitle him to the greatest credit.

Events, which had seemed thus far to go steadily against him in his
negotiations, and which had been supplemented by the attacks of the
opposition in Congress for his alleged interference with the course of
justice in New York, now began to turn in his favor. The news of the
refusal of the New York court to release McLeod on a _habeas corpus_ had
hardly reached England when the Melbourne ministry was beaten in the House
of Commons, and Sir Robert Peel came in, bringing with him Lord Aberdeen as
the successor of Lord Palmerston in the department of foreign affairs. The
new ministry was disposed to be much more peaceful than their predecessors
had been, and the negotiations at once began to move more smoothly. Great
care was still necessary to prevent outbreaks on the border, but in October
McLeod proved an _alibi_ and was acquitted, and thus the most dangerous
element in our relations with England was removed. Matters were still
further improved by the retirement of Mr. Stevenson, whose successor in
London was Mr. Everett, eminently conciliatory in disposition and in full
sympathy with the Secretary of State.

Mr. Webster was now able to turn his undivided attention to the
long-standing boundary question. His proposition to agree upon a
conventional line had been made known by Mr. Fox to his government, and
soon afterwards Mr. Everett was informed that Lord Ashburton would be sent
to Washington on a special mission. The selection of an envoy well known
for his friendly feeling toward the United States, which was also
traditional with the great banking-house of his family, was in itself a
pledge of conciliation and good will. Lord Ashburton reached Washington in
April, 1842, and the negotiation at once began.

It is impossible and needless to give here a detailed account of that
negotiation. We can only glance briefly at the steps taken by Mr. Webster
and at the results achieved by him. There were many difficulties to be
overcome, and in the winter of 1841-42 the case of the Creole added a fresh
and dangerous complication. The Creole was a slave-ship, on which the
negroes had risen, and, taking possession, had carried her into an English
port in the West Indies, where assistance was refused to the crew, and
where the slaves were allowed to go free. This was an act of very doubtful
legality, it touched both England and the Southern States in a very
sensitive point, and it required all Mr. Webster's tact and judgment to
keep it out of the negotiation until the main issue had been settled.

The principal obstacle in the arrangement of the boundary dispute arose
from the interests and the attitude of Massachusetts and Maine. Mr. Webster
obtained with sufficient ease the appointment of commissioners from the
former State, and, through the agency of Mr. Sparks, who was sent to
Augusta for the purpose, commissioners were also appointed in Maine; but
these last were instructed to adhere to the line of 1783 as claimed by the
United States. Lord Ashburton and Mr. Webster readily agreed that a treaty
must come from mutual conciliation and compromise; but, after a good deal
of correspondence, it became apparent that the Maine commissioners and the
English envoy could not be brought to an agreement. A dead-lock and
consequent loss of the treaty were imminent. Mr. Webster then had a long
interview with Lord Ashburton. By a process of give and take they agreed on
a conventional line and on the concession of certain rights, which made a
fair bargain, but unluckily the loss was suffered by Maine and
Massachusetts, while the benefits received by the United States accrued to
New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. This brought the negotiators to the
point at which they had already been forced to halt so many times before.
Mr. Webster now cut the knot by proposing that the United States should
indemnify Maine and Massachusetts in money for the loss they were to suffer
in territory, and by his dexterous management the commissioners of the two
States were persuaded to assent to this arrangement, while Lord Ashburton
was induced to admit the agreement into a clause of the treaty. This
disposed of the chief question in dispute, but two other subjects were
included in the treaty besides the boundary. The first related to the
right of search claimed by England for the suppression of the slave-trade.
This was met by what was called the "Cruising Convention," a clause which
stipulated that each nation should keep its own squadron on the coast of
Africa, to enforce separately its own laws against the slave-trade, but in
mutual cooeperation. The other subject of agreement grew out of the Creole
case. England supposed that we sought the return of the negroes because
they were slaves, but Mr. Webster argued that they were demanded as
mutineers and murderers. The result was an article which, while it
carefully avoided even the appearance of an attempt to bind England to
return fugitive slaves, provided amply for the extradition of criminals.
The case of the Caroline was disposed of by a formal admission of the
inviolability of national territory and by an apology for the burning of
the steamboat. As to the action in regard to the slaves on the Creole, Mr.
Webster could only obtain the assurance that there should be "no officious
interference with American vessels driven by accident or violence into
British ports," and with this he was content to let the matter drop. On the
subject of impressment, the old _casus belli_ of 1812, Mr. Webster wrote a
forcible letter to Lord Ashburton. In it he said that, in future, "in every
regularly-documented American merchant vessel, the crew who navigate it
will find their protection in the flag which is over them." In other words,
if you take sailors out of our vessels, we shall fight; and this simple
statement of fact ended the whole matter and was quite as binding on
England as any treaty could have been.

