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Congressional Lions: Daniel Webster


Continuing my coverage of the “Great Triumvirate” (Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina) from my previous blog, “Godlike Daniel” merits attention here. As I discuss in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions, Daniel Webster earned the nickname owing to his dazzling ability to speak for hours, often without notes or a printed text. Complete paragraphs flew from his mouth—no stammering, no mangled syntax or misplaced modifiers anywhere—spoken in exactly the right sonorous tone and inflection to render his words eloquent and memorable. He stood ramrod straight, projecting a confident image of an erudite statesman unencumbered by self-doubt or worry. For many New Englanders, Daniel Webster was the beau ideal of a nineteenth century politician, a personification of New England virtue in the flesh.

He was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire, on January 18, 1782, the second youngest of eight children born to farmer Ebenezer Webster and his wife. As a boy, he suffered from poor health, which frequently excused him from the drudgery of farm work. Young Dan used his time wisely, immersing himself in books. At age 14, he briefly attended the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, before enrolling in Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. While at Dartmouth, Webster’s oratorical gifts became apparent, and he delivered speeches arguing in favor of Federalist Party’s platform of a strong central government.

He graduated from Dartmouth in 1801, and studied law under the tutelage of a Salisbury attorney. He later taught school before moving to Boston to work as a lawyer. Although Webster never loved the law, he viewed it as a means of making a comfortable living and eventually pursuing a political career. In 1808, he married a young woman, Grace Fletcher, who bore him four children before her death in 1828.

Early in his career, Webster argued against the War of 1812, which he viewed as a misguided enterprise initiated by President Thomas Jefferson’s successor, James Madison. A few intrepid Federalists hinted at the possibility of secession from the Union, but Webster drew the line there. He believed that for all of its imperfections, the Union must be preserved. He preferred to rail against inept presidents in the hopes that they would alter their policies. He would not threaten to destroy the nation because he did not get his way.

Webster is best remembered for his famous defense of the Union, which occurred in January 1830. South Carolina Senator Robert Y. Hayne, a proxy for Andrew Jackson’s vice president, John C. Calhoun, stood in the well of the Senate during a debate over land policy and charged that northern men, in advocating high tariff rates, were deliberately harming western as well as southern interests. In his response, Webster objected to Hayne’s characterization of the North as antagonistic to the South, although Webster simultaneously denigrated the institution of slavery. The New Englander also blanched at the southerner’s state rights defense.

Hayne offered a rebuttal to Webster, reiterating his belief that the North in general, and Webster in particular, were “making war upon the unoffending South.” In his reply, Hayne suggested that nullification was an acceptable remedy for states aggrieved by oppressive federal policies. He refused to recognize the value of the Union as paramount, contending that the states were superior to the federal government.

This challenge could not go unanswered. In his second reply to Hayne, delivered on January 26, Webster argued that the United States Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, had established “we, the people” as the ultimate source of authority, not the states. The doctrine of nullification threatened to undermine the delicate balance of power established in the Constitution, thereby effectively returning the nation to the Articles of Confederation, the first national constitution, or to anarchy. The Articles had failed precisely because that document had allowed the states to be sovereign, producing a government that was too weak and ineffective to rule the nation, or its citizens. For Webster, nullification was logically and practically unworkable as well as tantamount to treason.

Hayne and his southern brethren had argued that they prized liberty over Union, and they would fight to preserve their right to live free of an obdurate government. Webster believed that liberty and Union must co-exist. He also sought to snuff out the talk of possible civil war. As he concluded his second reply to Hayne, Webster uttered some of the most famous words ever spoken in the United States Senate:

"When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted, not a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as 'What is all this worth?' nor those other words of delusion and folly, 'Liberty first and Union afterwards,' but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all it sample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart,— Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"

The speech, widely reprinted and circulated, enhanced Webster’s reputation as one of the greatest orators of his age. It also transformed him into an iconic figure, a Union man extraordinaire. In years to come, he would support President Jackson’s promise to dispatch troops to quell domestic disturbances and ensure that the southern states would not secede from the Union. He worked with both Jackson and Clay, figures he frequently opposed, in ending the secession crisis of 1833.

Webster’s growing stature made him a contender for presidential politics during the 1830s. He sought the nomination of a new political party, the Whigs, in 1836, but he could not garner sufficient support. He might have become a vice presidential candidate under General William Henry Harrison in 1840, but instead he accepted a position as secretary of state after Harrison won the election. The new president died after only a month in office, leaving his vice president, John Tyler, in the executive office. Webster continued on as secretary of state, despite numerous differences with Tyler. He stayed until 1843.

Webster considered retirement when he left the Tyler administration, but he believed he had much left to contribute in his public life. Returning to the Senate in 1845, he remained a strong voice against President James K. Polk’s expansionist policies as well as the 1846-1848 war with Mexico. As slavery became a key issue, Webster, caught in an untenable position, hedged his bets. His anti-slavery constituents and colleagues in New England expected him to oppose the spread of the institution as vigorously as possible. Throughout his career, Webster had objected to the peculiar institution; his opposition was no surprise to anyone. For a man who entertained presidential designs, however, he sought to mollify southerners, to the extent possible. Setting aside his objections to human bondage, he refused to condemn southern leaders, making him a Cotton Whig, the faction seeking to protect economic interests, rather than a Conscience Whig who believed that opposing slavery was the paramount issue.

Owing to his prominence, Webster was always a serious presidential contender in the Whig Party, but he faced a new, formidable opponent. He had always known that Henry Clay was a presidential rival, but General Zachary Taylor emerged in 1848. Old Rough and Ready was a hero of the Mexican War, and he capitalized on his new-found fame. Although he was not well known as a Whig, Taylor’s popularity and newcomer status made him an attractive candidate. Taylor eventually won the party’s nomination.

