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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Daniel Webster
By James Ford Rhodes (1848–1927)
 
From ‘History of the United States’

TWO of the great senatorial triumvirate had spoken; the Senate and the country had yet to hear the greatest of them all. Daniel Webster spoke on the compromise resolutions the 7th of March. In the course of this work, whenever possible, his precise words have been used, in narration and illustration; for in intellectual endowment Webster surpassed all of our public men. No one understood the fundamental principles of our polity better; no one approached his wonderful power of expression. It seemed that the language of the constitutional lawyer who laid down principles of law that the profound legal mind of Marshall fixed in an immutable judicial decision, and who at the same time could make clear abstruse points and carry conviction to the understanding of men who were untrained in logic or in law, was best fitted to guide us through the maze of constitutional interpretation in which our history abounds. Indeed, the political history of the country for twenty-seven years preceding 1850 might be written as well and fully from the speeches, State papers, and letters of Webster, as the story of the latter days of the Roman republic from the like material of Cicero which has come down to us.  1
  As an orator, Webster has been compared in simplicity to Demosthenes and in profundity to Burke. This is the highest praise. The wonderful effect of his oratory is strikingly told by George Ticknor, who, fresh from a long intercourse with the most distinguished men in England and on the Continent, went to hear Webster deliver his Plymouth oration. Ticknor writes: “I was never so excited by public speaking before in my life. Three or four times I thought my temples would burst with the gush of blood;” and though from his youth an intimate friend of Webster’s, he was so impressed that “when I came out I was almost afraid to come near him. It seemed to me as if he was like the mount that might not be touched, and that burned with fire.” Thomas Marshall, of Kentucky, heard the reply to Hayne; and when Webster came to the peroration he “listened as to one inspired, and finally thought he could see a halo around the orator’s head like what one sees in the old pictures of saints and martyrs.”  2
  The diction of Webster was formed by a grateful study of Shakespeare and Milton: through his communion with these masters, his whole soul was thoroughly attuned to the highest thinking and purest harmonies of our literature. He is one of the few orators whose speeches are read as literature. He was our greatest lawyer, yet in a bad cause he was not a good advocate, for he had not the flexibility of mind which made the worse appear the better reason; but in cases apparently hopeless, with the right on his side, he won imposing triumphs. He was our greatest Secretary of State. He had, said Sumner, “by the successful and masterly negotiation of the treaty of Washington,” earned the title of “Defender of Peace.”  3
  The Graces presided at his birth. His growth developed the strong physical constitution with which nature had endowed him, equally with a massive brain. His was a sound mind in a sound body. His physical structure was magnificent, his face handsome; he had the front of Jove himself. “He is,” said Carlyle, “a magnificent specimen…. As a logic-fencer, or parliamentary Hercules, one would incline to back him at first sight against all the extant world.” “Webster,” said Henry Hallam, “approaches as nearly to the beau ideal of a Republican Senator as any man that I have ever seen in the course of my life.” Josiah Quincy speaks of him as a “figure cast in heroic mold, and which represented the ideal of American manhood.” He was well described by the bard he loved so well: “How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!” On the basis of this extraordinary natural ability was built the superstructure of a systematic education. His devoted father mortgaged the New Hampshire farm to send him to college, and three years of laborious study of law followed the regular course at Dartmouth. Years afterwards he repaid his Alma Mater for her gifts when he pleaded, and not in vain, for her chartered rights in invincible logic before the most solemn tribunal of the country. Intellectually, Webster was a man of slow growth. The zenith of his power was not reached until he made the celebrated reply to Hayne, and he was then forty-eight years old.  4
  In union with this grand intellect were social qualities of a high order. His manners were charming, his nature was genial, and he had a quick sense of seemly humor. Carlyle speaks of him as “a dignified, perfectly bred man.” Harriet Martineau says “he would illuminate an evening by telling stories, cracking jokes, or smoothly discoursing to the perfect felicity of the logical part of one’s constitution.” Ticknor, who was so impressed with the majestic delivery of the orator, speaks of his being “as gay and playful as a kitten.” The social intercourse between Webster and Lord Ashburton, while they were at work on the Washington treaty, is one of those international amenities that grace the history of diplomacy. This treaty, by which we gained substantial advantages and England made honorable concessions, was not negotiated through stately protocols, but was concluded through a friendly correspondence, and during the interchange of refined social civilities. During this transaction, Ashburton was impressed with “the upright and honorable character” of Webster. As late as 1845, there might be seen engravings which were an indication of the popular notion that honesty was his cardinal virtue.  5
  He had strong domestic feelings. He honored his father, loved his brother, and was devoted to his wife and children; his affection for his many friends was pure and disinterested. He had during his life a large share of domestic affliction; and his deep and sincere grief shows that he had a large heart as well as a great head. He had a constant belief in revealed as well as natural religion.  6