Thus the negotiation closed. The only serious objection to its results was
that the interests of Maine were sacrificed perhaps unduly,--as a recent
discussion of that point seems to show. But such a sacrifice was fully
justified by what was achieved. A war was averted, a long standing and
menacing dispute was settled, and a treaty was concluded which was
creditable and honorable to all concerned. By his successful introduction
of the extradition clause, Mr. Webster rendered a great service to
civilization and to the suppression and punishment of crime. Mr. Webster
was greatly aided throughout--both in his arguments, and in the
construction of the treaty itself--by the learned and valuable assistance
freely given by Judge Story. But he conducted the whole negotiation with
great ability and in the spirit of a liberal and enlightened statesman. He
displayed the highest tact and dexterity in reconciling so many clashing
interests, and avoiding so many perilous side issues, until he had brought
the main problem to a solution. In all that he did and said he showed a
dignity and an entire sufficiency, which make this negotiation one of the
most creditable--so far as its conduct was concerned--in which the United
States was ever engaged.

While the negotiation was in progress there was a constant murmur among the
Whigs about Mr. Webster's remaining in the cabinet, and as soon as the
treaty was actually signed a loud clamor began--both among the politicians
and in the newspapers--for his resignation. In the midst of this outcry the
Senate met and ratified the treaty by a vote of thirty-nine to nine,--a
great triumph for its author. But the debate disclosed a vigorous
opposition, Benton and Buchanan both assailing Mr. Webster for neglecting
and sacrificing American, and particularly Southern, interests. At the same
time the controversy which Mr. Webster called "the battle of the maps," and
which was made a great deal of in England, began to show itself. A map of
1783, which Mr. Webster obtained, had been discovered in Paris, sustaining
the English view, while another was afterwards found in London, supporting
the American claim. Neither was of the least consequence, as the new line
was conventional and arbitrary; but the discoveries caused a great deal of
unreasonable excitement. Mr. Webster saw very plainly that the treaty was
not yet secure. It was exposed to attacks both at home and abroad, and had
still to pass Parliament. Until it was entirely safe, Mr. Webster
determined to remain at his post. The clamor continued about his
resignation, and rose round him at his home in Marshfield, whither he had
gone for rest. At the same time the Whig convention of Massachusetts
declared formally a complete separation from the President. In the language
of to-day, they "read Mr. Tyler out of the party." There was a variety of
motives for this action. One was to force Mr. Webster out of the cabinet,
another to advance the fortunes of Mr. Clay, in favor of whose presidential
candidacy movements had begun in Massachusetts, even among Mr. Webster's
personal friends, as well as elsewhere. Mr. Webster had just declined a
public dinner, but he now decided to meet his friends in Faneuil Hall. An
immense audience gathered to hear him, many of them strongly disapproving
his course, but after he had spoken a few moments, he had them completely
under control. He reviewed the negotiation; he discussed fully the
differences in the party; he deplored, and he did not hesitate strongly to
condemn these quarrels, because by them the fruits of victory were lost,
and Whig policy abandoned. With boldness and dignity he denied the right of
the convention to declare a separation from the President, and the implied
attempt to coerce himself and others. "I am, gentlemen, a little hard to
coax," he said, "but as to being driven, that is out of the question. If I
choose to remain in the President's councils, do these gentlemen mean to
say that I cease to be a Massachusetts Whig? I am quite ready to put that
question to the people of Massachusetts." He was well aware that he was
losing party strength by his action; he knew that behind all these
resolutions was the intention to raise his great rival to the presidency;
but he did not shrink from avowing his independence and his intention of
doing what he believed to be right, and what posterity admits to have been
so. Mr. Webster never appeared to better advantage, and he never made a
more manly speech than on this occasion, when, without any bravado, he
quietly set the influence and the threats of his party at defiance.