By 1848, the Whigs were a dying political party. Taylor, nominally a Whig, captured the presidency, but he was hardly an exemplar of Whig orthodoxy. The more zealous anti-slavery Whigs could not stomach Taylor, and so they broke away to join forces with anti-slavery Democrats, the so-called Barnburners, to form the Free Soil Party. Webster once again was caught in the cross-fire. He might have joined forces with the Free Soilers—after all, he had promised never to support Taylor—but he reluctantly cast his lot with the Whigs.

Despite throwing his support to his party’s nominee, Webster was not a Taylor man. He could not expect a political reward in exchange for his support. Indeed, he was closed out of the new administration’s deliberations on patronage. Godlike Daniel appeared to be anything but like a god. He was a man without a party, still influential, but far past his prime.

Within a year of President Taylor stepping into office, a new crisis emerged. As Webster had feared, the addition of new territories to the United States directly raised that nagging question of slavery, a question that had lingered for decades, but now worsened. All the talk of nullification and secession had raised the political temperature, and it appeared that North and South, after all the threats and bluster, might come to blows.

Henry Clay, the Great Pacificator, tried one last time to mollify all parties. In January 1850, he offered a legislative package to resolve the current crisis. No one believed it would settle the issue indefinitely, but perhaps it could preserve the peace a while longer. The Compromise of 1850 sought to balance interests between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states. Extreme partisans on each side rejected the measures as a violation of deeply-held principles.

Webster’s support was crucial. Aside from Henry Clay and possibly President Taylor, he was the leading Whig in the United States. He resolved to make his opinion known on the floor of the Senate, as he had on so many memorable occasions. On March 7, 1850, spectators crowded into the chamber to hear the great man’s words. Anticipation was high. Webster did not possess the singular power to determine the fate of the legislation, but he could sway the vote at the margins.

He opened his three-and-a-half-hour speech with one of his most stirring rhetorical flourishes. “Mr. President,” he said, referring to the Senate’s presiding officer, “I wish to speak to-day, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States.” It was a dangerous time, and something must be done to soothe the fears of all men in every region. “It is not to be denied that we live in the midst of strong agitations, and are surrounded by very considerable dangers to our institutions and our government,” he said. “The imprisoned winds are let loose. The East, the North, and the stormy South combine to throw the whole sea into commotion, to toss its billows to the skies, and disclose its profoundest depths.” He implored his colleagues to support Clay's compromise even though it protected slavery through the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The Seventh of March speech, as it came to be known, destroyed Webster’s political support in New England. The famous writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson typified the response. He was aghast. “’Liberty! Liberty!’ Pho! Let Mr. Webster, for decency’s sake, shut his lips for once and forever on this word. The word ‘Liberty’ in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word ‘love’ in the mouth of a courtesan.” Theodore Parker, a prominent abolitionist, exclaimed that “No living man has done so much to debauch the conscience of the nation.” Horace Mann, an influential educator, denounced Webster’s proposal as a “vile catastrophe.” The great orator had once walked among the gods, but his stock had fallen. He now lived among “harlots and leeches.” Senator William H. Seward characterized Webster as a “traitor to the cause of freedom.” Future Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, a vocal opponent of slavery, added Webster’s name to the “dark list of apostates.” Sumner believed that “Mr. Webster’s elaborate treason has done more than anything else to break down the North."

Outside of New England, many Americans viewed Webster as a hero. He had known that the speech probably would destroy his political career, but he spoke up, anyway. The National Intelligencer, an influential newspaper in Washington, D.C., hailed the senator’s speech, arguing that it would add “fresh lustre to the fame of the great orator” owing to Webster’s “truly national and patriotic spirit.” Webster’s long-time adversary, Isaac Hill, a newspaper editor who previously served as a United States senator and governor of New Hampshire, proclaimed the speech “the crowning act” of a great man’s life. In his book Profiles in Courage, written more than a century after the speech, Senator John F. Kennedy wrote movingly of the man who, “to the end…had been true to the Union, and to his greatest act of courageous principle….”

The Compromise of 1850 eventually passed into law, forestalling civil war for more than a decade. Webster still entertained the idea of becoming president—perhaps campaigning in 1852—but it was a pipe dream. He served a second stint as secretary of state, this time under President Millard Fillmore, but he was past his prime. He was 70 years old in 1852, at a time when that age was ancient, indeed. He was the last of the Great Triumvirate to pass from the scene. John C. Calhoun had died in 1850, and Henry Clay was gone in June 1852. Webster remained in office, but his performance as secretary of state frequently was subpar, occasionally embarrassing. The great man drank to take his mind off the sad state of affairs. He may have suffered from cirrhosis of the liver as well as a range of vague, undiagnosed illnesses.

To exacerbate matters, Webster suffered a severe head injury in May 1852. As the months progressed, he became increasingly frail. It was clear that he could not continue as secretary of state. On October 18, 1852, he wrote the last letter of his life. Addressing the correspondence to President Fillmore, he opened with the customary salutation, “Dear Sir.” He said he wished he could serve out the rest of his term “with you, around your Council Board.” It was not to be. “Consider my Resignation as always before you, to be accepted, any moment you please.” Six days later, in the words of a colorful New York Times obituary writer, Webster “passed from the scene of his vast labors and his glorious triumphs, to join the great of all ages in the spirit-land.” The time was 2:35 a.m. on Sunday, October 24, 1852.

For all of his failings, Daniel Webster is remembered as one of the giants of Congress, a man who deserved the appellation “Godlike Daniel.”


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