Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Webster as a Master of English Style
By Edwin Percy Whipple (18191886)
[From American Literature, and Other Papers. 1887.]
THE MATURE style of Webster is perfect of its kind, being in words the express image of his mind and character,plain, terse, clear, forcible; and rising from the level of lucid statement and argument into passages of superlative eloquence only when his whole nature is stirred by some grand sentiment of freedom, patriotism, justice, humanity, or religion, which absolutely lifts him, by its own inherent force and inspiration, to a region above that in which his mind habitually lives and moves. At the same time it will be observed that these thrilling passages, which the boys of two generations have ever been delighted to declaim in their shrillest tones, are strictly illustrative of the main purpose of the speech in which they appear. They are not mere purple patches of rhetoric, loosely stitched on the homespun gray of the reasoning, but they seem to be inwoven with it and to be a vital part of it. Indeed, we can hardly decide, in reading these magnificent bursts of eloquence in connection with what precedes and follows them, whether the effect is due to the logic of the orator becoming suddenly morally impassioned, or to his moral passion becoming suddenly logical. What gave Webster his immense influence over the opinions of the people of New England was, first, his power of so putting things that everybody could understand his statements; secondly, his power of so framing his arguments that all the steps, from one point to another, in a logical series, could be clearly apprehended by every intelligent farmer or mechanic who had a thoughtful interest in the affairs of the country; and thirdly, his power of inflaming the sentiment of patriotism in all honest and well-intentioned men by overwhelming appeals to that sentiment, so that after convincing their understandings, he clinched the matter by sweeping away their wills.
Perhaps to these sources of influence may be added another which many eminent statesmen have lacked. With all his great superiority to average men in force and breadth of mind, he had a genuine respect for the intellect, as well as for the manhood, of average men. He disdained the ignoble office of misleading the voters he aimed to instruct; and the farmers and mechanics who read his speeches felt ennobled when they found that the greatest statesman of the country frankly addressed them, as man to man, without pluming himself on his exceptional talents and accomplishments. Up to the crisis of 1850, he succeeded in domesticating himself at most of the pious, moral, and intelligent firesides of New England. Through his speeches he seemed to be almost bodily present wherever the family, gathered in the evening around the blazing hearth, discussed the questions of the day. It was not the great Mr. Webster, the godlike Daniel, who had a seat by the fire. It was a person who talked to them, and argued with them, as though he was one of the folks,a neighbor dropping in to make an evening call; there was not the slightest trace of assumption in his manner; but suddenly, after the discussion had become a little tiresome, certain fiery words would leap from his lips and make the whole household spring to their feet, ready to sacrifice life and property for the Constitution and the Union. That Webster was thus a kind of invisible presence in thousands of homes where his face was never seen, shows that his rhetoric had caught an element of power from his early recollections of the independent, hard-headed farmers whom he met when a boy in his fathers house. The bodies of these men had become tough and strong in their constant struggle to force scanty harvests from an unfruitful soil, which only persistent toil could compel to yield anything; and their brains, though forcible and clear, were still not stored with the important facts and principles which it was his delight to state and expound. In truth, he ran a race with the demagogues of his time in an attempt to capture such men as these, thinking them the very back-bone of the country. Whether he succeeded or failed, it would be vain to hunt through his works to find a single epithet in which he mentioned them with contempt. He was as incapable of insulting one member of this landed democracy,sterile as most of their acres were,as of insulting the memory of his father, who belonged to this class .
Websters liking for the Saxon clement of our composite language was, however, subordinate to his main purpose of self-expression. Every word was good, whether of Saxon or Latin derivation, which aided him to embody the mood of mind dominant at the time he was speaking or writing. No man had less of what has been called the ceremonial cleanliness of academical Pharisees; and the purity of expression he aimed at was to put into a form, at once intelligible and tasteful, his exact thoughts and emotions. He tormented reporters, proof-readers, and the printers who had the misfortune to be engaged in putting one of his performances into type, not because this or that word was or was not Saxon or Latin, but because it was inadequate to convey perfectly his meaning. Mr. Kemble, a great Anglo-Saxon scholar, once, in a company of educated gentlemen, defied anybody present to mention a single Latin phrase in our language for which he could not furnish a more forcible Saxon equivalent. The impenetrability of matter was suggested; and Kemble, after half a minutes reflection, answered, The un-thorough-fareableness of stuff. Still, no English writer would think of discarding such an abstract, but convenient and accurate, term as impenetrability for the coarsely concrete and terribly ponderous word which declares that there is no possible thoroughfare, no road, by which we can penetrate that substance which we call matter, and which our Saxon forefathers called stuff. Wherever the Latin element in our language comes in to express ideas and sentiments which were absent from the Anglo-Saxon mind, Webster uses it without stint; and some of the most resounding passages of his eloquence owe to it their strange power to suggest a certain vastness in his intellect and sensibility, which the quaint, idiomatic, homely prose of his friend Mason would have been utterly incompetent to convey. Still, he preferred a plain, plump, simple verb or noun to any learned phrase, whenever he could employ it without limiting his opulent nature to a meagre vocabulary, incompetent fully to express it.
Yet he never departed from simplicity; that is, he rigidly confined himself to the use of such words as he had earned the right to use. Whenever the report of one of his extemporaneous speeches came before him for revision, he had an instinctive sagacity in detecting every word that had slipped unguardedly from his tongue, which he felt, on reflection, did not belong to him. Among the reporters of his speeches he had a particular esteem for Henry J. Raymond, afterwards so well known as the editor of the New York Times. Mr. Raymond told me that after he had made a report of one of Websters speeches, and had presented it to him for revision, his conversation with him was always a lesson in rhetoric. Did I use that phrase? I hope not. At any rate, substitute for it this more accurate definition. And then again: That word does not express my meaning. Wait a moment, and I will give you a better one. That sentence is slovenly,that image is imperfect and confused. I believe, my young friend, that you have a remarkable power of reporting what I say; but if I said that, and that, and that, it must have been owing to the fact that I caught, in the hurry of the moment, such expressions as I could command at the moment; and you see they do not accurately represent the idea that was in my mind. And thus, Mr. Raymond said, the orators criticism upon his own speech would go on, correction following correction, until the reporter feared he would not have it ready for the morning edition of his journal.