He was not mistaken in thinking that the treaty was not yet in smooth
water. It was again attacked in the Senate, and it had a still more severe
ordeal to go through in Parliament. The opposition, headed by Lord
Palmerston, assailed the treaty and Lord Ashburton himself, with the
greatest virulence, denouncing the one as a capitulation, and the other as
a grossly unfit appointment. Moreover, the language of the President's
message led England to believe that we claimed that the right of search had
been abandoned. After much correspondence, this misunderstanding drew forth
an able letter from Mr. Webster, stating that the right of search had not
been included in the treaty, but that the "cruising convention" had
rendered the question unimportant. Finally, all complications were
dispersed, and the treaty ratified; and then came an attack from an
unexpected quarter. General Cass--our minister at Paris--undertook to
protest against the treaty, denounce it, and leave his post on account of
it. This wholly gratuitous assault led to a public correspondence, in which
General Cass, on his own confession, was completely overthrown and broken
down by the Secretary of State. This was the last difficulty, and the work
was finally accepted and complete.

During this important and absorbing negotiation, other matters of less
moment, but still of considerable consequence, had been met by Mr. Webster,
and successfully disposed of. He made a treaty with Portugal, respecting
duties on wines; he carried on a long correspondence with our minister to
Mexico in relation to certain American prisoners; he vindicated the course
of the United States in regard to the independence of Texas, teaching M. de
Bocanegra, the Mexican Secretary of State, a lesson as to the duties of
neutrality, and administering a severe reproof to that gentleman for
imputing bad faith to the United States; he conducted the correspondence,
and directed the policy of the government in regard to the troubles in
Rhode Island; he made an effort to settle the Oregon boundary; and,
finally, he set on foot the Chinese mission, which, after being offered to
Mr. Everett, was accepted by Mr. Cushing with the best results. But his
real work came to an end with the correspondence with General Cass at the
close of 1842, and in May of the following year he resigned the
secretaryship. In the two years during which he had been at the head of the
cabinet, he had done much. His work added to his fame by the ability which
it exhibited in a new field, and has stood the test of time. In a period of
difficulty, and even danger, he proved himself singularly well adapted for
the conduct of foreign affairs,--a department which is most peculiarly and
traditionally the employment and test of a highly-trained statesman. It may
be fairly said that no one, with the exception of John Quincy Adams, has
ever shown higher qualities, or attained greater success in the
administration of the State Department, than Mr. Webster did while in Mr.
Tyler's cabinet.

On his resignation, he returned at once to private life, and passed the
next summer on his farm at Marshfield,--now grown into a large
estate,--which was a source of constant interest and delight, and where he
was able to have beneath his eyes his beloved sea. His private affairs were
in disorder, and required his immediate attention. He threw himself into
his profession, and his practice at once became active, lucrative, and
absorbing. To this period of retirement belong the second Bunker Hill
oration and the Girard argument, which made so much noise in its day. He
kept himself aloof from politics, but could not wholly withdraw from them.
The feeling against him, on account of his continuance in the cabinet, had
subsided, and there was a feeble and somewhat fitful movement to drop Clay,
and present Mr. Webster as a candidate for the presidency. Mr. Webster,
however, made a speech at Andover, defending his course and advocating Whig
principles, and declared that he was not a candidate for office. He also
refused to allow New Hampshire to mar party harmony by bringing his name
forward. When Mr. Clay was nominated, in May, 1844, Mr. Webster, who had
beheld with anxiety the rise of the Liberty party and prophesied the
annexation of Texas, decided, although he was dissatisfied with the silence
of the Whigs on this subject, to sustain their candidate. This was
undoubtedly the wisest course; and, having once enlisted, he gave Mr. Clay
a hearty and vigorous support, making a series of powerful speeches,
chiefly on the tariff, and second in variety and ability only to those
which he had delivered in the Harrison campaign. Mr. Clay was defeated
largely by the action of the Liberty party, and the silence of the Whigs
about Texas and slavery cost them the election. At the beginning of the
year Mr. Webster had declined a reelection to the Senate, but it was
impossible for him to remain out of politics, and the pressure to return
soon became too strong to be resisted. When Mr. Choate resigned in the
winter of 1844-45, Mr. Webster was reelected senator, from Massachusetts.
On the first of March the intrigue, to perfect which Mr. Calhoun had
accepted the State Department, culminated, and the resolutions for the
annexation of Texas passed both branches of Congress. Four days later Mr.
Polk's administration, pledged to the support and continuance of the
annexation policy, was in power, and Mr. Webster had taken his seat in the
Senate for his last term.