  His healthy disposition was displayed even in his recreations. He was a true disciple of Izaak Walton, and he also delighted in the chase. Few men have loved nature more. Those grand periods that will never cease to delight lovers of oratory were many of them conned at his Marshfield retreat, where he worshiped the sea and did reverence to the rising sun. After a winter of severe work in his declining years, he gets to Marshfield in May, and writes: “I grow strong every hour. The giants grew strong again by touching the earth: the same effect is produced on me by touching the salt sea-shore.”  7
  The distinctive virtue of Webster was his patriotism. He loved his country as few men have loved it; he had a profound reverence for the Constitution and its makers. He spoke truly when he said, “I am an American, and I know no locality but America; that is my country;” and he was deeply in earnest when he gave utterance to the sentiment, “I was bred, indeed I might almost say I was born, in admiration of our political institutions.” Webster’s great work was to inspire the country with a strong and enduring national feeling; and he impressed upon the people everywhere, except in the cotton States, a sacred love for the Union. How well his life work was done, was seen less than nine years after he died, in the zealous appeal to arms for the defense of the nation. In the sleepless nights before his death, no sight was so welcome to his eyes as the lantern he saw through the windows, placed at the mast-head of the little shallop, in order that he might discern, fluttering at the mast, the national flag, the emblem of that Union to which he had consecrated the best thoughts and purest efforts of his life.  8
  During the last twenty years of his career, Webster had a great desire to be President. Three times he was exceedingly anxious for the Whig nomination, and thought his chances were good for getting it; but the nomination even never came to him. Indeed, he always overrated the probabilities of his success. He was of that class of statesmen who were stronger before the country than before the political convention. Had he ever been named as his party’s choice, he would unquestionably have been a strong candidate; but he never had the knack of arousing the enthusiasm of the party, which Clay possessed in so eminent degree. Nor did his frequent action independent of political considerations commend him to the men who shaped the action of the party convention. George Ticknor said in 1831, Webster “belongs to no party; but he has uniformly contended for the great and essential principles of our government on all occasions:” and this was to a large extent true of him during his whole life. His tendency to break away from party trammels was shown more than once during his long career. In 1833, as we have seen, he supported with enthusiasm the Democratic President, and would not assent to the compromise devised by the leader of his party. But the crowning act of independence was when he remained in the cabinet of President Tyler, when all his colleagues resigned. The motive for this action was the desire to complete the negotiation of the Ashburton treaty; for Webster felt that he of all men was best fitted for that work, and his heart was earnestly enlisted in the effort to remove the difficulties in the way of a peaceful settlement, and to avert a war between England and the United States. His course, although eminently patriotic, was certain to interfere with his political advancement. For he resisted the imperious dictation of Clay, he breasted the popular clamor of his party, and he pursued his own ideas of right despite the fact that he had to encounter the tyranny of public opinion which de Tocqueville has so well described.  9
  The French, who make excuses for men of genius, as the Athenians were wont to do, have a proverb, “It belongs to great men to have great defects.” Webster exemplified this maxim. He was fond of wine and brandy, and at times drank deep; he was not scrupulous in observing the seventh commandment. Though born and reared in poverty, he had little idea of the value of money and of the sacredness of money obligations. He had no conception of the duty of living within his means, and he was habitually careless in regard to the payment of his debts. His friends more than once discharged his obligations; besides such assistance, he accepted from them at other times presents of money, but he would have rejected their bounty with scorn had there gone with it an expectation of influencing his public action. This failing was the cause of serious charges being preferred against him. He was accused of being in the pay of the United States Bank, but this was not true; and he was charged with a corrupt misuse of the secret-service fund while Secretary of State under Tyler, but from this accusation he was fully and fairly exonerated.  10
  Considering that it was only by strenuous effort that the son of the New Hampshire farmer obtained the highest rank in political and social life, it is hard to believe that he was constitutionally indolent, as one of his biographers states. When sixty-seven years old, it was his practice to study from five to eleven in the morning; he was in the Supreme Court from eleven to three, and the rest of the day in the Senate until ten in the evening. When he had the time to devote himself to his legal practice, his professional income was large.  11
  Such, in the main, if Daniel Webster had died on the morning of the seventh of March, 1850, would have been the estimate of his character that would have come down to this generation. But his speech in the Senate on that day placed a wide gulf between him and most of the men who were best fitted to transmit his name to posterity. Partisan malignity has magnified his vices, depreciated his virtues, and distorted his motives.  12
 
 
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