The principal events of Mr. Polk's administration belong to or grow out of
the slavery agitation, then beginning to assume most terrible proportions.
So far as Mr. Webster is concerned, they form part of the history of his
course on the slavery question, which culminated in the famous speech of
March 7, 1850. Before approaching that subject, however, it will be
necessary to touch very briefly on one or two points of importance in Mr.
Webster's career, which have no immediate bearing on the question of
slavery, and no relation to the final and decisive stand which Mr. Webster
took in regard to it.

The Ashburton treaty was open to one just criticism. It did not go far
enough. It did not settle the northwestern as it did the northeastern
boundary. Mr. Webster, as has been said, made an effort to deal with the
former as well as the latter, but he met with no encouragement, and as he
was then preparing to retire from office, the matter dropped. In regard to
the northwestern boundary Mr. Webster agreed with the opinion of Mr.
Monroe's cabinet, that the forty-ninth parallel was a fair and proper line;
but the British undertook to claim the line of the Columbia River, and this
excited corresponding claims on our side. The Democracy for political
purposes became especially warlike and patriotic. They declared in their
platform that we must have the whole of Oregon and reoccupy it at once. Mr.
Polk embodied this view in his message, together with the assertion that
our rights extended to the line of 54 deg. 40' north, and a shout of
"fifty-four-forty or fight" went through the land from the enthusiastic
Democracy. If this attitude meant anything it meant war, inasmuch as our
proposal for the forty-ninth parallel, and the free navigation of the
Columbia River, made in the autumn of 1845, had been rejected by England,
and then withdrawn by us. Under these circumstances Mr. Webster felt it his
duty to come forward and exert all his influence to maintain peace, and to
promote a clear comprehension, both in the United States and in Europe, of
the points at issue. His speech on this subject and with this aim was
delivered in Faneuil Hall. He spoke of the necessity of peace, of the fair
adjustment offered by an acceptance of the forty-ninth parallel, and
derided the idea of casting two great nations into war for such a question
as this. He closed with a forcible and solemn denunciation of the president
or minister who should dare to take the responsibility for kindling the
flames of war on such a pretext. The speech was widely read. It was
translated into nearly all the languages of Europe, and on the continent
had a great effect. About a month later he wrote to Mr. MacGregor of
Glasgow, suggesting that the British government should offer to accept the
forty-ninth parallel, and his letter was shown to Lord Aberdeen, who at
once acted upon the advice it contained. While this letter, however, was on
its way, certain resolutions were introduced in the Senate relating to the
national defences, and to give notice of the termination of the convention
for the joint occupation of Oregon, which would of course have been nearly
equivalent to a declaration of war. Mr. Webster opposed the resolutions,
and insisted that, while the Executive, as he believed, had no real wish
for war, this talk was kept up about "all or none," which left nothing to
negotiate about. The notice finally passed, but before it could be
delivered by our minister in London, Lord Aberdeen's proposition of the
forty-ninth parallel, as suggested by Mr. Webster, had been received at
Washington, where it was accepted by the truculent administration, agreed
to by the Senate, and finally embodied in a treaty. Mr. Webster's
opposition had served its purpose in delaying action and saving bluster
from being converted into actual war,--a practical conclusion by no means
desired by the dominant party, who had talked so loud that they came very
near blundering into hostilities merely as a matter of self-justification.
The declarations of the Democratic convention and of the Democratic
President in regard to England were really only sound and fury, although
they went so far that the final retreat was noticeable and not very
graceful. The Democratic leaders had had no intention of fighting with
England when all they could hope to gain would be glory and hard knocks,
but they had a very definite idea of attacking without bluster and in good
earnest another nation where there was territory to be obtained for

The Oregon question led, however, to an attack upon Mr. Webster which
cannot be wholly passed over. He had, of course, his personal enemies in
both parties, and his effective opposition to war with England greatly
angered some of the most warlike of the Democrats, and especially Mr. C.J.
Ingersoll of Pennsylvania, a bitter Anglophobist. Mr. Ingersoll, in
February, made a savage attack upon the Ashburton negotiation, the treaty
of Washington, and upon Mr. Webster personally, alleging that as Secretary
of State he had been guilty of a variety of grave misdemeanors, including a
corrupt use of the public money. Some of these charges, those relating to
the payment of McLeod's counsel by our government, to instructions to the
Attorney-General to take charge of McLeod's defence, and to a threat by
Mr. Webster that if McLeod were not released New York would be laid in
ashes, were repeated in the Senate by Mr. Dickinson of New York. Mr.
Webster peremptorily called for all the papers relating to the negotiation
of 1842, and on the sixth and seventh of April (1846), he made the
elaborate speech in defence of the Ashburton treaty, which is included in
his collected works. It is one of the strongest and most virile speeches he
ever delivered. He was profoundly indignant, and he had the completest
mastery of his subject. In fact, he was so deeply angered by the charges
made against him, that he departed from his almost invariable practice, and
indulged in a severe personal denunciation of Ingersoll and Dickinson.
Although he did not employ personal invective in his oratory, it was a
weapon which he was capable of using with most terrible effect, and his
blows fell with crushing force upon Ingersoll, who writhed under the
strokes. Through some inferior officers of the State Department Ingersoll
got what he considered proofs, and then introduced resolutions calling for
an account of all payments from the secret service fund; for communications
made by Mr. Webster to Messrs. Adams and Gushing of the Committee on
Foreign Affairs; for all papers relating to McLeod, and for the minutes of
the committee on Foreign Affairs, to show that Mr. Webster had expressed an
opinion adverse to our claim in the Oregon dispute. Mr. Ingersoll closed
his speech by a threat of impeachment as the result and reward of all this
evil-doing, and an angry debate followed, in which Mr. Webster was attacked
and defended with equal violence. President Polk replied to the call of the
House by saying that he could not feel justified, either morally or
legally, in revealing the uses of the secret service fund. Meantime a
similar resolution was defeated in the Senate by a vote of forty-four to
one, Mr. Webster remarking that he was glad that the President had refused
the request of the House; that he should have been sorry to have seen an
important principle violated, and that he was not in the least concerned at
being thus left without an explanation; he needed no defence, he said,
against such attacks.

Mr. Ingersoll, rebuffed by the President, then made a personal explanation,
alleging specifically that Mr. Webster had made an unlawful use of the
secret service money, that he had employed it to corrupt the press, and
that he was a defaulter. Mr. Ashmun of Massachusetts replied with great
bitterness, and the charges were referred to a committee. It appeared, on
investigation, that Mr. Webster had been extremely careless in his
accounts, and had delayed in making them up and in rendering vouchers,
faults to which he was naturally prone; but it also appeared that the money
had been properly spent, that the accounts had ultimately been made up, and
that there was no evidence of improper use. The committee's report was
laid upon the table, the charges came to nothing, and Mr. Ingersoll was
left in a very unpleasant position with regard to the manner in which he
had obtained his information from the State Department. The affair is of
interest now merely as showing how deeply rooted was Mr. Webster's habitual
carelessness in money matters, even when it was liable to expose him to
very grave imputations, and what a very dangerous man he was to arouse and
put on the defensive.

Mr. Webster was absent when the intrigue and scheming of Mr. Polk
culminated in war with Mexico, and so his vote was not given either for or
against it. He opposed the volunteer system as a mongrel contrivance, and
resisted it as he had the conscription bill in the war of 1812, as
unconstitutional. He also opposed the continued prosecution of the war,
and, when it drew toward a close, was most earnest against the acquisition
of new territory. In the summer of 1847 he made an extended tour through
the Southern States, and was received there, as he had been in the West,
with every expression of interest and admiration.

The Mexican war, however, cost Mr. Webster far more than the anxiety and
disappointment which it brought to him as a public man. His second son,
Major Edward Webster, died near the City of Mexico, from disease contracted
by exposure on the march. This melancholy news reached Mr. Webster when
important matters which demanded his attention were pending in Congress.
Measures to continue the war were before the Senate even after they had
ratified the peace. These measures Mr. Webster strongly resisted, and he
also opposed, in a speech of great power, the acquisition of new
territories by conquest, as threatening the very existence of the nation,
the principles of the Constitution, and the Constitution itself. The
increase of senators, which was, of course, the object of the South in
annexing Texas and in the proposed additions from Mexico, he regarded as
destroying the balance of the government, and therefore he denounced the
plan of acquisition by conquest in the strongest terms. The course about to
be adopted, he said, will turn the Constitution into a deformity, into a
curse rather than a blessing; it will make a frame of government founded on
the grossest inequality, and will imperil the existence of the Union. With
this solemn warning he closed his speech, and immediately left Washington
for Boston, where his daughter, Mrs. Appleton, was sinking in consumption.
She died on April 28th and was buried on May 1st. Three days later, Mr.
Webster followed to the grave the body of his son Edward, which had been
brought from Mexico. Two such terrible blows, coming so near together, need
no comment. They tell their own sad story. One child only remained to him
of all who had gathered about his knees in the happy days at Portsmouth
and Boston, and his mind turned to thoughts of death as he prepared at
Marshfield a final resting-place for himself and those he had loved.
Whatever successes or defeats were still in store for him, the heavy cloud
of domestic sorrow could never be dispersed in the years that remained, nor
could the gaps which had been made be filled or forgotten.

But the sting of personal disappointment and of frustrated ambition,
trivial enough in comparison with such griefs as these, was now added to
this heavy burden of domestic affliction. The success of General Taylor in
Mexico rendered him a most tempting candidate for the Whigs to nominate.
His military services and his personal popularity promised victory, and the
fact that no one knew Taylor's political principles, or even whether he was
a Whig or a Democrat, seemed rather to increase than diminish his
attractions in the eyes of the politicians. A movement was set on foot to
bring about this nomination, and its managers planned to make Mr. Webster
Vice-President on the ticket with the victorious soldier. Such an offer was
a melancholy commentary on his ambitious hopes. He spurned the proposition
as a personal indignity, and, disapproving always of the selection of
military men for the presidency, openly refused to give his assent to
Taylor's nomination. Other trials, however, were still in store for him.
Mr. Clay was a candidate for the nomination, and many Whigs, feeling that
his success meant another party defeat, turned to Taylor as the only
instrument to prevent this danger. In February, 1848, a call was issued in
New York for a public meeting to advance General Taylor's candidacy, which
was signed by many of Mr. Webster's personal and political friends. Mr.
Webster was surprised and grieved, and bitterly resented this action. His
biographer, Mr. Curtis, speaks of it as a blunder which rendered Mr.
Webster's nomination hopeless. The truth is, that it was a most significant
illustration of the utter futility of Mr. Webster's presidential
aspirations. These friends in New York, who no doubt honestly desired his
nomination, were so well satisfied that it was perfectly impracticable,
that they turned to General Taylor to avoid the disaster threatened, as
they believed, by Mr. Clay's success. Mr. Webster predicted truly that Clay
and Taylor would be the leading candidates before the convention, but he
was wholly mistaken in supposing that the movement in New York would bring
about the nomination of the former. His friends had judged rightly. Taylor
was the only man who could defeat Clay, and he was nominated on the fourth
ballot. Massachusetts voted steadily for Webster, but he never approached a
nomination. Even Scott had twice as many votes. The result of the
convention led Mr. Webster to take a very gloomy view of the prospects of
the Whigs, and he was strongly inclined to retire to his tent and let them
go to deserved ruin. In private conversation he spoke most disparagingly of
the nomination, the Whig party, and the Whig candidate. His strictures were
well deserved, but, as the election drew on, he found or believed it to be
impossible to live up to them. He was not ready to go over to the Free-Soil
party, he could not remain silent, yet he could not give Taylor a full
support. In September, 1848, he made his famous speech at Marshfield, in
which, after declaring that the "sagacious, wise, far-seeing doctrine of
_availability_ lay at the root of the whole matter," and that "the
nomination was one not fit to be made," he said that General Taylor was
personally a brave and honorable man, and that, as the choice lay between
him and the Democratic candidate, General Cass, he should vote for the
former and advised his friends to do the same. He afterwards made another
speech, in a similar but milder strain, in Faneuil Hall. Mr. Webster's
attitude was not unlike that of Hamilton when he published his celebrated
attack on Adams, which ended by advising all men to vote for that
objectionable man. The conclusion was a little impotent in both instances,
but in Mr. Webster's case the results were better. The politicians and
lovers of availability had judged wisely, and Taylor was triumphantly

Before the new President was inaugurated, in the winter of 1848-49, the
struggle began in Congress, which led to the delivery of the 7th of March
speech by Mr. Webster in the following year. At this point, therefore, it
becomes necessary to turn back and review briefly and rapidly Mr. Webster's
course in regard to the question of slavery.

His first important utterance on this momentous question was in 1819, when
the land was distracted with the conflict which had suddenly arisen over
the admission of Missouri. Massachusetts was strongly in favor of the
exclusion of slavery from the new States, and utterly averse to any
compromise. A meeting was held in the state-house at Boston, and a
committee was appointed to draft a memorial to Congress, on the subject of
the prohibition of slavery in the territories. This memorial,--which was
afterwards adopted,--was drawn by Mr. Webster, as chairman of the
committee. It set forth, first, the belief of its signers that Congress had
the constitutional power "to make such a prohibition a condition on the
admission of a new State into the Union, and that it is just and proper
that they should exercise that power." Then came an argument on the
constitutional question, and then the reasons for the exercise of the power
as a general policy. The first point was that it would prevent further
inequality of representation, such as existed under the Constitution in
the old States, but which could not be increased without danger. The next
argument went straight to the merits of the question, as involved in
slavery as a system. After pointing out the value of the ordinance of 1787
to the Northwest, the memorial continued:--

"We appeal to the justice and the wisdom of the national councils
to prevent the further progress of a great and serious evil. We
appeal to those who look forward to the remote consequences of
their measures, and who cannot balance a temporary or trifling
convenience, if there were such, against a permanent growing and
desolating evil.

"... The Missouri territory is a new country. If its extensive and
fertile fields shall be opened as a market for slaves, the
government will seem to become a party to a traffic, which in so
many acts, through so many years, it has denounced as impolitic,
unchristian, and inhuman.... The laws of the United States have
denounced heavy penalties against the traffic in slaves, because
such traffic is deemed unjust and inhuman. We appeal to the spirit
of these laws; we appeal to this justice and humanity; we ask
whether they ought not to operate, on the present occasion, with
all their force? We have a strong feeling of the injustice of any
toleration of slavery. Circumstances have entailed it on a portion
of our community, which cannot be immediately relieved from it
without consequences more injurious than the suffering of the evil.
But to permit it in a new country, where yet no habits are formed
which render it indispensable, what is it but to encourage that
rapacity and fraud and violence against which we have so long
pointed the denunciation of our penal code? What is it but to
tarnish the proud fame of the country? What is it but to render
questionable all its professions of regard for the rights of
humanity and the liberties of mankind."

A year later Mr. Webster again spoke on one portion of this subject, and in
the same tone of deep hostility and reproach. This second instance was that
famous and much quoted passage of his Plymouth oration in which he
denounced the African slave-trade. Every one remembers the ringing words:--

"I hear the sound of the hammer, I see the smoke of the furnaces
where manacles and fetters are still forged for human limbs. I see
the visages of those who, by stealth and at midnight, labor in this
work of hell,--foul and dark as may become the artificers of such
instruments of misery and torture. Let that spot be purified, or
let it cease to be of New England. Let it be purified, or let it be
set aside from the Christian world; let it be put out of the circle
of human sympathies and human regards, and let civilized man
henceforth have no communion with it."

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